From the November 12, 1954 edition of the Vineyard Gazette:

More times than men like to admit, it is the women who get things started, and so it was with the Vineyard Haven Public Library. There were at least two groups of ladies behind the movement to get a free public library established in the closing decades of the last century. Or maybe it was the same group in two societies, The Ladies’ Library League and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.

In 1895, when the Vineyard Haven Public Library was officially opened, the Ladies’ Library League had for some seventeen years a library which was open to the public for a weekly charge. This non-free public library was first located in 1879 in the upper story of a house at the corner of Main and Spring streets, then owned by the heirs of Capt. Thomas Bradley, the grandfather of the Miss Hannah Bradley who organized the league.

That library opened with seventy-one volumes, a collection that increased to 500 volumes by 1883. That year, however, proved to be a disastrous one for the town book lovers, for the great fire completely consumed the library books, furniture, equipment and all. And all had to be replaced.

Fortunately, there was a small insurance policy to help out, and in the following year, the league had fitted out new quarters for the library in rooms over the office and drug store of Dr. Winthrop Butler on Main street, the same building which now houses James A. MacInnis’ jewelry store. And there matters stood for about a decade.

But the citizens were not standing still. Judging by old reports, the talk and agitation about a free public library continued, and several attempts to establish one came pretty close to reality. In 1892, Edgartown set up a free library. Perhaps this news from a rival town had something to do with an intensification of the campaign.

Early in 1895, a report appeared in the Gazette which indicates something of the battle that was going on. It is also where the W.C.T.U. comes in:

“A ‘Free Public Library’ has been a subject for considerable discussion during the past few weeks, and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union took the initiative step by calling an informal meeting at the Reading Room last Saturday to ‘talk the matter up.’ As it was Saturday night but few men were able to be present. The women were well represented. The sentiment of the meeting was in favor of raising at least $10,000 for a library and building, and it was thought best to refer the matter to a former free library corporation, started three years ago (the year the Edgartown Public Library got started), but owing to some ‘hitch’ in the red tape it stopped a little short of completion. There will be another meeting at the same place on Thursday evening of this week for all those interested, and a special invitation has been given the members of the old corporation to be present.

“It is hoped that the gentlemen will revive their enthusiasm of three years ago and with hearty cooperation of the ladies and public generally will push this much-needed enterprise to a successful issue.”

In the light of what happened later that same year, the report of the W.C.T.U. meeting introduces a number of questions which may never be answered. For in the spring of that year the Ladies’ Library League decided to terminate itself and turn its collection over to the town for a free public library, a decision that was accomplished by the middle of summer.

The questions that arise, though, include: what connection did the W.C.T.U. have with the Ladies’ Library League? And what, in the intervening months, became of the W.C.T.U.’s quest for $10,000? The answers, would be interesting to know. Irrelevantly, so would the answer to the question of where all the men were on the Saturday night when the W.C.T.U. was meeting.

After the formal opening of the Free Public Library, the following notice appeared in the Gazette: “The opening exercises of the Public Library were held at Association Hall Wednesday, July 31. Addresses were delivered by the clergy of the village, Judge Arnoux, of New York city, Prof. Lord, of Penn., Col. Barr, U.S.A., Thomas D. Luce, Esq., of N.J.. Music was furnished by Prof. Bristol of Villa Bristhall.”

So after the work had been done by the ladies and the talking done by the gentlemen, the free library began to operate with 2,5000 volumes. And it began to grow. Today it has a collection of 12,344 volumes, of which 3,110 are juvenile books.

Needless to say, the old library up over the drugstore was soon outgrown, and in the early days of the present century another location had to be found. It was Vineyard Haven’s great fortune to have Mrs. John R. MacArthur among its citizenry, for it was she who provided the present commodious house and grounds for the library. She made the gift in the honor of her mother and father, Judge and Mrs. Arnoux. Judge Arnoux, you will remember, had been one of the orators at the opening ceremonies back in 1895.

Compiled by Hilary Wall