Why the Manchester Library is Important

rotunda Manchester Public Library
library rotunda

A few years ago I wrote this essay in support of the library when it was facing deep budget cuts.

A few days ago what I had hoped would be a stroll down memory lane turned into a sad event. More than 50 years ago I began visiting the Library. During high school I made almost daily trips to the Library. Now there is a sign on the main door relating the likely consequences of proposed budget figures. How sad. A brief visit refreshed my memory of the lovely wooden benches, the dynamic of quiet activity of many sorts, the variety of people, and the blend of antique and new.

On the way out I was again confronted with the sign about budget problems and tried to think of a way to write about the importance of the library. A good metaphorical image presented itself – the old tree with great spreading branches. Allow me to say first why I feel compelled to write, then just why the library is important in ways not easily measured in terms of dollars and sense.

When I was five years old my first experience in the Library was to be told that nice boys do not wear hats in the Library. These days I am a professor in a library and information science doctoral program, spending much of my time working on using computers for information seeking. It is often surprising to my colleagues that I am still a champion of public libraries, even when I point out their many problems. Having written several books, produced several films, and published numerous scholarly articles, I think I have credentials to speak about the Manchester Library. I am one of the branches on that tree.

There are two things about a good public library that are not available on the internet: the value added help of librarians and staff to patrons, and the atmosphere created by the bricks and mortar – not simply the interior of the building but the knowledge that the building stands as a testament that the city honors knowledge. It is true that much material can be found on the internet or on television or in the flood of magazines now published. A trip to Barnes & Noble offers coffee and cheesecake along with browsing. Why keep the library open? Why provide services for such a small portion of the citizenry?

Because it is not simply any individual visit, any individual book found, any number of books that goes out the door that are the measures of the value of the institution. Librarians provide better-trained service than bookstore employees. Even that is not the point. The point is that the library provides all the citizens with a hotbed of potential. It provides the city with deep potential. It provides each individual a great potential. My published work on photography is directly and deeply rooted in visits to the art room – not once or twice but over several years. My entry into Dartmouth College is largely due to the wide variety of interests and knowledge nurtured in the Library – the place where I could explore way beyond the textbooks of my good high school education at Central High School. My major in Greek and Latin Literature was spurred as much by finding books on Roman history and audio records of Latin poetry, as by the course work in high school. My graduate work in film production rests deeply in the same visits to the library, not only for photography and art, but also for the literature ranging from Dostoyevsky to Robert Frost that helped develop ways of looking at the world. My Ph.D. work at Berkeley was deeply influenced by the discussions with librarians in Manchester who earnestly engaged with me when I was a high school student – sometimes helping me find a particular book, but often simply chatting about ideas.

I cannot believe that I am the only one for whom an experience or set of experiences at the Manchester Library was fundamentally important. Just as there are many branches on that great old tree, I suspect there are many branches that have sprung from the Library. Could the Manchester Library exist on a smaller budget? Surely. Would many people still find value in the Library. Of course. Would librarians still influence patrons of all ages and sorts? Yes.

However, the librarians would know on a daily basis and patrons would likely know occasionally that the City of Manchester no longer values the nurturing of minds. In a time when fiscal realities loom, it is tempting to look to branches that can be pruned with no evident ill effects. Yet, we must remember that any library’s impact is not measured simply in the number of books that go out the door or the number of reference questions answered or the number of people who accessed the internet. It is measured in the future, in the profusion of branches and where they spread. The branches may spread into places never foreseen by the Library, tax payers, and patrons. The Library shows that the City of Manchester privileges itself, its citizens and institutions, by creating its own branch of what is likely humankind’s greatest invention – the written body of human knowledge.

I would urge that the City not cut off branches from the great tree or stifle more from growing.

Note: I was born in Manchester in 1947, went to Wilson School and Central High, lived and worked in Manchester summers during my years at Dartmouth and after graduation. While I now live outside New Hampshire, I continue to visit my parents in Manchester. My profound gratitude for the Library remains.

Amoskeag Manufacturing Company

Amoskeag, or Namaskeak, is said to mean “great fishing place.” It was hereabouts that the Sachem Wannalancet resided. Tradition says that his tribe, when at war with the Mohawks, concealed their provisions in the cavities of the rocks in the upper part of these falls.

Henry David Thoreau

The Amoskeag Manufacturing Company was a textile manufacturer which founded Manchester, New Hampshire. From modest beginnings in near wilderness, it grew throughout the 19th century into the largest cotton textile plant in the world. At its peak, Amoskeag was unrivaled both for the quality and quantity of its products. But with great size came an inability to adapt. In the early 20th century, the business failed in changing economic and social conditions.

In May 1807, Samuel Blodget completed a canal and lock system beside the Merrimack River at Derryfield. His enterprise allowed boats traveling between Concord and Nashua to bypass Amoskeag Falls, opening the region to development. Blodget envisioned here “the Manchester of America,” a water-powered textile center comparable to the Industrial Revolution English city he had recently visited. The name stuck, and in 1810 Derryfield was changed to Manchester. That same year, Benjamin Prichard and others incorporated the Amoskeag Cotton & Woolen Manufacturing Company. 

 Amoskeag Manufacturing Company entry in Wikipedia

Aspiring along the Merrimack

Social Media Documentary

Manchester, New Hampshire sits at a place in the Merrimack River where there are falls and rapids. This part of the river had supported native peoples for some thousands of years. In the late eighteenth century, Samuel Blodgett had the dream of building a canal and transforming the small village of Derryfield into a mill city that might rival Manchester, England. In rather short order – not without setbacks and false steps – mills began to spring up. Before the mid-century mark Henry David Thoreau would travel through the new Manchester and describe bugeoning mills and city life. One consequence of prosperity was the founding of a public library in 1854.

Our aim within the Amoskeag Triptych project is to examine and present the interweavings of the river, the mills, and the library – the sense of place and space. There exist already numerous resources on the mills and the library, the native people and the immigrants, the marvelous and the sad entwined in such growth and change. We provide ways of gathering together images and stories, of documenting people and place, affording mechanisms for thick description.

Within this small testbed we currently have a few images and a few videos as test pieces. They are not presented as complete pieces.

Merrimack River

The Merrimack, or Sturgeon River, is formed by the confluence of the Pemigewasset, which rises near the Notch of the White Mountains, and the Winnipiseogee, which drains the lake of the same name, signifying “The Smile of the Great Spirit.” From their junction it runs south seventy-eight miles to Massachusetts, and thence east thirty-five miles to the sea. I have traced its stream from where it bubbles out of the rocks of the White Mountains above the clouds, to where it is lost amid the salt billows of the ocean on Plum Island beach.

Henry David Thoreau