The library you see today began in 1808 as a modest collection of about 100 books in the home of Samuel Morse, just up the street from today’s building. Thirty-nine years later, that early circulating library evolved into the Citizen’s Library, and accumulated 425 books by 1852. Natick resident Henry Wilson, the country’s vice president during Ulysses S. Grant’s second term, was one of the original shareholders of the Citizen’s Library. The town stepped in with funds for books and a librarian as well as a room to house the collection in 1857.
In 1862, the Morse Institute Library was born as the legacy of Mary Ann Morse, Samuel Morse’s granddaughter. Declaring that she had “a strong and abiding interest in the welfare and prosperity of my beloved town,” Miss Morse left her entire estate to build a library and fill it with books (maintaining the building and paying a librarian was up to the town). Her will gave the library its name and established an elected, 5-member board of trustees to govern.
However, for the next 11 years, the Morse Institute Library only existed on paper. The first hurdle was financial: as large as Mary Ann Morse’s estate was, it wasn’t big enough to carry out her wishes. The first task of the initial board of trustees was to increase the funds. The second hurdle was political: in April 1863, Natick officially accepted the Morse bequest; then, in April 1864, the town officially un-accepted. The trustees argued before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court that the town, having agreed to the bequest and elected a board of trustees, couldn’t back out. The court agreed with the trustees, and the town was required to support the library.
By 1872, the trustees more than doubled the value of Mary Ann Morse’s estate and her vision finally began to take physical shape. The original Morse Institute Library building, designed by George B. Thayer and constructed by Underwood Brothers, was dedicated on December 25, 1873, and opened its doors to the citizens of Natick a week later, on January 1, 1874. Less than two weeks later, all of downtown Natick burned down. The library escaped with only minor damage.
Like the early circulating and Citizen’s libraries before it, Morse Institute Library grew to meet demands for increased library services. Additions were built in 1927 and again in 1964. By the mid-1980s, Morse Institute Library once more needed room to grow. Plans began for a major renovation that would not only provide more space, but would bring the library fully into the era of electronic information, allow for handicapped access, and provide the facilities needed to become a real cultural and civic center of Natick.
In July of 1990, the Friends of the Morse Institute Library was established as an independent, nonprofit organization to support library projects and services. This volunteer group has been involved in raising funds for such things as: refurbishing the stained glass windows and antique furnishings, museum passes, special programs, the new bookmobile (which was officially dedicated in January of 2002), the Speed Read collection, the self check-out stations and additional furnishings throughout the library.
At town meeting in the spring of 1994, town meeting members voted overwhelmingly to provide seven million, four hundred thousand dollars for renovations and a major addition to the library. During the next few years, the library raised over a million dollars from individual donors, the Friends of the Library, and area businesses to furnish and equip the new facility.
In the fall of 1994, library staff and volunteers packed up the collection and moved a few blocks west into temporary quarters. Both of the earlier additions as well as a building next door were razed to make way for the current building, designed by A. Anthony Tappe and Associates and built by Callahan & Sons. The renovations to the original 1873 library preserved the library’s place in Natick history, while the new addition provides the foundation and space to take the library into the future.
The new facility, which opened in April 1997, tripled the public space of the old library and provided meeting spaces for public use; spacious areas for children’s and young adult services; reference and circulation departments with space to expand and the internal technological capabilities to allow the library to meet the growing use of electronic services. Space is available to expand the collection of library materials and to house the library’s collection of local history and genealogical materials. In 2004, funding from a gift enabled construction of an archives room which provides a secure, temperature and humidity controlled environment for the library’s special collections.
Library patrons, area businesses and service organizations immediately embraced the new library. Use and circulation almost tripled in the first ten years the new facility was open to the public. Use and support by local organizations and businesses continue to grow, with over one thousand meetings held in the meeting halls each year and a growing number of programs co-sponsored by the library, municipal departments and service organizations.
The library and the community are in a period of major change. As the composition of the town’s population shifts, new demands are placed on the library to provide more children’s programs, services and formats which are accessible to users with special needs, more sophisticated technology, and programs to make library resources available to users with limited English skills. The community itself is doing extensive strategic planning to respond to these changes and the library will play a role in planning for the town’s future.
The library continues to be governed by a five-member board of trustees. The trustees are elected by popular vote to 5-year terms. The trustees appoint the library director, who manages the operation of the library. On an annual basis, Natick Town Meeting appropriates the operating funds for the library.