The Charlton Public Library began in 1816 as a private library association known as the Female Social Library. One hundred and eight women paid a one-dollar subscription fee; there is no indication that the library was used by men. A member was entitled to borrow one book or up to three pamphlets at a time. The books were housed at the home of one of the members; presumably the home of the librarian. Among the duties of the librarian, in addition to housing, collecting, and cataloging books, was to deliver the books to the subscribers.
In 1860, a group of young men founded their own library known as the Charlton Young Men’s Library Association or the Charlton Agricultural Library Association. As farming was the primary occupation in town, the latter name is understandable. This library registered fifty-eight men and nine women who each paid a one-dollar subscription fee and an annual charge of twenty-five cents.
In 1882, the members of both libraries voted to merge the two libraries and transfer the library to the town to be a public library. The transfer agreement stated the following conditions: the town shall make an annual appropriation of not less than one hundred dollars for new books each year and the library shall be kept in the “Center” Village. Should the town fail to meet the requirements, the agreement declared that the library would revert to the Young Men’s Library Association. At the time of the transfer, the library contained 493 books. One member voting in favor of the transfer wrote, “I like very much the idea of a good library free to all citizens of the town and the Young Men’s Library would I think reach a larger number under the proposed plan than the present.”
The town voted to accept the transfer and in 1882 the Charlton Public Library was founded. The library was originally kept in the home of the first librarian and then in a room in the Centre School.
In 1905, a Charlton native, William Henry Dexter, presented a Memorial Hall to the town. The building included a room for the library as well as space to house all town offices. In his speech at the dedication of Dexter Memorial Hall, Mr. Dexter noted that at first, he had “thought only of erecting a library building.” However, the need for town offices was clear and he built a Hall encompassing space for both.
The library stayed in that same 1,100 square foot room for the next ninety-three years. In 1998, town offices were moved across the street to the old high school building and a town meeting vote transferred custody of Dexter Memorial Hall to the Board of Library Trustees. The library then expanded into the rest of the approximately 3,100 square foot building. This was still not enough space.
The need for a new, enlarged library had been apparent for many years; a master plan prepared for the town in 1970 noted that “the library is considered to be deficient with regard to total volumes, reading space, and total floor space and expansion of facilities is recommended.” In 1979, a building committee was formed to study the feasibility of adding on to Dexter Hall to enlarge the library and police department. An architect was hired, plans were drawn up. The year the project was to be voted on at Town Meeting, proposition 2 1⁄2 was passed and the project was tabled for lack of sufficient local funding. In 1983, an LSCA Title II Grant application was prepared but not submitted because it was learned that the library was ineligible to receive the grant due to the fact that library staff did not meet state minimum qualification requirements. In 1990, a Charitable Trust Fund was established to raise money to renovate and furnish a new library. Eight years later architectural plans for an addition/renovation were designed.
In December of 2001, an application for the Massachusetts Public Library Construction program was submitted to the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners. In 2004, the library was granted 2.4 million dollars subject to the completion of securing local funding and other grant requirements. All requirements were met, and in July of 2007 the newly renovated and expanded 7.2 million dollar building was open to the public.
The renovated library is approximately 27,000 square feet. It features three meeting rooms; including the 2500 sq. ft. Dexter Hall Meeting Room on the third floor. All meeting rooms may be reserved for public use. The main level features a comfortable seating area, quiet study rooms, a local history room, a book sale room, and a café area where patrons may purchase freshly brewed coffee. Twenty-one computers are available for public use as well as wireless access throughout the building.
The lower level Children’s Room is a hub of activity with storytimes, programs, and special performances scheduled throughout the year. The outdoor Reading Garden was completely built with privately raised funds and is a great place to get some fresh air, read a book or magazine, or just watch the world go by.