On February 15, 1830 nearly 100 Gloucester residents met and formed the Gloucester Lyceum. The purpose of the organization was to bring community members together to participate in lectures and debates which fostered ideas and information. Among the many intellectual luminaries of the day who appeared were Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Oliver Wendell Holmes.
The Lyceum inevitably led to the formation of a library. In 1850, a local businessman and philanthropist, Samuel E. Sawyer, offered the Lyceum $100 if additional funds could be raised to develop a library collection. With additional support from Mr. Sawyer and funds donated by the public, a library collection of 1,400 volumes was established by 1854. When all but 300 of its 3,000 volumes were lost in a major downtown fire in 1864, Mr. Sawyer stepped in and added $500 to the insurance settlement to rebuild the collection. Again, in 1871 he made another gift of $10,000.
Membership fees were suspended and the library was officially named The Sawyer Free Library. The library did not yet have a permanent home. Several different locations and another major fire followed in the course of the next decade. In 1764 Thomas Saunders, a merchant and state representative built a sturdy house on the corner of Dale Avenue and Middle Street. Subsequently, the house passed through several owners and further architectural enhancements. In 1884 Mr. Sawyer purchased this prominent residence and donated it to the library corporation. At the dedication ceremony on July 1, 1884. Mr. Sawyer explained the reasons for his generosity: "It has always been a prominent motive or object of my life to do something to promote the best interests of the young, for in them lie the germ, the roots and fibres (sic) of civilization. Books are the food of the mind; from the earliest years of childhood books are sought to feed the intellect, and so from school to college; later on they are a course of recreation to the idler, the tools of the student, the scholar and the man of letters."
For almost 100 years this structure was home to the city’s library. However, as the city’s population increased so did the public’s use of its library. Despite the addition of a new book wing in 1913 and an addition of a Children’s Library in 1915, the building became seriously inadequate to meet the needs of the reading public, especially the students. Raising sufficient funds to operate the library has always been an ongoing challenge. By the 1930’s the trust left by Mr. Sawyer was no longer sufficient to sustain the library. In 1938 the city began to provide a small but necessary amount of funding in order that residents could continue to enjoy the benefits of a free public library.
By 1973 it was obvious to all that Gloucester must have a larger modern library facility. An agreement was reached between the board of directors and the city administration to jointly fund the expansion. The library corporation raised $500,000 in donations while the city appropriated $650,000 and $150,000 came from the federal government. From this partnership came the renovated facility which opened in 1976.
Today, the Gloucester Lyceum & Sawyer Free Library continues as a public charitable corporation as designated under a charter granted by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts June 10, 1872. Its purpose remains to serve as an institution for "maintaining a free library, lectures, collections in natural history and works of art, and the promotion of intellectual culture generally." The library continues to be governed by members of the corporation comprised of community members interested in the library and its mission. Corporators elect new members at the annual meeting as well as a president, vice-president, treasurer, and clerk who comprise the executive committee. In total 15 corporators are elected to the board of directors; the mayor participates ex officio. The board is the policy-making body with special subcommittees designated to address specific issues. The librarian is hired by the board to direct the day-to-day operations of the library.
The library is the literary and cultural center of the city. The materials collection (books, audio books, periodicals, DVDs, videos, CDs and music cassettes ) totals over 100,000 items. Each year sees increased book circulation, more Lyceum programs, children’s events, and other community activities.