MBLC Celebrates its 125th Anniversary


July 01, 2015
Celeste Bruno
Communications Specialist
1-800-952-7403 x208

The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC) is celebrating its 125th year.

On May 28, 1890, thanks to the efforts of Bostonian Elizabeth Putnam Sohier, Governor John Q. A. Brackett signed "An Act to Promote the Establishment and Efficiency of Free Public Libraries" [Acts of 1890, chapter 347], which established the Free Public Library Commission, now known as the MBLC. It was the first of its kind in the United States and it was a success from the start. The Commission's 1892 report notes:

"After only one year in existence, 36 new libraries were founded in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Because of the success of the Free Public Library Commission the New Hampshire state legislature set up a similar commission in 1891 in order to achieve the same goals."

In addition to New Hampshire, the Commission received inquiries from

"each of the New England States and New York; while requests for its first report and other information about its work have been made from nearly every State of the Union - even from the new State of Washington on the Pacific slope - and from various parts of Great Britain and continental Europe."

What had been the first of its kind in Massachusetts caught on quickly.

The first Free Public Library Commission worked to ensure that every city and town in Massachusetts had a library and that library services expanded to meet the needs of every Massachusetts resident. The MBLC has kept that mission strong by working with the Massachusetts library community to develop programs that impact residents' lives and ensure equal access to information, resources, and technology.

"Ms. Sohier and the first commissioners may have never envisioned eBooks or computers in every library, but they laid the groundwork for the collaborative way that libraries work, and that makes innovation possible," said MBLC Director Dianne Carty.

The spirited, innovative libraries of Massachusetts have taken the seeds that were planted by commissioners in 1890 and grown them into a world-class library system that gives residents access to 53 million items at the touch of a button, provides access to technology and helps residents learn to use it, helps local libraries meet the unique needs of their communities through grants and special programs, and digitizes local treasures to make them accessible around the world. Today, the MBLC has helped communities build and renovate hundreds of libraries and encourages the construction of environmentally responsible libraries.

To trace this remarkable journey, the MBLC has created MBLC Celebrates 125 Years, which outlines key moments for every year that the MBLC has existed. In addition to the site, 125 facts will be posted to the MBLC Twitter and Facebook pages, and can be followed through the hashtag #MBLC125. Also included in this project is a collection of historical photos, posted on the agency's Tumblr page.

Meet the First Commissioners

Elizabeth P. Sohier of Boston was the driving force behind the Free Public Library Commission with her commitment to getting a library in every Massachusetts city and town. She was committed to expanding library services wherever she could. During the Lawrence Textile Strike in 1912, Ms. Sohier worked with the governor to get books for the striking workers. During World War I, Ms. Sohier worked with the American Library Association to help provide library services to soldiers in camps. She also helped with the appointment of a state agent to help public libraries with immigrant populations and shaped numerous pieces of library legislation that were passed during her lifetime. She served as a commissioner from the agency's inception in 1890 until her death in 1926, and was secretary for all 36 years.

Caleb Benjamin Tillinghast came to Boston in 1870 and became a reporter at the newspaper The Boston Journal. He served as the city editor, but left journalism to work in libraries in 1879. Mr. Tillinghast was the first chairman of the commission; he also served as the Massachusetts State Librarian from 1879-1909. He was a repository of information and guidance within the State House, and often consulted representatives, senators, and governors on different matters. It is noted that a common phrase in the building during that time was "go see Tillinghast."

Henry Stedman Nourse of Lancaster was a Civil War veteran who was part of General Sherman's March to the Sea in 1864. He was a professor of ancient languages at Phillips Exeter Academy and a state legislator for the town of Lancaster. Mr. Nourse was also a descendant of Rebecca Nourse, one of the women who was hanged as a witch in Salem in 1692. He was an avid historian of Lancaster's local history and was a member of many of the Commonwealth's historical societies. He took this passion to his work with libraries, which he saw as a "treasure house of local history."

Samuel Swett Green of Worcester served as a commissioner from 1890 until 1909. He worked at the Worcester Free Public Library from its creation in 1867, first serving as director and later as librarian from 1871 until 1909. Mr. Green is considered to be an innovator in the field of libraries and the father of modern research librarians. He was part of the group that founded what became the American Library Association and served as the organization's president. While president, he gave a speech that opened with the line "The function of the library is to serve its users," which helped direct libraries across the country for years to come.

Anna Eliot Ticknor of Boston served as a commissioner from 1890 until her death in 1896. Her father George Ticknor helped lay the groundwork for the founding of the Boston Public Library. She was an educator and founded the "Society to Encourage Studies at Home," which was the first correspondence school in the United States. She was an advocate for education and the role that libraries could play in educating the public.

About MBLC

The Board of Library Commissioners ( is the agency of state government with the statutory authority and responsibility to organize, develop, coordinate and improve library services throughout the Commonwealth. The Board advises municipalities and library trustees on the operation and maintenance of public libraries, including construction and renovation. It administers state and federal grant programs for libraries and promotes cooperation among all types of libraries through regional library systems and automated resource sharing. It also works to ensure that all residents of the Commonwealth, regardless of their geographic location, social or economic status, age, level of physical or intellectual ability or cultural background, have access to essential new electronic information technologies and significant electronic databases.