Nahant books a trip back in time

December 29, 2016

PHOTO BY PAULA MULLER
Librarian Sharon Hawkes of the Nahant Public Library holds one of the books from the library’s original collection. The title is “The History of the Rise, Fall, Progress and Accomplishment of The Abolition of the African Slave Trade by the British Parliment, 1808” by Thomas Clarkson.

By BRIDGET TURCOTTE

NAHANT — Among the library’s original collection of books, compiled in 1819, is a 1632 Bible donated by Right Rev. John Cheverus, the first Bishop of Boston.

Library Director Sharon Hawkes is working with the Boston Athenaeum, one of the oldest and most distinguished libraries in the country, to determine whether a handwritten cover page was penned by Cheverus himself. She expects to hear from the reference librarian next week.

William Wood, a summer resident with a plan to help replenish the island’s trees, initiated a book collection that is now the third oldest municipal library collection in Massachusetts.

“At this time, Nahant was in a transition from strictly farmland,” Hawkes said. “People were starting to come up from Boston as a way to get away from the hustle and bustle and get some sea air. One was William Wood.”

Wood collected novels from friends and acquaintances and brought them to the school to create a library. He drafted a plan to raise money through book rentals to fund new trees to be planted.

“They used wood for everything, for heat, building,” Hawkes said. “Crops were used to feed the cows.

“There was concern (that the woods needed to be) replenished and the town accepted and he collected the books from all over.”

Roughly 300 books of the 1,000-volume collection remain, said Hawkes. About two-thirds have either disappeared or disintegrated. The books were originally housed at a one-room school house. They were transferred to Town Hall and later the library, she said.

In praise of Nahant’s library

Former library director Dan de Stefano went through all of the books and had them covered in oak tag sleeves to protect them.They were then put in storage but rarely made an appearance when there was a reason to show them off, Hawkes said.

Hawkes has examined about half of the remaining books. Once everything is examined and logged, she will work on preserving the books and repairing damage to covers and bindings.

The library staff will research whether some or all of the collection can be digitized through a statewide initiative and uploaded to Digital Commonwealth, an online library of photographs, manuscripts, audio recordings and other materials of historical interest from libraries, museums and other historical archives, and to the Digital Public Library Across America portal.

The collection includes “The Saracen; or matilda and Malek Adhel” by Sophie Cottin, a popular French author. The novel is about a woman who wants to be a nun but falls for a Muslim man in the war-torn Middle East. It was published in New York in 1810; A book about abolishing slavery in England, “The History of the Rise, Fall, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade, 1808” by Thomas Clarkson and “The General History of the Late War” by John Entick, published in 1765. The volume includes a well-preserved pull-out map of America in 1763.

But the Bible, which is written in Latin and was printed in Amsterdam, is the oldest Hawkes has come across.

“It’s dated 1632,” she said. “One hundred years before that, you would have had things like the great Bible. It was huge and chained to the pulpit. By 1632 the printing press was well-established. The Bible itself is impressive because of its age, but (it will be more impressive) if the title page was lost and the Bishop wrote the page in himself.”

Once Hawkes has completed the project, she will then move on to catalogue the library’s artwork, antique furniture and other holdings that need preservation.

According to Community Preservation.org, the town was awarded a $21,000 historic grant to preserve the art, furnishings and artifacts of the library in April.

“It’s exciting work to do — to be able to record Nahant’s legacy. It’s history,” Hawkes said.


Bridget Turcotte can be reached at bturcotte@itemlive.com. Follow her on Twitter @BridgetTurcotte.