Within a week or so of arriving in Princeton, New Jersey back in 2012, I took a walk around that college’s amazing campus. As I emerged from under a huge stone archway I found myself staring at a building (left) so beautiful, and so strikingly familiar that it brought me back instantly to some of the most cherished moments of my childhood. Turns out I had stumbled upon the home of Princeton University’s Richardson Concert Hall.
Yes, the same Henry Hobson Richardson who designed the place where I spent endless joyful hours as a kid. I’m talking, of course, about the Woburn Public Library. I can still see Mrs. Kennedy, lording over the children’s section from her desk at the far end of the uniquely circular room just inside on the right–surrounded by a treasure trove of stories that fired my imagination and fueled my curiosity. It was my home away from home. And with every day that passed, a much bigger prize beckoned from the other side of the lobby. The adult section looked like nothing else I had ever seen–like a cathedral of knowledge where every question could be answered. Seemingly endless book-filled alcoves and narrow circular staircases with wrought iron railings loomed over polished wooden tables with sturdy captain’s chairs that stretched on for what seemed to my elementary school eyes like the length of a football field.
And on many a hot summer day, after playing down at Library Park, I found myself sitting on that cool stone bench just outside the huge, thick wooden door with my voice echoing off the portico slabs like I was at some English Castle. The Woburn Public Library is a magical place. I loved it then. I love it now. We all owe a huge debt of gratitude to Jonathan Bowers Winn who believed that knowledge in the form of books should be available free of charge to the people of Woburn. And he didn’t just talk the talk. In 1854 (while serving as a delegate to the state constitutional convention) he pledged his entire salary of $300 to the establishment of the Woburn Public Library—provided that the city matched his contribution. They did. Nearly 20 years later, Winn’s brother Tim left the city ten times that amount ($3,000) for the same purpose. Then in 1875, Jonathan’s son Charles outdid both his father and his uncle by leaving the city $140,000 to build a “library building that shall be an ornament to the town.”
For a century and a half, the Woburn Public Library–one of the most beautiful and historic public buildings in Massachusetts–has been at the center (literally) of the city’s civic life. And knowledge is even more important now than ever before. So the moment has arrived to prepare the library for the next 150 years: where the latest information technology is still available to all Woburn citizens free of charge; where curious young kids can appreciate a grand old building in brand new ways; and where precious historical artifacts from Woburn’s storied past can be on permanent display for future generations.
Today, in a manner reminiscent of the Jonathan Bowers Winn challenge of 1854, the state of Massachusetts is pledging $10 million to the Woburn Public Library if only the city will match that contribution. Opportunities like this come along—well, once every 150 years! Make no mistake about it. If Woburn doesn’t step up to the plate, another city will. And money pledged to us will go someplace else.
Now is the time for this year’s city fathers to show they are worthy successors to the Winn legacy; and that they cherish this “ornament to Woburn” as much as the state does—not to mention the private citizens who have already pledged several million dollars to the cause. It’s time for Woburn’s elected leaders to show the world the real meaning of Tanner Pride.