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Let Us Now Praise Famous Mothers

  "A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life-raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination. On a cold rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen instead." - Caitlin Moran
     After the Civil War, interest in building a public library gained momentum. Pro-library proponents had donated small amounts of money, including some books, to the cause, but it was Charlotte Sibley’s advocacy, social connections, negotiating prowess, and offer to fund more than half the money for the building that became the catalyst needed to make the dream of a new library building a reality.
     In 1866, at the age of 47, Charlotte Sibley had married Harvard University Librarian Charles Sibley. After his death in 1885, showing a remarkable civic generosity, she gave their house to the city of Cambridge for use as a hospital and then moved to Groton.
     Why Sibley chose to move far from Boston [the big city] to Groton [the provinces] is not known, but this widow’s influence on her adopted town was profound. Perhaps it was her friendship with the Rev. Dr. Joshua Young, Unitarian minister at the time, or perhaps it was her friendship with Dr. Samuel Green, Groton historian and physician, that convinced her to move to Groton. She also was certainly acquainted with Endicott Peabody, founder of The Groton School, thanks to their common ties to Harvard University.
     Charlotte Sibley was what we might call today a ‘philanthropic entrepreneur’, or an ‘affluential’, an affluent person who does not display their wealth in the form of material possessions but through good works and discreet philanthropy.
     To kick-start the Library project, Mrs. Sibley offered $4,000 and a parcel of land on Main Street if the town would raise $15,000. Aware of Groton’s well-known propensity to procrastinate in the spending of public funds, she wisely stipulated that the library must be constructed within two years.
     Town meeting minutes for that year record heated debate over the need to spend town money on roads and other repairs, rather than on a library. In a gambit to sway the vote in favor of her Library plan, Mrs. Sibley tripled her original offer, increasing her proffer from $4,000 to $12,000. Sibley’s increased offer reduced the town’s cost by more than half, to about $7,000.
     Moments before the library proposal was to come to a vote at Town Meeting, [likely at Sibley’s urging], the Reverend Endicott Peabody - who had moved to Groton himself eight or nine years earlier when he founded Groton School - rushed into Town Hall and gave a stirring speech, ‘We need [a library] more than roads,’ he said. “I am willing to drive through mud and clay rather than give up the library.” His electrifying advocacy of the library proposal won the day. The Library project was approved by a vote of 120 in favor, with 53 opposed.
     Two small houses were moved from the library site on Main Street to Broadmeadow Road, thus freeing the property for construction. The cornerstone was laid on April 30, 1892 and construction commenced. The town’s first library building was dedicated a little more than a year later on May 18, 1893.
     In a further act of civic generosity, the library was designed by noted Boston architect Arthur Rotch, grandson of Abbott Lawrence, who, like his grandfather, would not accept payment for his contribution.
     A woman of extraordinary modesty, Mrs. Sibley was quoted as saying, “I do not wish any thanks. It is my pleasure to give and I am thankful to have the means to indulge my pleasure." Sibley was modest. Perhaps too modest. Her lack of pretension distorts her outsize role in making The Groton Public Library a reality. That historical record needs to be made clear.
     The slate roof on the original library building fronting on Main Street, the roof made possible by Charlotte Sibley, endured for 126 years before being replaced just last year. Therefore, it now seems appropriate to recognize Charlotte Sibley as ‘Mother of Groton’s Public Library.’
     Sibley never even owned a home in her adopted town. Instead, she rented Brazer House [before it became the headmaster’s residence at Lawrence Academy] for 15 years until her death at age 83 in 1902.
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