Aquinnah Public Library History

The Aquinnah Public Library is located in the historic Red Schoolhouse building at 1 Church Street in Aquinnah. It was renovated by the town with the assistance of a grant through the Massachusetts Historic Commission.

The Gay Head Public Library (renamed the Aquinnah Public Library in 1998) was established in 1901 by an act of the State Legislature in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. At the time of its establishment, the legislature also appropriated funds for the purchase of a small collection. Prior to that time, the town school was the sole repository of publicly-owned volumes. From its inception, the new library found itself competing for space with all the other public needs of the town. The schoolhouse was the only public building in existence until the Town Hall was constructed in 1929. Books purchased with that first entitlement and those brought in later years were kept in the schoolhouse, and were later moved across the street to a room next to the stage in the new Town Hall.

Around 1950, the collection, which had grown to nearly 3,000 books, was moved back to the small rear “furnace” room of the schoolhouse, which had expanded slightly to accommodate its new use. In 1956 and 1957, however, the school needed the extra room and the library was forced to close while a new home was created for it. In 1958, a crew of volunteers brought the library collection to a cellar area under the west side of the Town Hall, which they excavated manually to create a finished room built by Chilmark contractor Herbert Hancock. Damp conditions and flooding next forced removal of the books to a room on the east side of the main hall. After the school closed down in the mid 1960’s, the tax collector and town clerk set up office there. It was not until 10 years later that new office space was constructed in the Town Hall for those officials, and the library collection found its way back to the schoolhouse where it remains today. Except for the addition of modern plumbing, the removal of a bell tower, and a progression of heating systems, the building has remained much as it was originally conceived. It is currently the centerpiece to the historic town center district that is listed in the National Historic Register. The small one-room schoolhouse was constructed prior to 1844, originally on Old South Road in what was then the center of town, and was moved to its current location 30 years later.

Unveiling of the Samuel McCall plaque at the little red school house at Gay Head / The young lady was May Briggs, now May McFarlan. For more information, visit this link.

As early as 1857, the Gay Head School/Library was considered “quite up to date with comfortable seats and desks, a full set of Cornell’s large atlases, and well furnished with blackboards.” (Anonymous, 1956:125) In 1878, the School became one of the first buildings in the town center to be moved after the construction of South Road (currently State Road) in 1870. By 1889, the school was supported through fees paid by the townspeople rather than the state. The number of teachers increased, as did the length of the school term, and scholarships were offered. (Banks, Vol. ll: 27-28) Other than a double-sided, hand-carved sign on the front lawn identifying the library, there have been few changes made to the surrounding grounds. The current sign in the shape of an open book was conceived and donated in 1999 by watercolorist Alko Hydeman, who also painted miniature views of the town in the sign’s lower quadrants. From earliest times, the Gay Head School/Library has been a meeting place for townspeople (regulated only by a sometimes inadequate supply of coal for the stove) and has always played a central role in the social and emotional fabric of the community. The bodies of victims from great shipwrecks of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were laid out here awaiting their kin or burial. During the 1980s and early 1990s, there was an open-door policy at the library, and the schoolhouse was available at any hour of the day for people of all ages to gather and relax. Our librarians have long encouraged the connection of community affairs with those of the library. For over thirty years, until her death in 1964, Ruth Jeffers worked hard to coordinate school and library activity and to involve the growing summer community of visitors. In 1936, our library was placed on a state honor list for the number of books circulated in proportion to the town’s population. Mrs. Ellen MacDiarmid then volunteered in the position for some time. By 1966, the new librarian, Mrs. Nannetta C.W.V. Madison, inspired a group of summer residents to contribute 4,000 new books to the collection. She also instituted a popular weekly reading by the famed resident Margaret Webster. She was followed by her daughter, poet and artisan, Wenonah Madison, and subsequently in 1974 by Susan Shea, Nell Howell and Ellen MacDiarmid. In 1979, Wenonah Silva (Madison) returned for two years and was succeeded by Mallory Butler, who served until 1984. From 1984 to 1998, librarian Roxane Ackerman continued the tradition of weaving library services into the fabric of daily life. During that time, an extensive collection of Native American works was established and computers were introduced for public use. Today the Aquinnah Public Library is a member of CLAMS, the Cape Libraries Automated Materials Sharing Network, which connects us to 35 libraries and their collections, including all other island libraries. The network provides access to over 2 million items across the Cape and Islands, online catalog and personal account management, access to state databases, the statewide Commonwealth Catalog system, as well as to Overdrive’s digital library service, which includes downloadable e-books, audio books, and music. The Friends of the Aquinnah Public Library (FAPL), comprised of both year-round and seasonal and residents, plays an active role in the library’s ongoing development. Despite all modern conveniences, the small schoolhouse is still a warm and inviting place for patrons of all ages to enjoy.

Martha’s Vineyard, A Short History and Guide.
Dukes County Historical Society, Edgartown, MA, 1956
Banks, Charles Edward.
The History of Martha’s Vineyard, Dukes County, Massachusetts. (in 3 volumes), George H. Dean, Boston MA 1911
Gay Head, Town of. Annual Finance Report to the Town of Gay Head. Martha’s Vineyard Printing Company, MA. Various, 1909-2000
Public Archaeology Laboratory, Inc. Proposal for Inclusion in the Massachusetts Historical Register. Prepared for the Town of Aquinnah. Pawtucket, RI, 1998
Twelfth Report of the Free Public Library Commission of Massachusetts, 1902.