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Made of Gloucester

It all started with a free thinker from Freshwater Cove, and now it belongs to all of us.

Gloucesterman Samuel Elwell Sawyer lived in the 1800s, yet he believed something revolutionary. He thought a local public library could be more than a collection of books. He envisioned the city’s library as the beating heart of our community. A foothold for working families, especially during uncertain times. A network of resources serving people from all walks of life. A transformational gathering space—no membership required.

Exactly 150 years after the Gloucester Lyceum and Sawyer Free Library became a public charitable corporation in 1872—which is 23 years before the Boston Public Library opened its Copley Square branch—that heartbeat is stronger than ever. Generation after generation of Gloucester residents, as well as folks from across Cape Ann and beyond, have come to know our library’s legacy as a place of possibility and potential. A hub of cultural, educational, communal, civic and social services on the North Shore.

With this model in mind, Sawyer donated the Thomas Saunders House, the library’s original building, and financed the library’s permanent endowment fund. That first building dates to 1764. A first addition came in 1913, and the most recent addition was built in 1976.

Throughout its history as the city’s largest, free, public, after-hours gathering place, Sawyer Free library and its staff have harnessed interrelated tools from the world of engineering and science along with those from design and art, social science, data science and evidence-based best practices to help deliver life-changing environmental, educational, economic and social-justice impacts to tens of thousands of users.

Imagine for a moment the footprints stretching back through 15 decades of skill-building and collaborative opportunities for adolescents, tweens and teens. The incalculable number of community lectures, forums, cultural events, exhibitions, presentations, workforce training and job-seeker preparation sessions. All the while, Sawyer Free Library has also played a vital role in the preservation of 400 years of Gloucester history.

Our library has always been a place to gather and think together about the ideas of our time. A place that proclaims to all who enter: “We care about you, and we care about the generations that follow.”

At Sawyer Free Library, support and personal connections are part of everyday life.

It’s a home away from home, where patrons celebrate moments of success, persevere in moments of challenge and embrace their capacity to benefit others. Inside its walls, citizens of Gloucester have immersed themselves in rich content and expansive resources. Visitors have accessed support, worked as part of a team, solved problems and learned how to reflect on and respond to a global society.

Sawyer Free is about learning, supporting and helping. A place of music, art, STEM programming, early childhood education, English-language learner classes and digital literacy training. A city headquarters for civic engagement, cultural connectedness and inclusion. It also maintains programming partnerships with more than 100 North Shore nonprofit service and civil service providers, including Wellspring, Pathways for Children, The Open Door, The Cape Ann Museum, the Cape Ann YMCA and the City of Gloucester, among many others. And that’s just the beginning.

Our library sits within walking distance of numerous affordable housing residences and senior housing communities as well as Gloucester High and some of the city’s most densely populated enclaves. Nearly 15,000 people—just under half of Gloucester’s population—have a Sawyer Library card.

It is often the first community entity that young people are permitted to go all by themselves. The library provides space, resources, tools and staff assistance to families as they help their kids become literate, and to teens as they build social connections with their peers and the surrounding community.

At Sawyer Free, you can check out a grab-and-go reflector telescope that takes you to the craters of the moon or the rings of Saturn. You can borrow art to hang on your walls or a Chromebook to edit your own video. You can check out a free pass to a local museum, access tech troubleshooting or get help filling out your tax return.

Through these programs and others, Sawyer Free connects families with other parents and children throughout our neighborhoods. It serves the vulnerable, and is often the place those vulnerabilities first become known. Working in partnership with other educational associations and community organizations, our library is a key consortium in the learning network of Gloucester’s young people.

The Sawyer Free 2025 renovation and expansion will provide many more opportunities to connect and collaborate with all of the library’s partner service providers, and amplify their collective impact for Gloucester. The new library will include a digital makerspace, audio and video recording studios, a 110-seat community room with state-of-the-science media presentation assets, an archival center for Gloucester history, a dedicated teen room and a children’s room double its current size. And much more.

As much as the defining feature of Sawyer Free Library is its role as an essential, public, intellectual space, so too is the magnitude of what would be lost if Gloucester didn’t have it.

With the rise of the internet, many people predicted the public library would become redundant. Even irrelevant. What those pundits underestimated is that the more information there is and the more sophisticated equipment and applications become, the more help people need.

The proof? Sawyer Free Library welcomes about 275,000 in-person and website visitors annually, making it the city’s single widest-reaching institution.

Even in their origin, public libraries were never a place people went only to get information. But today, they’re like a free, shareable password to community-wide access and opportunity. Our library functions as a fundamental equalizing organization in our city, asking nothing more of users than the time to reach the building’s doorstep. With so many modern resources sequestered behind paywalls, at Sawyer Free, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what resources you were born into.

For many library users, SFL represents their primary connection to modernity and the digitized world. In Gloucester, 24 percent of households lack wired broadband service and 18 percent do not have a desktop or laptop computer. The library is the only place in our city where anyone who walks in the door has free access to online connectivity for everything from email to research to online transactions to the public expression of their perspectives to participating in a Zoom interview.

A free society only functions when all citizens have equal access to information and culture, which facilitates informed choices. The problem is, access to this knowledge is unevenly distributed. Libraries are a final frontier of public knowledge. Our library exemplifies fairness: Visitors are given the necessary resources, publicly and freely, so they can grow to be an engaged citizen. This library is likely the only place where a child from a family with limited means can see a dramatic reading of Hamlet or Harper Lee or Casey At the Bat.

Our library doesn’t merely provide physical materials, or supply digital access, assets and services, or simply offer a place to meet without a membership or entry fee. The library supplies an expansive range of services to patrons all along the technology-adoption curve.

As author John Palfrey puts it, “By failing to invest in libraries during this transition away from the analog and toward the digital, we are putting all these essential functions at risk just when we need them most.”