Newburyport - A Library in Bloom

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One of the wonderful things about Library Land is how you never know what you’re going to see or learn next. A recent visit to the beautiful Newburyport Public Library is a perfect example.

My wife, Wendy, and I decided to go to Newburyport on Saturday just to stroll around a bit and maybe get something to eat. Naturally, the first stop was the library.

As is the case with so many libraries around the region, Newburyport combines and old structure (originally built as a private home in the 1750s) with new construction done in the 2000s. The two sections are complementary, built of brick and situated on a shady (the good kind) block.

When we arrived, the library was a hive of activity. They were getting ready for the library’s annual Books in Bloom fundraiser. Books in Bloom? It was news to me, but they explained that different groups and individuals created flower arrangements based on favorite books. The person doing the explaining was Giselle Stevens, the infectiously enthusiastic head librarian.

As we spoke and I told her about Library Land, she suggested that I visit different parts of the library - both old and new. In the main reading room she began telling Wendy and me a bit about the library’s history and asked if we’d like to see the director’s room. Of course, we agreed!

That room, which is to the right of what had once been the library’s main entrance, includes portraits of the fellow who built the house, the principal early benefactor of the library, and another local grandee who lost his life in 1755 during the French and Indian War. The most fascinating painting in the room, however, is an unapologetic reproduction.


It is a copy of a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. It was painted by Stuart’s daughter, Jane. Apparently, Jane was a savvy marketer and created a nice business for herself by painting this portrait again and again and selling them to libraries and other institutions around New England. She didn’t attempt to trick anyone and the portrait clearly states, “By the Artist’s Daughter, Jane Stewart.”

From there we went to the local history room and archives located in the basement of the new building. The history room was enormous, quiet, still and very comfortable. Located just off the history room are the archives. They, too, are really large and impressive - particularly when you consider that Newburyport is a town of around 17,000 people. The library also employs a full-time archivist and the archives are protected by a water-free fire suppression system.

Wendy and I poked around a bit more, going to the large old reference room, seeing the study rooms located in a mezzanine that ran around the reference room, checking out the kids and teen section and generally being really impressed by the scope and quality of the services and facilities provided by the library. (It scored a very strong 4.64 on the Library Land scale.)

We chatted a bit more with Giselle and made our way off into the town, with plans to return at 6:00 for Books in Bloom.

When the time came we meandered back and bought two tickets for the evening’s festivities. I didn’t know what to expect. When we saw the first display - a tower of orange (some might even say, sharp orange) flowers seeming to emerge from the singed cover of “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak - I got it! Around the library we went, there were arrangements for “Bluesman” by Andre Debus II, “Blue Iris” by Mary Oliver, “The Turquoise” by Anya Seton, and “The White Darkness” by David Grann. Each arrangement displayed such interesting interpretations and amazing floral artistry!

The library was filling up, food was circulated, and drinks were flowing. There was music and conversation and good cheer and conviviality. I had the opportunity to talk with a few of the organizers, who let me know this event was a joint production (and fundraiser) for both the library and the Newburyport Horticultural Society. It meant Books in Bloom was able to attract a couple of different sets of attendees. In addition, kids from the high school were there circulating hors d'oeuvres and playing music.

As we left, Wendy and I were both so impressed - by the event, by the thinking behind it, by the library and by Giselle and the staff we met. If you are in the area, you really need to make time to visit this outstanding library.