Attendees gather on the front lawn during the Concord Free Public Library’s 150th Anniversary Celebration, October 1, 2023. Ken McGagh for The Concord Bridge

Palfrey hails Concord library on its 150th birthday 

By Betsy Levinson
October 2, 2023
Library trustee John Boynton re-enacts Ralph Waldo Emerson’s original Concord Free Public Library dedication speech on the 150th anniversary of the library’s 1873 founding as part of the anniversary celebration.

Keynote speaker John Palfrey spoke with almost reverence about the role of public libraries in a democracy.

The president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation was on hand in Concord to celebrate with the community on the occasion of the public library’s 150th birthday. 

“We should pause to celebrate when things go right because it is not so easy for institutions to persist for this long, for years counted in the hundreds,” he said. “It takes good leadership, community investment, ideas, listening and evolving. It takes reckoning with the past and building for the future.” 

Palfrey flew in from Chicago. The foundation gives out the so-called genius grants, and recently announced a $500 million grant program in support of local news. 

He is the author of the 2015 book, BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google.

Library trustee John Boynton, as Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Jan Turnquist as Louisa May Alcott have a Concord Police escort as they begin a parade from the Concord Town House to the library during the Concord Free Public Library’s 150th Anniversary Celebration. Boynton re-enacted a portion of Emerson’s original 1873 library dedication speech from the steps of the Town House.

“Libraries in general, and the Concord Library specifically, are the types of institutions that form the bedrock of American democracy,” Palfrey said. “We know that trust is rapidly failing our core democratic institutions such as the Congress and the courts and the news media,” he said. “But one place that trust is not plummeting: In our libraries. Despite book bans and funding cuts and countless other indignities, in study after study, libraries and librarians earn our trust in communities.” 

He ended the speech with a call to action. 

“The dictionary may say that ‘democracy’ is a noun but it really ought to be a verb.” said Palfrey. “We each have a crucial role to play. At this time of genuine peril in the world, we need to repair, rebuild, and re-energize our democracy, building block by building block. Today, here in Concord is a really good start. Congratulations. Once again, Concord, this country and all of us who care about our democracy, owe you a debt of gratitude. Thank you.”