The John Adams Library is a collection of over 3,000 books personally assembled by President John Adams and his descendants.
A scholar, lawyer, revolutionary, and statesman, Adams' library contains books that reflect his many personal and professional interests. Formerly one of the largest personal libraries in America, today, the entire Adams Library is shelved on permanent display at the BPL, where it is available to all.
Whether in-person or online, every book in the John Adams Library is fully and freely accessible for anyone to study, learn from, and enjoy.
Individual volumes can be consulted in person within the BPL Special Collections reading room at the Central Library in Copley Square.
John Adams’ passion for books is evident even from his early writings; he championed the value of reading both for pleasure and for developing an educated worldview. Adams' own personal library was at the center of his intellectual development and the cultivation of his library was a lifelong endeavor. In his diaries, which are preserved at The Massachusetts Historical Society, Adams repeatedly describes his search for books, his thoughts about what he is reading, and his ideas about the value of well-rounded study and learning.
While his love for books is evident in his personal correspondence, it is within his library itself that we encounter John Adams as a reader. The selection of texts he gathered is both eclectic and, in certain subjects, comprehensive. An active and at times animated reader, Adams also heavily annotated many of his books, leaving detailed commentary in the margins, sometimes going so far as to insert notes and other documents as he worked his way through.
But even though his was a personal, working library, Adams also sought to make his books available for others to use and to preserve them for posterity. In the almost 200 years since his death, Adams' library has been moved and reorganized several times. Since 1894, it has been housed and cared for by the BPL.
Four years prior to his death, John Adams memorialized his wishes for the future of his library. In the summer of 1822, he had deeded a substantial amount of his own land to the Town of Quincy. In doing so, Adams stipulated that any funds generated through the use of those lands would be applied by the Town to the construction of a house of worship and to the establishment of a Latin and Greek academy for boys. Adams then signed another deed, instructing that his library be placed within his proposed academy. Since these books were intended for use by students, Adams did not include in his bequest items from his wife Abigail’s collection or books of significant personal value to the Adams family.
The academy that John Adams had envisioned as a destination for his library took significantly longer to build than he could have ever anticipated. Adams died in 1826 and, as a result of this delay, his library sat for 25 years, unused, in a building behind the Old House, the family’s home in Quincy.
After the death of John Quincy Adams in 1848, his son, Charles Francis Adams, began the laborious process of organizing the books in his grandfather’s library and transferring them to the recently-built Quincy Town Hall (pictured right, ca. 1880). The books were stored in protective covers and were thus preserved when a fire broke out in1851; many of the other books in the building were destroyed or badly damaged.
In 1872, almost fifty years after John Adams’ death, the Adams Academy was finally completed and enrolled its first class of students. The Adams Library was then transferred to the school as the core collection of the Quincy Public Library. However, Adams’ collection did not stay intact for long – many of his books were soon defaced by students or went missing. The damage incurred beginning during this period was substantial and Adams' signature was torn out of more than 100 of his books in the years that soon followed.
Because of space constraints, the rest of the Quincy Public Library was transferred into the Lyceum Room of the Quincy Town Hall in August 1873; presumably, the Adams Library was also moved at that time. In 1874 the collections were moved again, this time to the former Evangelical Congregational Church on the corner of Revere Road and Hancock Street in Quincy. Here, Charles Francis Adams served as the defacto curator of the Adams Library and made arrangements for repairs to the books.
In 1882, construction of Crane Memorial Hall (now known as the Thomas Crane Public Library) was completed and soon became home to the Quincy Public Library. The building was designed by renowned architect Henry Hobson Richardson in the eponymous Richardsonian Romanesque style. It had been commissioned in honor of Thomas Crane, a wealthy and successful stone mason whose first job had been in the granite quarries of Quincy.
The Supervisors of the Adams Temple and School Fund voted to transfer the Adams Library to the Thomas Crane Library in May 1882 (interior pictured at left). Due to the move and to the donation of additional books from members of the Adams family, a new card catalog of the Adams Library was created in 1882-1883 under the direction of Lindsay Swift, a member of the Catalogue Department at the Boston Public Library.
Unfortunately, however, transfer of the Adams Library to the newly-built Crane Memorial Hall failed to increase the usage of the collection. In an 1893 letter from Charles Francis Adams to the Chairman of the Board of Supervisors of the Adams Temple and School Fund, Adams writes:
That collection [the John Adams Library] has now been in the alcoves of the Crane Memorial Hall for over ten years. During those years it has, so far as I am advised, been consulted by but two persons, one of the two being myself.
In 1893, Charles Francis Adams, Jr. advised BPL Head Librarian Samuel A. B. Abbott to contact the Adams School and Trust Fund. Adams, who was a passionate advocate for his great grandfather's collection, recommend that the BPL officially request transfer of the disused Adams Library to the soon-to-be-completed public library building in Copley Square. Adams felt strongly that the new library building in Boston -- centrally located and well-staffed -- would make the Adams Library far more accessible to the public in Quincy, Boston, and beyond.
(Above) The BPL McKim building under construction in the early 1890s.
The Central Library, designed by Charles Follen McKim, was still under construction at that time; however, the Trustees, under the guidance of Adams, proposed that “the most appropriate and useful place for [the John Adams Library] would be in that building, where it would be of great use to a great number of students who resort to the Boston Public Library from all parts of the country.”
With Adams' strong support, the supervisors of the Adams Temple and School Fund voted to transfer the collection and the books were moved to the new building in 1894, where they remained for 80 years.
When the Boylston Street addition to the original McKim Building opened in 1974, the Adams Library was transferred to the new building and housed in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Department.
(Above left) The Boylston Building (formerly known as the Johnson Building) shortly after it opened. (Above right) the Adams Library on full display on the old Rare Books Department lobby mezzanine.
In 1982, the BPL established an in-house conservation lab funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and a staff of six conservators began the nine-year process of fully conserving the Adams Library.
Today, the Adams Library has pride of place in the newly-renovated Rare Books and Manuscripts Department, where the entire collection is on public display. This space, completed in 2022, provides state-of-the-art climate control, an on-site conservation lab, museum-quality display cases, classroom space, visible storage of collections; and a secure, but easily accessible public reading room staffed by expert librarians.
(Above) The John Adams Library, shelved on public display in the second-floor stacks of the newly renovated BPL Rare Books Department, as seen from the Special Collections lobby.