Walking into the Hull Public Library is like entering someone’s home — albeit one with a checkout desk tucked under the stairs — and it’s been that way for the last 100 years.
That’s because the library building is the former summer home of Irish poet and radical John Boyle O’Reilly.
While additions in 1987 and 2003 added space and handicapped accessibility, the stone and wood building far out on the peninsula on Main Street in Hull Village is relatively unchanged since O’Reilly died there under mysterious circumstances in 1890.
Even the weeping elm tree on the front lawn was there in O’Reilly’s time.
Town Meeting voted in 1913 to buy the property for use as a public library — spending $7,000 on repairs and furnishings, and moving in 5,072 books from its one-room predecessor in the back of what was then the Village School.
Hull has been celebrating the library’s 100th anniversary this year with such events as lectures, concerts, and a birthday party at the Paragon Carousel. A ceremony installing a time capsule will wrap up the observances near the end of the year.
“We’re celebrating the continuity of the town providing free reading to all of its citizens for 100 years,” said Frank Parker, the library trustee who chairs the town’s Centennial Committee, who also noted that with computers and other upgraded technology, the library will continue to serve the community “for a good time into the future.”
“It’s a small library, but it has a really big place in town,” said Karis North, who chairs the library’s board of trustees. “It’s a beloved fixture.’’
In a town of about 10,300 people, the Hull Public Library brought in an average of 888 visitors weekly in the fiscal year that ended in June 2012, according to the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners. Patrons checked out 25,000 books and 18,300 nonprint materials over the year.
The numbers fall below the state medians of 1,337 weekly visits to public libraries and annual checkout rates of 93,663 items. The Hull Public Library also has about half the state median for materials — 32,860 holdings compared with 64,925 — and at 5,790 square feet is less than half the state median in space.
The library also spends less per capita than the state median — and briefly lost state accreditation in 2010 when, in a financial crisis, its budget fell below a required minimum amount. The funds and accreditation were eventually restored, but when plans for a new $6.8 million library in a more central location, at N Street and Nantasket Avenue, were shelved, the town forfeited a $2.8 million state grant that would have helped pay for it.
But what Hull’s library lacks in space, money, and holdings, it makes up for in personal attention and cozy atmosphere, according to children’s librarian Anne Masland.
Who wouldn’t enjoy sitting in the big leather chairs in the first-floor reading room as light filters through stained-glass windows? And there’s something comforting, she added, about a place where librarians recognize almost everyone who walks through the door, and have a good idea what they’re looking for.
“We get to know our patrons very well, and they really like coming somewhere where they are not faceless,” Masland said.
The librarians know, for example, that one man is making his way through biographies of the US presidents in chronological order, and keep pace with his reading needs, she said. When Hull had only a young-adult account of one president’s life, the librarians found an adult version for him through the Old Colony Library Network.
Parker, who first used the Hull library as a child in the 1940s, remembers when the librarians would hide new books on The New York Times bestseller list in desk drawers, and lend them to selected patrons.
“It was highly advisable to be on the good side of the librarians,” he said.
Parker, who teaches in the Carroll School of Management at Boston College, also recalls when a staffer lived across the street from the library. “She’d open the library at 2 p.m. and go back and sit on her porch. If anybody came, she’d go let them in,” he said.
The property was the site of a parsonage in the 1600s, and later home to a Loyalist family that took in a British soldier wounded in a 1775 skirmish at Boston Light, then buried him in the yard when he succumbed to his injuries.
In the late 1880s, O’Reilly bought the property for his summer home — tearing down the old Cape to make way for a grander Victorian edifice, and commuting by ferry from his office as editor at the Pilot, the Boston Archdiocese’s newspaper.
O’Reilly had lived in the house for less than a year when he died at age 46 of an apparent overdose of his wife’s sleeping medicine. Questions were raised at the time whether it was an accident, suicide, or murder, according to his biographer, Peter Stevens, who will give a lecture about O’Reilly on Nov. 14 as part of the library’s centennial celebrations. Stevens is convinced that O’Reilly’s death was accidental.
“In his day, he was incredibly famous,” Stevens said. “He’s one of those people who have fallen between history’s cracks. He was right out of Hollywood casting, incredibly good looking, but also charismatic and a very deep thinker.”
Among his claims to fame: O’Reilly escaped from Freemantle Prison in Australia, where he’d been sent for his involvement in the Irish rebel movement, and later helped organize an escape of other Irish convicts. Sculptor Daniel Chester French, best known for his statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, memorialized O’Reilly in a monument that sits at an entrance to the Fenway in Boston.
Stevens did much of his research on O’Reilly at the Hull Public Library, using the upstairs study where O’Reilly died.
“It was just sort of a strange feeling to be sitting literally in the spot where his wife found him — at that point unconscious — with a lit cigar in one hand and the pen still in his other hand,” Stevens said.
O’Reilly landed in Hull, then a fashionable spot with hotels and frequent ferries to and from Boston, because “he loved the ocean, he loved to sail, loved to row,” Stevens said. Although the family kept a home in Charlestown, they began to spend most of the year in Hull.
“I think he would have loved the idea that his house would become a library. Books were his life — that would have pleased him no end,” he added.
Library director Daniel Johnson said maintaining its collections in an old house can be challenging — broken pipes and boilers have caused problems in the past. But he’s optimistic that money will be available for a new roof and shingling. And part of the centennial project is to raise approximately $25,000 to build a new circulation desk.
“We’ve been here 100 years. We’ve been through two world wars, the Great Depression, the sixties. We’ve taken people from just books to all sorts of nonprint media. We feel like we’re a 21st-century library, even though the core is from the 19th,” Johnson said.