Library service to the people of Newport began in 1803 when the Newport Social Library was granted its charter. About the same time a Social Library was established in what is now North Newport. Important book collections were also housed in the town’s churches. In addition to these collections of books, Newport boasted the Newport Lyceum, the Newport Reading Circle, the Periodical Club and a Lecture Association. In 1871 John C. Kelley turned his store into a circulating library.
In 1888 Dexter Richards founded the Richards Free Library to provide library service to the people of Newport. The original Queen Anne building stood where the Sugar River Bank is now located. The basement served as museum of curios complete with a stuffed wild boar. Upstairs, there were separate reading rooms for ladies and men. Children younger than fourteen were not allowed in the library. The librarian sat behind a high counter with a brass grill, which Ken Andler removed in 1931. No one was permitted to roam among the book shelves, which were located behind the librarian. It was not until 1915 that children’s books were added to the library and placed in a small room in the basement next to the museum. In the early 1950s Jean Claggett turned the reading rooms for men and ladies into areas for reference and children.
In 1930 Librarian Barbara Bartlett advised the trustees that the library was running out of space for books. It would take thirty years for the trustees to find more room for the library. In 1962 Citizens Bank and Sugar River Savings Bank approached the trustees with an offer to buy the building and tear it down for their new headquarters. At the same time Louise Richards Rollins, granddaughter of Dexter Richards offered her home on Main Street for the library. The first floor rooms were renovated and equipped as a library. Mrs. Rollins continued to live on the second floor of the library until her death. The move to the new building was accomplished by asking everyone in town to check out as many books as they could and the rest of the books and furnishings were carried down the street by the students of Towle High School.
Although listed in the National register of Historic Places, the Richards Free Library has been renovated twice to meet the needs and codes of the 21st century. In 1987 more stack area was added to the rear of the library joining the main building to its carriage house, linking the programming of the library and the Library Arts Center. In 2006 the third floor ballroom and adjoining room was restored to create more meeting space, as well as increasing access for people with disabilities and increasing life safety features in the entire facility. In 2007 climate control was added to the main floor of the library and arts center .
Library service has changed a great deal since 1803. Then the focus of libraries was the book, however, books were kept locked up and reading was done on the premises. Now people use the library without leaving their home. The author researched this piece by locating Wheeler’s History of Newport using Google Books while sitting at home. In the first library building there was no provision for children, indeed, children were not welcome in the library. In 2010 children were prominent at the library. More than 6000 children and teens attended almost 400 programs. There are books discussions for children and teens. After school programs as well as weekly story hours fill out the children’s programs today. The children’s staff works closely with local schools to encourage reading and research skills.
Newport no longer has a Reading Club or Lyceum, but those activities occur at the library. Ongoing programs at the library include two book groups, a knitting group, a poetry group as well as lectures, author readings and occasionally dancing in the ballroom.