John Leland Sherman Thompson, first librarian of the Lancaster Town Library, was born on September 15, 1810, at Hinsdale, Massachusetts. He graduated from the medical school at Williams College in 1832, began to practice medicine in Bolton, and in 1846 came to Lancaster, where he remained until his death in 1885. He was a practicing physician for most of the almost forty years that he lived here. He also ran a drug store during the final years of his life. He was very active in town affairs, serving as town clerk from 1856 until 1885 (1873 excepted) and as a member of the Library Committee from 1862 until 1878 (again, 1872/1873 excepted). He was also the town’s representative in the General Court in 1860 and 1862. Dr. Thompson’s interests included agriculture, natural history, taxidermy, and book collecting. He was married to Mary G. Nash.
Dr. Thompson’s appointment to the librarianship was merely a continuation of his involvement with the Library Club of Lancaster, of which he was a founder, vice-president, and librarian. With the opening of the Lancaster Town Library, the office of librarian was at first an elected position. The candidates voted yearly from among the members of the Library Committee. The duties consisted primarily of ensuring that the books were accounted for and in good order, keeping circulation information, collecting fines, and recording donations.
As a member of the Library Committee, Dr. Thompson acted as secretary from 1862 until 1874 (except for 1872/1873, when William Hector McNeil was secretary) and served on the book committee. He, George M. Bartol, and Henry Wilder are credited with recommending the many volumes of natural history that were added to the library collection.
Until 1946, the care of Lancaster’s cemeteries fell under the jurisdiction of the Library Committee (later titled the Board of Trustees). In 1866, Nathaniel Thayer gave to the town an $8,000 gift, five-eighths of which was to benefit the library, the remaining three-eighths the cemeteries. Dr. Thompson was clerk and treasurer of the Cemetery Committee from 1866 until his retirement. As clerk, he supervised all aspects of the improvement and development of the town’s cemeteries, including the purchase of land for the design of, and the realization of Eastwood Cemetery (dedicated in 1876), where he is buried.
An outspoken, opinionated, respected citizen of Lancaster, a good friend of Henry Nourse, John Thompson served on a number of other town committees during his long residence here. Of particular interest, on April 12, 1861, he was selected to chair a committee created to prepare the town for its involvement in the Civil War. Over the next five years, the responsibilities of this committee included recruiting volunteers, raising money, soliciting gifts, and erecting a war memorial. (Dr. Thompson carefully recorded these activities in a journal that is now part of the library’s Manuscript Collection.) Working simultaneously in the seemingly disparate areas of boosting the town’s morale during the Civil War and founding and nurturing a new public library, Dr. Thompson formed a mental connection between the two that became concrete when the library building was dedicated as a Civil War memorial in 1868. The hopeful aspirations expressed in the creation of the library were in some way compensatory for the dreadful losses of the war. Dr. Thompson is largely to thank for this elevated early vision of the role of the Lancaster Town Library.