There were about 1,500 books on the shelves when the library first opened. “Great eagerness was shown on the part of the citizens to avail themselves of this portion of the boon bestowed on the town,” reported the South Danvers Wizard newspaper.
Within a month, George Peabody supplemented the library’s collection. He sent a donation of 2,500 valuable and even rare books that he hand selected in London with the assistance of Henry Steven, an agent of the Smithsonian Institute.
About a month after the library opened, the Lyceum of the Peabody Institute began with an introductory lecture by author and lawyer George S. Hillard of Boston. The Institute’s great hall was crowded to its “utmost capacity, a large number not being able to find seats, or even standing-room, and many went away for lack of accommodation.”
In December, lectures were arranged weekly and were well attended: Daniel N. Haskell, editor of the Boston Transcript, spoke at the Lyceum on “The Early Political Parties of the United States” and abolitionist Theodore Parker gave a discourse on “The Anglo-Saxon Race.”
The ninth lecture of the season was given by Ralph Waldo Emerson on January 23, 1855. He spoke on the subject of “English Civilization.” Emerson returned to the Institute in February to speak on “Beauty.” Other guest lectures were Charles Upham, the author of Salem Witchcraft, who spoke on “The Philosophy of Government” and Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes was also slated to visit.
The last time George Peabody visited the United States in July 1869, he visited the Institute in Peabody and according to the New York Tribune and later by Phebe A. Hannaford in The Life of George Peabody:
“He inquired particularly into the operation; going over the accounts, and discussing with the trustees the cost of its maintenance and the annual income from the fund. I suppose I am telling no secret, and hurting nobody's feelings, when I say that even so good and benevolent a man as George Peabody was not exempt from the misfortunes of age and bodily infirmity, and that he consequently allowed himself at times to criticize pretty freely - not to say unjustly - the policy of the custodians of his benefactions. On this occasion, he is said to have fretted a great deal. From various causes, not necessary to mention, and certainly not easy to avoid, the revenue from the endowments had not kept pace with the increased expenses which followed the general rise of prices during the war; and the benevolent founder felt more keenly how far the Institute fell short of his expectations than how much it really had accomplished.
'You spend too much money,' he complained. 'You spend too much money, You pay your lecturers too much. You must get them cheaper.' And so he went on for a while, until the momentary irritation passed away. His face soon brightened, and a soft expression began to play about his mouth.
'Well, well,' said he, drawing something from his pocket. 'I must give you fifty thousand dollars more, and get you out of trouble. And I must say,' he continued, 'that none of my foundations have been so admirably administered and given me so much satisfaction as this one at my native place.”