Here's the Chariton Free Public Library as it looked Sunday afternoon. The original building was constructed in 1904. It has been doubled in size since.
What follows is my favorite history of the Chariton Free Public Library's early years, published on Page 1 of The Chariton Herald-Patriot of Nov. 13, 1916. The author was Margaret Brown Herrick, then Miss Brown, age 45 and one of those powerful women who moved Chariton forward at various times as menfolk dithered.
Margaret was a prime mover in development of the current library, along with Thomas Gay and others was largely responsible for construction of the current library building. She also was the first librarian to serve in the new Carnegie --- without pay (she had the considerable advantage of being independently wealthy). Born during 1871 in Chariton, she also is the "shy little girl" who remembered the city's first subscription library.
I'll have more to say about Margaret as the days pass, but for today --- here's the history.
The other day a high school teacher was heard to say that the teaching of history had ceased to be an insistance of dates and dry facts, but an attempt to make the pupils acquainted with the spirit of past times. And for his part he would much prefer that his pupils know how the Roman women washed dishes, than every word of the Justinian code. In other words, to understand our present social conditions and institutions we must come to see how the past lives in the present, by turning back pages of history and entering into the spirit of those times, for on their standards and ideals have been built our present social order.
So with the history of the public library, a recital of dates and dry facts would be of little interest, but perhaps we will take a keener pleasure in what we have, if we turn back the pages of our town history, to the time when we did not have a library and learn something the the spirit the actuated its establishment, the struggle in overcoming the difficulties out of which has grown the splendid institution that it is today. This may give us a greater incentive to work together to carry on and build upon the foundations of the past.
Once upon a time a very shy little girl was sent to return a book to the "library." This was the first time that word had dawned on her consciousness, and she wondered what it could be like, as she climbed the long stairs and went down the dark hall. The room was to her distressingly full of young ladies and attentive young men. They seemed to her very grownup and impressive, so much so that after one glance at the books on the shelves, she kept her eyes glued on the big glowing base burner, or the oil cloth on the floor, the checkered pattern of which she could draw today.
This was the "Chariton Library Association" and in some of the best of the American and English literature standing on the library shelves today, will be found the book plate of that library. These bear silent testimony to the discriminating taste and good judgment of that little group who laid the foundation of our public library, through the purchase of such books of permanent value, that though stored for years, when the interest was again aroused, these books were a large contributing factor in lending encouragement to the venture. One of that early group, Mrs. Laura R. Gibbon, with her fine appreciation of the best in literature, later fittingly served as a valued member of the board of trustees of the present library.
Many dramatic entertainments were given as library benefits, for without new books the subscribers' interest waned. Old play bills and posters in the Historical Room at the library will show that "Hazel Kirk" and many of the popular plays of the day were staged by our amateur players. No stage villains have ever been quite so convincing as were our good fellow townsmen, in slouch hats, high top boots and very large and black moustaches, in those thrilling melodramas as witnessed by that same little girl.
This subscription library finally shared the fate of many such, that came into existence about that time, for though fostered by earnest men and women, their zeal waned under the stress of inadequate supporting funds, as at that time there was no state law under which a library tax could be levied. The books were stored.
Again another subscription library was organized by Prof. Hanlin, when he was county superintendent of schools. this was located in his office in the court house. It was primarily for the benefit of the county teachers, but the townspeople used it also. And one young girl browsed at will among the books and had her first acquaintance with the standard novelists. through them the past lived again for her. "The Last Days of Pompei," "Tale of Two Cities," the London of Charles Dickens, the English life of Thackeray's time, all set the background for an appreciation of historical events and somewhat of an understanding of the view point of other nations.
These two collections formed the nucleus of the present library, for now we do not have to turn back many pages to place when a city federation of clubs was formed to establish a library. There were approximately twenty-five clubs, all pledged to contribute something each month. What a splendid working group it was! Many and diverse were the interests of these clubs, ranging all the way from the study clubs to the whist and croquet clubs, but all were united in the common interest of the library. There was much discussion as to whether it should be free, but so it was finally decided.
The Chariton Free Public Library's first permanent location was the "big front room" over Gibbon Drug Store, built in 1879 and now part of Betty Hansen's Iowa Realty offices. Laura R. Gibbon, who owned the building and made the space available free of charge, also was a prime mover in Chariton's library movement. Entrance, then as now, was up the exterior stairs along the north side of the building. A newly developed apartment now occupies the old library space.
Then one happy day the books were all shelved in the big front room over Gibbon's drug store. Tables and chairs had been donated and when the electric light was turned on that memorable first evening, the librarian said to herself, if only one boy comes in from the street and spends the evening here, we will have confidence to believe that this is to reach in time many of those boys and girls who are on the street because they have not had a chance to know the joys of reading.
Not one, but several came. As the days passed, after reconnoitering from the convenient window on the outside stairs, one boy after another ventured in, and it was not long before every chair was occupied and the available floor space was requisitioned. The big stove roared those cold winter nights and often there would be a dado around the room of sleeping younger brothers and sisters, reposing on chairs turned together, while magazines and books were enjoyed, as well as the warmth of a well heated room.
How far reaching has been the influence of that wonderful new world of the open book to those boys who are now young man neither they nor we can know. Many of them have gone to other communities, but it is safe to guess that out of their experience, the library, wherever they are, will receive the hearty support that comes through a personal knowledge of its values. So the library doors had swung open, with eight dollars in the treasury, the promise of a monthly support of five dollars from the city federation and an unlimited faith in the value, yes, the necessity, of making available to the young people of the town, the great storehouse of the world's thought, that they should know somewhat of themselves through the happenings of the past, to relate themselves to other people, their interests, their customs, their ideals.
Then as is natural when the first enthusiasm had passed, there were discouraging times owing to lack of funds. There was an ever increasing demand for books and the children's interest grew apace. One kindly old man give his time to make the fires and sweep. He said he had no books when he was young, but he wanted to help make this possible for others. Gentle, and sweet of spirit, with few material comforts, living all alone, he often stood with eager face at the door and watched the little heads bowed over the magazines at the big reading table. He always refused any proffered books. Now with the understanding of what labor there is involved in the mere mechanics of reading to some, it mayhap that those early years of deprivation had made the effort too great.
Where economy could best be practiced was the constant question, and it was soon realized that only by taking advantage of the provisions of the state law then enacted, to make the library a municipal institution, maintained by annual tax levy, could it reach the state of efficiency required of it. The pessimists shook their heads. One heard statements like this: "I get along all right without books and so did my father and grandfather. Let the children stick to their school books." But the children had come to know what the library meant to them, the teachers were deeply interested and just before the election, letters were written as a part of their lessons to the parents, telling them how much it would mean to them to have a good library to supplement their school books, and it is the conviction of at least one person that the children were the determining factor in carrying the vote to a successful issue.
It was a long year before there was any money coming in from the tax levy and these were days that tried the courage of those most vitally interested, for the public took it for granted that funds were available, and were not inclined to stop long enough to find out what the facts were. But those days of struggle only strengthened the conviction that the value of the library to the community was too great to permit one backward step.
Later came the evident need of larger quarters. Mr. Carnegie had begun to make gifts to some of the smaller cities and towns of the country. It was not so easy then as it was later on to reach his ear, and there were months of anxious waiting before an encouraging word was heard. Then the council raised the tax levy to the amount necessary to receive the gift of $10,000, when was afterward increased $1,000 more. After a careful search for an architect who had been willing to study the problem of libraries, and had proved this by the building of some of the successful smaller ones, the building was begun. Again it was not so easy then to build a library as it is today, for the requirements for smaller buildings had not been standardized as they have been since. But Chariton has its library housed in a building of which it may be proud, and no one who witnessed the dedication of that building could turn from this impressive ceremony without believing that it was an epoch making event in the town's history.
Down the road from the square marched the G.A.R. with fife and drum and flags flying. It was a noble little group of men, several of whom have since answered to the last roll call, among them Col Warren S. Dungan, in whose kindly face shone the spirit of youth and in whose acts were found those of the true patriot in cooperating in every interest which was for the good of our town as well as those beyond its boundaries.
The Lucas County Historical Society was of deep interest to him and he carefully laid the foundations for the building of our history in his collection in the Historical Room of the library.
Many there have been who have contributed of their time and interest to the library --- these early members of the library board, as well as those public-spirited citizens who today serve in that capacity. The spirit of those who give in loving service must live in more enduring form than even the brick and stone of its building. But no attempt at an interpretation of the spirit of the past in our library history could be made, without an endeavor to express in some measure the valued services rendered by Thomas Gay, who served as president of the board through those trying years when the library was still struggling to justify itself to those who questioned. In those months of building, with their many perplexities, he gave constant thought and made a careful study of the trend of advanced library activities. Although fatally ill he never spared himself and through months of suffering his thought was ever of the library first. He left to the library and to the town a precious heritage in this example of good citizenship.
Today the library stands as a monument to the faith of the community in the value of universal education. It is our "University for all the People" from which no one is barred except by his own indifference, and building upon the records of past accomplishments, may we now look with confidence to that time when the people of the entire county will see the vision of larger possibilities through the library, and it will become the library not only of the town, but of Lucas county, under the provision of township levy. Then the library will serve as a great reservoir of books and efficient service to be drawn upon by every school and every home in the county, as is being done in certain counties in other states.
In the last decade the public library movement has opened the doors of this most democratic of institutions to all alike and through it has come the opportunity for us as a people to know the ideas, ideals and history of other nations. Ignorance and a lack of understanding engender suspicion of others, who are, after all, much like ourselves. Wider intellegence and sympathy, based on knowledge, should give our nation a sane confidence in humanity at this crucial period, and the free public library should be a large contributing factor in attaining to such understanding.