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Public Libraries in Dayton 1805-1914

Public Libraries in Dayton, 1805-1914

by W. J. Conklin, M.D.


Address on the occasion of the opening of the Carnegie Branches, February, 1914


One hundred and nine years ago the citizens of the little village of Dayton came together on a mission similar to that which brings us here to-night. The occasion of the meeting in the first year of Dayton's corporate existence was the opening of the library of the Social Library Society which was the first library chartered by the legislature of Ohio.

The opening of that modest pioneer library in 1805 was, far and away, an occasion of greater import to the little village which had just kicked off swaddling clothes, than is the dedication of these splendid Carnegie libraries to the Dayton of 1914.

Benjamin Van Cleve was the first librarian and until his death in 1821, the books were kept in his cabin, which was also the village post-office, on the south-east corner of First and St. Clair streets.

A time-stained copy of the constitution of the Society, probably the only one in existence, is preserved in the Museum. From a present day standpoint some of the by-laws are peculiar and hark back to a time when tallow dips were plenty and books scarce. Thus borrowers were fined three cents for each drop of tallow found on the pages, and for loaning books to persons not members of the Society or for permitting them to be carried into a school-room the penalty was a fine equal "to the value of one quarter of each book." In drawing books the right of choice was determined by lottery, a matter of moment when it is known that their return was optional except "on the first Mondays in January, April, July and October, at or before two o'clock in the afternoon." The significant advertisement of a "Library at Auction," which appeared in the Dayton Journal of September 8, 1835, announced the passing of the Social Library, which for thirty years had been a potent factor in the intellectual life of the town.

The next decade was one of unusual literary activity in Dayton, and not less than six distinct libraries are reputed to have been formed. These were, in all instances, associated with organizations like the Dayton Lyceum (1832), the Mechanic's Institute (1833), the Adelphic Society of the Dayton Academy (1837), in which books competed with essays, discussions and lectures as means of mental culture. These book collections were probably small and available only to the members of the several organizations on the payment of a small fee but, in the aggregate, they served a wide circle of readers.

The Dayton Library Association, broader in scope, and more ambitious in every way than its predecessors, was formed in 1847. The annual membership cost five dollars, a life membership thirty dollars, and a membership in perpetuity fifty dollars. The organization was completed January 12, 1847, by electing President, Milo G. Williams; Vice-President, Dr. John Steele; Treasurer, Valentine Winters; Secretary, R. W. Steele; Directors, C. G. Swain, E. Thresher, James McDaniel, John G. Lowe and Daniel Beckel.

The first purchase of books numbered over one thousand volumes which were shelved in the second story of the Steele building, near the corner of Third and Main streets.

In 1854, the library occupied rooms in the new Phillips building on the southeast corner of Main and Second streets, which had been expressly designed for it and are said to have been the most ornate and convenient library rooms in the State. The main hall was large with lofty ceilings supported by handsome Corinthian columns, and furnished by special subscription at a cost of two thousand dollars. The reading room was well supplied with current literature and the lyceum features, so popular in that day, had due recognition. M. E. Curwen, Dayton's first historian, was the first librarian.

It continued in operation until 1860, when the books and fixtures were transferred by gift to the free public school library which under the control of the Board of Education, had come to be a rival so formidable as to defy competition from a pay library.

The Public School Library of which the present Dayton Public Library and Museum is the lineal descendant was organized in 1855. The legislature in 1853 passed an excellent school law, which authorized the levying of a tax of one-tenth of a mill on the dollar valuation, the proceeds of which were to be expended by the State superintendent of instruction in establishing free libraries in the school districts of the State. This was the beginning in Ohio of the present free, tax-supported library system.

Instead of distributing Dayton's quota of books to the several school districts as provided by the statute, the Board of Education wisely decided to keep the collection intact and make it the nucleus of a strong central library. After such books had been selected from the State list as were deemed suitable, the State superintendent agreed to pay in money the balance due the city. The amount received was fourteen hundred dollars with which 1,250 volumes were purchased.

The Library was opened in the fall of 1855, in the old United Brethren building on the corner of Main and Fourth streets, with W. H. Butterfield, principal of the Second district school, for Librarian.   It was available to the public only on Saturdays. Three years later, it went to the Central High School building, where now stands the Central District school-house and remained there until the fusion with the Dayton Library Association made available the latter's fine quarters. At this time, there was established the first all-day book service. In 1867, the library was moved to the old city building, and when this was torn down to make room for the present one, occupied improvised quarters in the building next north of the courthouse. On the completion of the new city building in 1876 the library was returned to its old station above the market and remained until the present permanent home in Cooper Park put an end to its wandering.

The law under which the library was formed and operated was repealed in 1856, and until 1860 the only source of maintenance was the annual voluntary appropriations made by the Board of Education. The library law of 1860 was a decided advance on previous legislation. Under its provisions, the Dayton library was managed by a committee of three members of the Board of Education, appointed annually by the president, and a special tax of one-tenth of a mill on the dollar valuation provided for its support.

In the meantime, the necessity for better and safer accommodations than those furnished by the city above the noisy market had been long recognized and successive committees had urged the erection of a fire proof library building.

However, nothing was done until 1884 when the consent of the city council to place the proposed building in Cooper Park led to decisive action. The building was completed and equipped at a cost of about $110,000 and on the 24th of January, 1888, was formally dedicated with appropriate exercises.

In preparing for its occupancy the school board obtained from the legislature the power to create an independent, non-partisan library board, thus giving to the management greater stability and continuity of purpose than could possibly come from the method in use. The Board under the new law was made up of six persons with the president of the Board of Education the ex-officio presiding officer. After the initial organization two members of opposite political convictions were elected annually for a term of three years. The first Board, composed of Messrs. Charles Kumler, ex-officio; R. M. Alien, James A. Marlay, George Neder, J. Harrison Hall, J. A. McMahon and W. J. Conklin, met for organization on April 23, 1887.

This statute was amended by the general assembly in 1892 enlarging the powers of library boards, and withdrawing ex-officio representation from boards of education.

In 1893, the legislature, on petition of the Dayton library board, authorized the establishing and maintaining of free public museums as adjuncts to libraries. Dayton was the first city in the State to avail itself of this privilege.

The law under which the library is now managed was passed in 1902. It increased the members of the Board to seven and raised the maximum levy to one mill. Although not compulsory the school board in the selection of members of the library board has wisely adhered to the bi-partisan provision of the original law.

In the half century which has passed since the formation of the library there have been only four librarians: Mrs. Mary Hiley Davies, (1860-1874); Miss Minta I. Dryden, (1874-1896); Miss Electra C. Doren, (1896-1905); Miss Linda M. Clatworthy (1905-1913) and Electra C. Doren, re-elected September, 1913.

The rapid evolution of the modern library has few parallels in the history of educational development. The typical library of today is not, as has been recently said by one high in affairs of state, a ''Catacomb of books" but a bustling, intellectual workshop in which the master workmen are filled with the spirit of aggressive helpfulness rather than of inactive guardianship.

Its creed is broad and includes in addition to the housing and distribution of books and such activities as are generally credited to libraries, a closer union with literary clubs and societies, with child life, in and out of the schools, and the use of library buildings for social centers with lectures and exhibits. Thus the new library has come to be the aggressive ally of every movement for betterment and culture, and is the only spot in the entire educational system in which the inquisitive child and the veteran scholar meet on common ground.

The effort of the Board and librarians to keep abreast of these radical changes in library ideals and methods early developed the fact that the building in Cooper Park was ill-fitted to meet modern demands, and out of this necessity came indirectly the two splendid buildings which we now dedicate to their beneficent purpose.

When dedicated twenty-five years ago, it was the largest and best building in Ohio exclusively devoted to library purposes and was deemed ample in size to meet the future growth of Dayton. But for a decade, every inch of available floor and wall space had been utilized. The crying need was for enlarged workrooms for the staff, modern and more sanitary accommodations for the children and better and larger public reading and reference rooms. For lack of space, the circulating school libraries, 350 in number and containing a collection of over 8,000 volumes, were buffeted from one school building to another where lodgment could be obtained. Several departments, notably the Children's department, had been forced into a basement which was designed only for storage purposes. This action, which was deeply deplored by every member of the Board and gave rise to much harsh criticism, was a matter of necessity, not of choice. The Central Library had simply outgrown its clothes.

After repeated unsuccessful efforts on the part of the trustees to obtain local aid, into the details of which it is not necessary to enter, the matter of improving conditions at the Central building was taken up with Mr. Carnegie in 1905 and again in 1910. A prolonged correspondence ended in both instances, in the flat statement that Mr. Carnegie was not interested in the proposition, but would give, under certain conditions, $50,000 for the erection and equipment of two branch libraries.

While branch libraries did not give the relief sought at the Central building the Board, after mature deliberation, decided to accept the responsibility, knowing well that the matter of local libraries could not long be postponed. By this decision Dayton becomes the first of the cities of the second grade in the State to establish branch libraries.

Sites were secured, plans drawn, contracts let and everything looked towards an early completion of the buildings.

Then came the deluge of 1913. The toll exacted from the Dayton Public Library by the river-gods on that fateful morning in March was, by actual invoice, 50,000 books and a property and equipment damage of $25,000 making a total loss of $85.000.

The destruction was complete in the basement departments, and on the Main floor included hundreds of valuable reference works, many of which can never be replaced. But figures give scant conception of the wrack and ruin. Neither do they reckon with the chaos which comes from illegible and begrimed card-catalogs, shelf-lists and records which represent the personal equation of the librarian and her staff, that silent but forceful thing which goes into the making of a library, and which cannot be written in dollars and cents.

Before the wild waters had found their normal channels, a letter written amid typical flood surroundings, was sent to the Carnegie Corporation telling of the appalling disaster which had come to the library and the probable inability of the Board to fulfill, as scheduled, its part of the contract.

The letter came promptly back with the laconic inscription: "Please typewrite;" and this when the typewriters of Dayton were in the bread-line or shoveling mud! This incident, not told in a captious spirit, goes to show how little the outside world realized those awful days of Sturm und Drang.

Happily, the Corporation grasped the gravity of the situation and attested its sympathy in a cheque for $15,000 to be used in the purchase of books for the branches. This generous act entitles Mr. Carnegie and his representatives to the gratitude of every Daytonian and the trustees wish here to make acknowledgment.   Without this donation, which swells Mr. Carnegie's investment in Dayton libraries to $65,000 these halls tonight would be in Cimmerian darkness, and unpeopled by this splendid audience of red-blooded book-lovers and library users.

The policy of the Board has been to apply every dollar of the Carnegie fund to the purposes for which it was given. This means that the general library fund will be charged with the cost of all clerical work pertaining to the selection, cataloging and preparation of the 15,000 books which will ultimately find place on the shelves. The money value of this one item must be written with four figures.

The magnitude of the work of regeneration and the smallness of our resources suggest the prayer of the British sailor on first going to sea:

"0 Lord! Thy ocean is so big—

My boat so small."

The Board is, just now, in a grave quandary whether or not it will be able to meet the increased expenses with the amount received from the tax duplicate. I am now speaking of current expenses, not of modernizing and enlarging the main building which, at the proper time, must be approached from a different angle. Before committing ourselves to the Branches the question of finance was carefully planned but, unfortunately, the Board did not reckon with the Flood.

In conclusion, let us look, for a moment on the obverse and brighter side of the shield.

The dedication of two free public libraries, fully equipped and modern, through and through, is a red-letter event in the intellectual calendar of any community. He would be a bold prophet who would attempt to place metes and bounds on their power for good.   The Trustees confidently expect these Carnegie libraries to be real centers of intellectual and social activity for the communities, which they are intended to serve and they bespeak your assistance in bringing about this happy result.                                      

Notwithstanding the unique situation which faced them a few months ago at the Central Library, the Trustees feel that substantial progress has been made in the work of restoration. The physical condition of the building is now better than before. The old wooden cases, the collapsing of which, under the weight of water and mud, caused such an immense book loss have been replaced by steel stacks of modern construction.

Recent changes in the children's quarters have done away with many of the objectionable features and while the environment is not ideal, the rooms are cheery and homelike.

The doctors and medical publishers from everywhere, on request of the local profession, have sent liberal contributions practically restoring the Medical collection.

The women in clubs and singly have given wisely and freely in money, books and pictures to the Children's department.

Large shipments of valuable public documents have come from the federal government, and scores of patrons have brought their voluntary offerings.

Such practical sympathy and the spirit back of it, is the bow of promise for the future. But, withal, it will take abundantly of time and patience and toil to replace the hecatombs of books which went down in that ill-starred raid of the rivers.

The Board here and now renews its faith that in the end all things will be well, and that the library will emerge from its baptism better and stronger, just as the earth, if one accepts the mythical legend of Deucalion and Pyrrha, emerged better and stronger from the great deluge of the all-powerful Jove.