Tuesday, Jul 26, 2016
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Toledo's public library has history of innovation

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When the Main Library downtown is rededicated, it will mark another chapter in a story that has been running 163 years.

It was in 1838 that the Young Men's Association organized a lending library in the College Building at 170 Summit St.

In those days, public libraries were rare.

So organizations, such as the Young Men's group, took it upon themselves to collect books and offer reading rooms and lending services to its members.

The titles leaned toward self-improvement books or, according to David Noel, “ones that taught a moral lesson.”

Mr. Noel, a retired media-relations officer for the library and author of a history on the institution, said that fiction books of the day were rented out by printers or department stores. Few people owned books.

“There was a direct connection between your economic status and the likelihood of having many books. Printing was expensive,” he said.

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In 1890, the city built its first library at Madison and Ontario streets. The library adopted the open-stack concept, an innovation at the time that allowed patrons to browse for books on their own. In 1970, the Toledo Public Library merged with Maumee and Sylvania's systems, becoming the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.

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The 1864 presidential election between President Lincoln and Gen. George McClellan had a direct impact on the city's library system, such as it was.

It seems that the association members who were McClellan supporters wanted the association to stand behind General McClellan.

Other members objected to the idea; so the McClellan group left and formed the Toledo Library Association, Mr. Noel said.

By the 1870s, with more people reading and more books in circulation, the idea of public libraries took hold around the country, with the first one opening in Boston.

In 1873, the city council passed a measure permitting Toledo to buy the book collections of both associations, merging them into one library at the Young Men's Association Summit Street address.

It was one of the first communities in the state to do so.

“Virtually overnight it became the Toledo Public Library,” Mr. Noel said.

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The Art Deco building at Michigan and Adams streets was constructed for $2 million and dedicated on Sept. 4, 1940. The library board hesitated to open the building because it did not have enough money.

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In 1890, the city built its first library at Madison and Ontario streets.

Frances Jermain, the library director, decided the library would adopt the innovative open-stack concept, allowing visitors to browse for books on their own.

“The Toledo library was one of the first in the country to do this,” Mr. Noel said.

The next watershed period came in 1916, when the system built the Locke, Jermain, Mott, Kent, and South branches.

The initiative was made possible after the Carnegie Foundation donated $125,000 to the city for the buildings and Edward Drummond Libbey gave $100,000 for books.

“The branch system took off very well,” said Mr. Noel. “People liked the idea of having branches close to their neighborhoods. They liked to have a place for their kids to go. The branches stocked fiction and best-sellers.”

Meanwhile, communities elsewhere in Lucas County were anxious for a countywide library system.

The first was built in Maumee, thanks to a grant from the Carnegie Foundation. The county's Sylvania branch came later. Eventually, that branch broke away, giving the county three library systems.

Although the library system struggled financially during the Depression, the branches were popular hangouts for readers with little money and nothing much to do.

By the 1930s, the system was thriving and talk of a new downtown library began.

The city already had added a Jefferson Avenue annex in 1910, but the system outgrew that building.

The historic building of the current library at Adams and Michigan streets was built for $2 million and dedicated on Sept. 4, 1940.

The opening almost did not take place after the library's board realized it did not have enough money in its operating budget to run the new building. The issue was finally resolved through cost-cutting measures.

The next great event in the system's history occurred in 1970, when the county's three libraries merged into the current system. The move allowed the libraries to consolidate expenses and build a stronger system.

“It was the last time there ever was a merger of multiple library systems in the state of Ohio,” Mr. Noel said. “It was a very progressive step.”

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