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Politics, religious beliefs, and socio-economics aside, the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library was celebrated Saturday night as “one of the greatest of all our American institutions.”
“And I do my best to remind people that no other country has any system anything like this,” said author David McCullough, keynote speaker at the capstone event of the library’s 175th anniversary.
“It’s very, very unusual that a community the size of Toledo would put so much heart and soul and confidence in the future. It’s an example for the country,” he told The Blade before his keynote speech.
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Setting the tone at the Michigan Street entrance was red carpeting, a youthful jazz combo, and live, costumed “statues” posing stiffly in the front windows. Tuxedoed men and begowned women filled the front half of the ground-level floor, bathed in red lights. The happy occasion drew 374 (many more were turned down because of space contraints) who paid $250 each for an evening of wonderful food, delightful entertainment (including actors portraying popular literary figures), and a stimulating talk by Mr. McCullough, one of the nation’s premier historical writers.
“This is the icing on the cake,” said a beaming Clyde Scoles, 28-year executive director of the public library, Ohio’s first. “People really wanted to be a part of this great occasion.”
The breadth of the library’s appeal and its common ground was clear when Mr. Scoles raised a glass to toast “one of the most democratic institutions, proudly open to all,” and his “Cheers!” was met with a resounding echo by hundreds.
Mr. McCullough described the county’s library system, on sound financial footing and with a full complement of new and updated buildings, as extraordinary. It has 325,000 card holders and 2.4 million books (including 50,000 e-books), compact discs, DVDs, and more and has enjoyed dependable support from county taxpayers.
It harks to the 1838 founding of the Toledo Young Men’s Association, which established a public library as well as a public meeting space, and in 1873, a 0.5-mill property tax began supporting the newly named Toledo Public Library.
The Main Library’s current site at 325 N. Michigan St., had been the site of Central High School, which was torn down in 1938 to make way for a $2 million building that opened in 1940. Sixty-one years later, it would undergo a remarkable expansion and renovation, when its 186,000 square feet grew to 271,000 square feet, and its technology was updated for the 21st century.
The event was presented by the LaValley Foundation and the Library Legacy Foundation with key support from Block Communications Inc., parent company of The Blade, Buckeye CableSystem, and Buckeye TeleSystem; PNC Bank; the Hodge Group, and other companies and individuals.
At a VIP cocktail reception before dinner, Mr. McCullough enjoyed rock-star status, with an unending queue of people who sought photographs with him and handlers who fretted about keeping the proceedings on schedule. The Main Library’s middle section, called the Wintergarden, was transformed into a bistro under red chiffon swags. During the elegant meal, a new, seven-minute video chronicling the library’s history was screened and a Toledo Symphony string quartet played.
And Mr. McCullough, a jovial and energetic 80 who reared five children and lives on Martha’s Vineyard with his wife of 58 years, Rosalee, proved every bit the suitable celebrity. He has been honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, twice with Pulitzer Prizes, and has been called the citizen chronicler for his readable histories about John Adams, Harry Truman, the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal, the horrific Johnstown Flood in his native Pennsylvania, and others.
The lessons of history are infinite, he said, citing a few: There were no simpler times past; there’s no such thing as an entirely self-made man or woman; information is not learning, and no one ever lived in the past. “I really feel we ought to dispense with that word, ‘past,’ ” he said.
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Many Americans are history illiterates, a trend that must cease, he said. “I believe history should not be taught just about the military, and don’t make people memorize dates or quotations,” he said to audible audience approval. “Bring it alive. History is human.”
He’s undertaking a biography of the Wright brothers, who grew up in a humble home in Dayton, but one with plenty of books and encouragement for reading, and who went on to invent the first successful flying machine.
A graduate of Yale University, Mr. McCullough’s first jobs were with magazines and the U.S. Information Agency. He figured he’d write novels or plays until the day he was in a library and saw a display of photographs of the Johnstown flood, sought out books on the subject, but couldn’t find a good one. He followed the advice of Thornton Wilder (whose murder mystery/philosophical story The Eighth Day he recommended), which was to go to the library and see if anybody’s written about a subject he was interested in, and if they haven’t to write the book he’d like to read.
Eliciting laughter as well as applause was his comment about what to do “if you ever get down in spirit about our culture. Keep in mind there are more public libraries than there are McDonald’s.”
The library system will have additional celebrations at its branches throughout the year.
The evening wrapped up with proclamations from Mayor Mike Bell and U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, who both spoke about the time they spent at Toledo’s libraries as young people.
Contact Tahree Lane at: email@example.com or 419-724-6075.