History of the Lincoln Library, Lancaster County, Nebraska
From: Lincoln the Capitol City and
Lancaster County, Nebraska
BY: Andrew J. Sawyer
The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company
Chicago, Illinois 1916


For the early history of the public library in the City of Lincoln the account written by Mrs, S, B. Pound and read before the Nebraska State Historical Society on January 10, 1893, is quoted. It is as follows:

"The Lincoln Public Library and Reading Room Association, the embryo of the city library, was organized toward the close of the darkest period in the history of Lincoln, the year 1875. No just conception can be had of its early struggles and privations without a review of that period.

"As is well known to those who lived in Nebraska at that time, the summers of 1873 and 1874 had been dry, the crops were poor, and what the drouth and hail had spared was taken by the grasshoppers, The winter of 1874-75 was severely cold, the thermometer during the months of January and February standing for many days at a time below zero, It was a time most painful to remember. There was the long and constant appeal for help from the poor and suffering during the winter, and the gloomier prospects of the coming spring. Who can picture to himself today the Lincoln of 1875? Upon the square was a pile of stones and an excavation, the beginning of the United States Courthouse and Postoffice (now the Lincoln City Hall). On each side of the square were a few business houses perhaps a dozen in all. Three or four of these were of brick or brown sandstone, the rest hastily erected frame buildings, which seemed illy adapted to withstand the strong winds that would blow with increasing fury from the south, and then with a sudden veer, would come with a redoubled energy from the north.

"At the southeast corner of 0 and Tenth streets, the eye, wearied with the unpleasant repetition of square front, white frame grocery stores, found rest; for there, in all its fresh, new beauty, stood the First National Bank Building, called The State Block. O Street, between Tenth and Eleventh, had begun to assume something like symmetrical proportions. It contained five or six brick blocks, the finest of which was the Academy of Music. Business ended at Twelfth Street where stood Hallo's Opera House; and the croakers - of whom there were many - wondered why he had located it so far east, and said that business could never stretch beyond that distant point. A few of the more sanguine said it might possibly reach Fourteenth Street. The high school building recently finished was thought by some to be too large, who advised turning it into a Methodist Seminary and building two smaller ones. There were five hotels, some of them very good for the times; the Atwood, the Metropolitan, the Clifton, the Commercial and the Tichenor. The churches were all frame structures and occupied their present sites with the exception of the Presbyterian, Baptist and Christian. Residences were scattered promiscuously over the prairie, apparently by accident. The most thickly settled part of the town lay between F and R streets and Eighth and Seventeenth, A very few were sufficiently aristocratic to own brick houses, but the majority were either square cottages or the regulation four room, story and a half structures, The title to the disputed eighty had not yet been settled and on this barren looking spot stood one lonely house, the unfinished brick built by George Smith, the jeweler, There were few well defined streets. The roads ran as best suited the convenience of the public and that might be directly across one's front or back yard. This was Lincoln of January 1, 1875, looking ahead with gloom and foreboding at the approaching session of the Legislature, yet brave enough to celebrate New Year's Day by keeping `open house,'

"The new year opened badly, There was first the mutiny at the penitentiary, which brought that institution into unpleasant prominence at an unfortunate time, Next stalked forth the grim spectre of Capital Removal, which stayed constantly by and never vanished until the adjournment of the Legislature. Once during that dreary time, the local editor of the State Journal had the courage to record the following 'magnificent improvements' that were to come with the approaching spring: the building of the Holmes Block on Eleventh Street between 0 and N, the Lamborn and Wittman blocks on the east side of the square, and then he breaks forth into the following pleasant refrain: 'All these things speak well for the future of our beautiful new city, and we advise those who wish to make good investments to come early and secure good seats.

"The spring was cold, backward and rainy, but not cold enough to destroy the young grasshoppers or retard their growth, Yet one reads with pleasure in the old files of the State Journal that through the energy of Mr. H, J, Walsh a subscription was raised and the citizens celebrated Arbor Day, May 3d, by planting trees on the capitol grounds. One also finds about the same time a published statement of the expenditure of $59,25 raised by the same gentleman to plant trees on the university campus. Beside the rain and the grasshoppers fresh troubles were in store for the citizens of Lincoln. These came May 9th with the meeting of the constitutional convention. First and foremost was always the question of capital removal and now in addition to this was the agitation suddenly sprung by the Omaha Republican, which advised the closing of the state university for five years, in order to give the high schools of the state a better chance and to save expenses, This, perhaps, might be called the turning point in the history of Lincoln, for it was at this crisis, through the untiring energy of the Lancaster delegation, that by the submission to the people. of what is known as the capital coupon, the question of capital removal was finally laid to rest,

"The summer of 1875 was probably the rainiest ever known in the annals of Nebraska. The rain gauge at the college farm registered for June alone 5.88 inches. Salt Creek was out of its bounds the most of the summer, and once during the month of June the high water reached nearly to the Metropolitan Hotel.

"By July 1st the last hopper had flown, the continuous wet weather hurried along vegetation, and where a few weeks before starvation seemed to stare one in the face now crops promised abundance. The fall was probably warm and dry, for in the State Journal of September 20th the editor warns the people against the danger of prairie fires, and very soon after the fire company burned a cordon around the town. The greatest calamity of the year was the burning of Hallo's Opera House on the evening of October 5th. With characteristic energy the people immediately subscribed $10,000 and on October 12th Mr. Hallo began tearing away the old walls preparatory to rebuilding.

"It was about this time that the people began to agitate in earnest the subject of a public library and reading room, and to urge the consolidation of the Young Men's Library and Lecture Association and the Ladies' Library and Reading Room Association, These two associations, organized at nearly the same time, were working in different directions to accomplish the same end. The first had, during the winters previous, given the people the benefit of many excellent lectures, The second, organized immediately after the temperance crusade, had maintained for, a time a reading room on Eleventh Street, just south of Harley's Drug Store. This, on account of hard times, was discontinued in April of 1875, The ladies, however, did not relinquish the project, but held a meeting on May 8th in the interest of their association, The earliest mention that one finds of the plan of consolidation is in the State Journal of July 27th, The editor says, We hope those who have been agitating the city library question will not give up the undertaking, but will see that the library becomes an assured fact the coming fall. By a union of the Ladies' Reading Room Association and the Lincoln Lecture Association, the matter can be accomplished without extraordinary effort.'

"About November 15th things took a definite shape and a meeting was called at the White Schoolhouse on Eleventh and Q streets for the purpose of 'establishing and maintaining a public library and reading room. The following persons were appointed a committee to draft a constitution and bylaws: E. J. Cartlege, J. C. Ellis, H. W. Hardy, T. H. Leavitt, O., A. Mullon and L. J. Bumstead. Their report can be found in the State Journal of December 9, 1875, In this report they state that they 'have held eight lengthy sessions,' that they 'had extended an invitation to the officers of the Lincoln Lecture Association to meet with them,' that the invitation had been cordially accepted,' and that at one of the meetings N. S. Harwood had presided. They further state that 'impressed with the profound sense of the importance of the interests under consideration, not only for the present, but for the future citizens of this city and vicinity' they 'had applied themselves to the matter accordingly, and with the purpose to suggest and provide for such a plan of association and operation as should serve for a good foundation on which to build safely and surely, and with reasonable prospects of steady growth and permanent endurance.' They called attention to the difficulties which beset the enterprise, on account of the newness of the town, the complex character of its inhabitants, and the difficulty of providing ways and means, especially at a time when it would seem most difficult in view of the disasters of the two previous seasons. In submitting a constitution they strongly recommended to the citizens that no hasty action should be taken, and above all that no division of interest should be allowed. They commended the work of both associations and suggested a way by which they could be united.

"This report was read and approved at a meeting held December 12th at the Academy of Music. This meeting was called to order by E. J. Cartlege and Chancellor Benton presided. Speeches were made by J. R. Webster, Judge O. P. Mason, N. S. Hanvood, and others. As an incentive to prompt action on the part of the citizens, Mr. Webster alluded to the record the town had already made, especially in the matter of railroad building. Donations of books and money were called for; promises of assistance previously made were renewed. The best gift at this meeting was a set of Appleton's American Encyclopedia donated by Prosper Smith, A committee was appointed to canvass the town and the meeting adjourned until December 18th.

"At this meeting N. S. Harwood presided and O. A. Mullon acted as secretary. The chairman of the canvassing committee reported that they had secured twelve life members and t30 annual members, amounting to $984. The Committee on Permanent Organization reported the following names for officers: N. S. Harwood, president; Mrs. Sarah F. Harris, vice president; Mrs, Ada Van Pelt, secretary; H. W, Hardy, treasurer; Joel L. Franklin, Otto Funke, O. A. Mallon, trustees; C, H. Gere, T. H. Leavitt, J. R. Webster, S. S. Brock, May Bostater, Miss N. Cole, directors,

"The first meeting of the board of directors was held December 20th at the office of Tuttle and Harwood. At this meeting various committees were appointed. The next meeting of the board, held December 30th at the same place, voted to rent the entire second floor of the Briggs Block at $240 per year. The lease was afterwards "drawn by J. R. Webster. When the bells rang in the centennial year the Lincoln Public Library and Reading Room Association was practically established. There being no provision in the statutes of Nebraska for the founding and maintaining of public libraries, it was of necessity a subscription association. The two old associations had combined. The ladies turned over their property, consisting of some articles of furniture, fixtures, and $21 in cash, and the young men of the lecture association gave the proceeds of their lectures amounting to about three hundred dollars to the book fund, making their own selection of books.

"On January 28, 1876, the library was ready for the public and Mrs. Van Pelt, the librarian, commenced to give out books. The floor was covered with a bright red ingrain carpet; there was a table covered with green cloth at each end of the room, and the walls were hung with pictures donated by members of the association. On the shelves were 367 books. The library was kept open on Sunday, the directors serving in alphabetical order in place of the librarian. This custom they continued until the summer of 1882, when the finances were sufficient to allow the directors to pay extra for Sunday service. On March 7, 1876, the librarian made her first report. There were then in the library over one thousand volumes. During the time that the library had been open 2t2 books had been drawn out for home use and 665 used in the room.

"The first half of the year 1877 found the new and struggling library constantly in arrears. In February a committee consisting of Messrs. Harwood, Franklin and McBride presented to the city council a petition signed by the principal taxpayers of the city and asked for an appropriation. This appropriation was passed March 10th and vetoed March 28th by the mayor, R. D. Silver popularly known as the watch dog of the city treasury. Of the many reasons given for this veto, three are here given. First, because it would lead to other foolish appropriations and tend to extravagance; second, because of its unconstitutionality, there being no provision in the city charter for such action; and lastly, because he 'did not think the citizens cared to be taxed to furnish a resort for boys and young men inclined to be wild.'

"In April, the treasury of the library association being empty, the rent was paid by Messrs. Harwood and McBride. Soon after the association was authorized to borrow $100, the note being signed by Otto Funke, trustee, and endorsed and guaranteed by J. R. Webster, N. S. Harwood, C. D. Hyatt and C. H. Gere, jointly and severally.

"It was most fortunate for the city library at this crisis that the newly elected mayor, H. W. Hardy, was friendly to its interests. He had been one of the committee on constitution and bylaws at the time of its organization, and had been its first treasurer. He urged an appropriation of $100, which was promptly passed, only two members of the city council opposing. This appropriation kept the library association alive until, under the act passed by the Legislature February t7, 1877, 'for the establishment and maintaining of free public libraries,' an ordinance could be passed and a levy made for its support. This ordinance was passed by the city council and approved by Mayor Hardy June 15th, On July 25, 1877, the property of the Lincoln Public Library and Reading Room Association was conveyed by deed to the City of Lincoln, and the Lincoln Public Library established,

"One mill upon each dollar of assessed valuation was the amount allowed for the library fund, When this levy was made, the library had already incurred an indebtedness of several hundred dollars. The tax not being collected for a year the board issued warrants and sold them at a discount. The levy being subsequently reduced to three fourths of a mill, it took until 1888 to pay off the indebtedness and bring the warrants to their par value. In the meantime, in order to raise a book fund, the board was obliged to charge $1 a year for membership tickets. This method, which often subjected the directors to severe criticism, but which fortunately was never stopped by legal proceedings, was discontinued September 1, 1888, when the library being free from debt, the books were loaned on guaranty cards.

"On January 1, 1881, the library was moved from the Briggs Block to the second floor of the building long known as The Little Store, next to the Alexander Block at the corner of 0 and Twelfth streets. Here the library remained for nine years, and notwithstanding its poverty, gradually expanded until there was no more room for alcoves and the reading rooms would not longer hold the crowd that came daily to the library. On January 1, 1889, the library was removed to the Harris Block on N Street, between Eleventh and Twelfth."

This concludes the history as written by Mrs. Pound,

The library remained for five years at the Harris Block location, and at the end of this time, after a canvass, the Masonic Temple was selected and a five years' lease secured. The library was installed in rooms on the second floor.

On September 16, 1899, the city library, at the above location, was totally destroyed by fire. Immediate steps were taken, however, for its restoration. Books were collected and catalogued as rapidly as possible and the following winter the library was again open to the public. For 2 1/2 years it was located on the third floor of the Oliver Theater Building, and on May 27, 1902, moved into its permanent home.

Soon after the fire the needs of the library were broughf to the attention of Andrew Carnegie and on Christmas of the year 1899 he offered to the city the sum of $75,000 for the erection of a building. Steps were taken immediately to secure a site and though several were offered as a gift none were wholly suitable for the purpose. The library board, therefore, appealed to the citizens of the city for voluntary donations with which to purchase a site, with the result that about S10,000 was subscribed for the purpose by the residents, numbering 5,500, in amounts ranging from 5 cents to $1,000. Later Mr. Carnegie gave $2,000 more to finish the structure, Fisher & Lawrie, of Omaha, were the architects of the building. Ground was broken December 1, 1900.

Preliminary plans were adopted by the board after a careful investigation of modern libraries and the particular needs to be met in this case, The prime feature in determining the essential details of the plan was the possibility of economical administration, It was recognized that no library is so rich in funds that its usefulness cannot be enhanced by economy in administrative expenses, With this in view it was necessary to bring all the essential departments of the library together on a single floor, with the rooms so arranged as to allow complete supervision from a single point, The main portion of the building is a rectangle, 68 by z04 feet, In the rear is an extension for the main stack room, 20 by 43, and a small extension for the librarian's and cataloguing rooms, 19 by 27 feet. The building consists of a main floor and a high basement, the floor of the latter being but 3% feet below the building grade, which itself is about three feet above the level of the street. The entrance is directly to the main floor. The basement to the top of the water table, a distance of about ten feet. is faced with first quality blue Bedford stone, accurately squared and rubbed, Above this, the building is constructed of the best quality of gray pressed brick, with trimmings of gray terra cotta several shades lighter. The roof is covered with a dull red tile and the whole is surmounted by a low dome, faced with gray brick and roofed with copper.

The entrance, which is approached by a flight of easy stairs, is surmounted by a pediment in which are ornamental designs of terra cotta in high relief. The pediment is supported by two fluted Ionic columns, one on each side of the entrance. The entrance through the outer door is into a broad light vestibule, wainscoted with dark Tennessee marble. The upper portion is finished in Keen's cement, the sides being moulded in the form of pilasters. A short flight of stairs of easy steps brings the visitor to the level of the main floor, and from the vestibule he passes into the spacious and well lighted delivery room. To the right of the delivery room in front is the reading room for newspapers and periodicals To the left is the staircase, leading to the basement. To the left and next to the staircase is the reference room, in which the arrangement of the books is such as to permit the doubling of the initial shelf capacity, without rearrangement in any essential particular.

Opposite the entrance in the delivery room is the main delivery counter, semi circular in form, where books are received and issued. To the right of the delivery room is the children's room, in which are kept all books and periodicals for the special use of juvenile readers.

The first board of directors elected by the city council consisted of the following: C. H. Gere, T. H. Leavitt, C. D. Hyatt, S. W. Chapman, John M. Burks, Mrs. Paren England, Mrs. M. E. Roberts, Mrs. John L. McConnell. The following have held the position of librarian: Mrs. Ada Van Pelt, Miss Laura Cinnamond, Miss Alice Morton, Miss Nellie Ormsbee, Miss Rachel Manley, Miss Sarah K. Daly, Miss Hattie Curtiss, Miss Carrie Dennis, Miss Jane H. Abbott, Miss Margaret Palmer, Miss E. J. Hagey, Miss Lulu Horne.

To Mr. S, L. Geisthardt, for many years a member of the city library board, much credit is due for the watchful and unrelenting care given by him in the superintending of the construction of the building, which is one of the best for the money in the West, and the pride of Lincoln. There are now about thirty seven thousand five hundred books in this library.


In February, 1907, arrangements were made for a small space in a corner grocery store at Twenty seventh and Holdrege streets, A small collection of books was sent out and on Saturday afternoons and evenings an assistant went out and lent books, This was the beginning of the northeast branch which was located at Twenty seventh and Orchard. The citizens subscribed sufficient money for a site and Andrew Carnegie gave $10,000 for the construction of the building, This was completed and opened to the public on July 29, 1909.

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