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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

Ellen Summers Wilson, First Librarian

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, January 14, 2007


For 23 years, I have been searching for information about our first librarian, Ellen Summers Wilson.


She was a fascinating librarian from all accounts, and it is detective work to peel back the layers of history and find tid-bits about her brief time in Steubenville.


Miss Wilson didn't even finish three years as our first librarian.  My first information was that she was hired in Dec. 1901 and departed in March 1904.


Further search found that she contracted tuberculosis and returned to her home in Albany, N.Y., where she died Nov. 6, 1904 at the age of 31.


The new information that I found is that she was the eldest child of James H. Wilson, and he was a wholesale grocer in Albany.


In 1880, they resided at the corner of Jay and Lancaster Streets, and the three brothers listed in her obituary had not yet been born.


Ellen Summers Wilson was a student at the New York State Library School in Albany from 1896-1898, and moved to Pittsburgh to work for the Carnegie Library before coming to Steubenville.


In Pittsburgh, she was manager of the West End Branch Library and the Wylie Ave. Branch Library.


She had started several clubs related to the library, in both Pittsburgh and Steubenville.


Many people at the turn of the 20th century were immigrants wanting to learn English, and clubs were a way of introducing them to reading and libraries.


After being hired, she had a mere 2 months to organize the book collection for the new library in Steubenville.


There were some new books, but most were 50-75 years old and came from the former City Library.


After the new library opened in March 1902, Miss Wilson began organizing clubs for library support.


The King Arthur Reading Club was for children, and a Bird Class began which led to an Audubon Society.


Other clubs included The Good Citizen's Club, The Homemaker's Club, The Home Library Club, and the Steubenville Civic League.


She promoted the library by having business cards printed with the new library's phone number, and passing them out at the Mill Gates.


Civil War veterans were invited to the library to study battle atlases provided by the government in a downstairs room arranged for that task.


Lectures were held in the library lyceum by the University Society, on topics of interest to the public.


Her obituary makes an eloquent statement about libraries, "she made the library a popular resort for all who were bent on intellectual improvement."


100 years, and the purpose of a public library has not changed.


It was indeed sad that her contribution was so short; many local organizations sent flower arrangements to Albany for her funeral.


For some today, Ellen Summers Wilson may be the source of the library ghost that supposedly inhabits the S. 4th Street building.


If that is true, she is simply watching over her library to be sure it is still serving the public as a "popular resort."