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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.

Libraries in Ohio

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Public Library of Steubenville and Jefferson County is one of the 251 public library districts in the State of Ohio.

 

All 251 districts have varied and interesting histories from the first publicly supported library in Dayton in 1805 until the end of public library formation in 1947.

 

Public libraries began as a form of “sharing” where residents would gather and form a “subscription library,” funded by the payment of a fee that would be used to purchase books for all to share.

 

In our area, several subscription libraries existed from 1815 until 1850 under a variety of names.

 

As more people arrived in the area, and the need and interest for a larger collection of books emerged, a more structured public library was needed.

 

The City Library Association of Steubenville operated from 1847-1860 and actually selected books with membership fees and local government funds.

 

The school system provided funds for purchasing books for a public library, which was housed in several downtown locations.

 

Around the state, libraries were being established in many cities and state laws were enacted regarding the establishment of public library districts.

 

The “free public library” movement provided that Ohio citizens were allowed to use their local library at no cost, so that equal access to information and education would be available to all.

 

This was the basis of Andrew Carnegie’s grants, of which 103 were made to public library districts in Ohio.

 

At the same time, the Office of library development was established at the State Library of Ohio in 1906, to help areas of the state devoid of public library service.

 

Our area received a Carnegie Library on March 12, 1902, with the opening of the Carnegie Library of Steubenville.

 

In 1936, “and Jefferson County” was added to the name as the State Library of Ohio designated the former city library as a countywide library district.

 

A final name change took place in 1962, as “Carnegie” was replaced by “Public” to clarify that Andrew Carnegie had funded only the building, not the operation of the system.

 

Today’s public library retains the purpose of those early libraries, as a place for information and reading, with new tools not even dreamed of by early librarians.

 

Books and magazines were supplemented by film in the 1950s, and data retrieval and transmission in 1967 with the founding of OCLC in Columbus.

 

As my library career began in the 1970s, public libraries were designated to become “voter registration stations” in Ohio, one of the first functions beyond the traditional book repository.

 

Shortly thereafter, the distribution of federal and state tax forms was added to a library’s function.

 

Now, public libraries have assumed a myriad of roles as local and state offices have closed, and local institutions have disappeared.

 

Many government buildings have closed their doors to the public with security systems, and few have public hours beyond weekdays and daylight hours.

 

Few government outlets have branch locations around the county with Saturday hours.

 

Our local library system has watched usage double in the past 20 years.

 

Over half of county residents have active library cards, and can access the library at our “other” branch library on the Internet.

 

I think Ellen Summers Wilson, the first librarian from 1900-1904, would still recognize the place even with the computers all around.

 

After all, she is the one who got atlases from the federal government to satisfy the Civil War veterans, and stood at the Mill Gate passing out business cards with the library’s phone number.

 

She founded a club for boys and a club for girls, and a group that enjoyed gardening.

 

She matched people with information, just as we do in 2010.