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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

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, February 10, 2019


Obituaries in 1904 were quite different than today, with lengthy sentences that seem never-to-end telling the stories of the dearly departed.


The first librarian of our library, Ellen Summers Wilson, was only 31 years old when she died of tuberculosis, having been the head of the new library for only 2 ½ years.


The news came in the form of a telegram from her parent’s home in Albany where she lived from Aug. until her death on Nov. 6, 1904.


The obituary in the newspaper said, “It is rare indeed, that so many hearts are touched and so many eyes dimmed by the Death Angel as in this instance, for she had made a place in the affections of the people of this city second to none and her passing has brought a real sadness and deep sense of personal loss to all of her large circle of acquaintances.”


She was born in Albany, the first born child and only daughter of James & Anna Wilson, owners of Wilson and Lansing wholesale grocery.


Miss Wilson attended the State University of New York at Albany from 1896-98 and worked  at the college libraries as well as the Johnstown NY public library while obtaining her degree in library science.


In 1898, she moved to Pittsburgh to work for the Carnegie Library in the Wylie Ave. Branch and West End Branch before coming to Steubenville at the end of 1901 to be the first librarian of the new library in Steubenville.


The City Directory shows that she rented part of a house down the street from the new library so she could walk to work.


She had only 2 months to ready the building to become an operating library, as it opened to the public on March 12, 1902 with 3 staff members including herself.


The dedication ceremonies held on a Sunday night found every space filled with local residents to hear Library Board Chairman George McCook open the proceedings followed by a prayer by Rev. Dr. J.S. Reager and the song “Villanelle” sung by Mrs. H.W. Cooper.


Rev. Dr. A.M. Reid, the man who wrote to Andrew Carnegie for the gift of the library, introduced the evening saying that he had been at the dedication of the court house, several churches, and schools, but the new library will promote the happiness and intelligence of the citizenry of the area.”


To make the citizens familiar with the new library, Ellen Summers Wilson started boys and girls reading clubs at the library in addition to a home club and a civic league.


The new library had electric lighting while the gas lines installed in the walls were unused.  A telephone answered electronic inquiries from the public.


She distributed business cards to the men who worked at the mill below the library, showing the telephone number and hours that the library is open.


Games and contests were held for children, particularly during the summer when schools were out-of-session.


Miss Wilson was a speaker at the Ohio Library Association Conference in Cleveland in 1903, telling of the great success of the new library in Steubenville.


By August of the next year, her ill health had reached the point that she resigned her position and returned to New York State where she lived in the mountains to try a recover from the consumption.


The treatment worked for just a short time, and she returned to her parent’s home where she died on a Sunday afternoon in Nov.


Today’s research has allowed me to find that she is buried in the Albany Rural Cemetery in a lot with her parents and grandparents.


The Wilson home at 143 Lancaster Street in Albany is only a few blocks from the State Capitol Building, and is today a beautifully restored brick row house of three-story Victorians.


My research has never yielded a photo or drawing of Miss Wilson, but her 3 brothers all had families and children and someday I hope to find an ancestor who might yield a photo of our first librarian.


And so what would Ellen Summers Wilson think of her library today --- and how would she view all the changes?


I can imagine her sweeping through the building, her long dress just off the marble floor showing her high button shoes clacking on the wood floor behind the desk.


I wonder if she read the books in our archive that were here in 1902, and what would she think of computers?


I will let you know if she messages me.