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History of the Pottsville Free Public Library


"Make reading material available to all by subscribing to the free public library fund."

That was one of the slogans the education committee of the Women's Civic Club used in 1911 to rally support for establishment of a free public library in Pottsville. Although there had been several libraries in the City since its founding in 1806, the institutions had either charged fees or restricted their services to certain segments of society.

The Women's Civic Club members opened their drive for a library that would be both free and public by enlisting the cooperation of the Pottsville School Board and various interested citizens. During a two-week whirlwind campaign that consisted mostly of door-to-door canvassing, the energetic library organizers succeeded in raising $10,775.25. The money made possible rental of a building and the purchase of furniture and books.

To ensure continuing financial support for the new institution, the School Board agreed to levy a one-half mil tax. Management of the Library was vested by charter in a Board of Trustees made up of eight local citizens, three School Board officials and the Superintendent of schools.

The Pottsville Free Public Library opened its door for the first time November 9, 1911, in a three story building at 208 West Market Street. On the upper floors were eight small "dormitories" the fledgling library planned to sublet for $1.50 to $3.50 a week, depending on room size, and a meeting hall to be used free by townspeople.

The Library was located in a first-floor area, 14 by 41 feet, formerly the site of a saloon. At the rear were the Librarian's office and a storage room. In the street-side windows, that for years had been kept shuttered to conceal bar patrons from the curious gaze of passerby, were samplings of the Library's 3800 books.

By 1914, the book collection had tripled. Books were everywhere. The space problem was so acute that some volumes were stored in a cast-iron oven left over from the building's saloon days. However, it wasn't until 1922 that the Library was able to move to new and larger quarters at the southeast corner of Third and West Market Streets, its present location.

Pottsville's present public library is partly a private triumph. The land on which it stands and more than half of its construction cost of $100,000 were gifts from Arthur, Henry W. and Louise Sheafer, members of a wealthy Pottsville family whose fortune had been made in coal and iron.

The two brothers and their sister bought the land in 1914 at a cost of $23,500. The following year, a grant of $45,000 for construction of a building was obtained from the Carnegie Foundation. But World War I delayed the project's start.

By 1921, when the Library was once again ready to implement its building plans, post-war prices had made the Carnegie grant inadequate. Henry and Arthur Sheafer came to the rescue with a gift of $55,000 made in memory of Louise Sheafer, who had died in 1919. At their request, title to the property was given to the School Board as the municipal body guaranteeing funds for the Library's maintenance.

The new Pottsville Library, a handsome granite and red brick building with a facade modeled after Independence Hall in Philadelphia, opened its doors to the public May 1, 1922. The hundreds of first-day visitors who streamed through the white marble entry way saw a huge main room, 40 by 114 feet, with 20-foot high ceilings, white Corinthian columns and walls lined with mahogany bookcases. At the room's southern end was a children's department with low benches and desks, a Colonial fireplace and a painting depicting the birth of American Literature.

The first floor was built 24 inches above street level to make it higher than a basement drain pipe, ten feet in diameter, that carried away water from an underground spring. The enormous pipe, which came to be known as "the hump', divided the basement into two sections. When the Library opened, one section was unfinished; the other was a "book hospital' for the repair of damaged volumes.

On the Library's second floor, reached by climbing a winding stairway with 36 steps, were staff facilities, a meeting room for local organizations, and the headquarters of the Schuylkill County Historical Society.

Through the years, the exterior of the Library has remained almost the same as it was in 1922. But the interior has undergone two major changes.

The first was the relocation of the children's library from the first floor to the basement in 1960. The second was the construction in 1975 of a mezzanine to house the Reference Department. The new addition, which was constructed over the Market Street side of the first floor and financed for the most part by a federal grant, almost doubled shelf space for reference materials.

Another interior change occurred when a section of a second-floor storage room was converted into a local history research area. The Pottsville Rotary paid part of the cost.

Before the building expansion in the 1990s, the most sweeping changes at the Library have been in the number and variety of services offered. When the Pottsville Library was organized in 1911, it was mainly a lender of leisure-time reading materials. Since then, in keeping with an ever expanding information explosion and changing patterns in community life, it has also become a center of knowledge, assistance, education and culture.

The Library's main function is still to store and distribute books (more than one-quarter mile of bookshelves bear witness to 50 centuries of mankind's follies and wisdom). But now the Library also offers DVDs and video cassettes, music CDs, art prints, books on tape, books on CDs, job information, materials for the physically and visually handicapped, a CD ROM based reference network, and state and federal documents. Information or items not available in the Library are borrowed from other libraries through a computerized interlibrary loan network.

For children, there are story-telling sessions, reading clubs, access to computers and educational software and toys.

Since 1962, the Pottsville Library has also headed a cooperative network of independent libraries in Schuylkill and Northumberland Counties. As a district center, the Pottsville Library, with funding from the State, makes specialized items and materials available to16 member libraries.

The word "public" in the Pottsville Library's title doesn't mean that it's totally supported by taxes. The City of Pottsville, Schuylkill County, Pottsville Areas School District and the State of Pennsylvania contribute to its funding. However, in order to provide a full range of services, the Library must depend on gifts, interest from investments and special grants.

In 2007, the Pottsville Library's 9,037 registered borrowers took out 63621 books, everything from current bestsellers to cookbooks and computer handbooks. In the audio-visual department, where 34,790 items were circulated, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone proved to be the most popular DVD.  Among the 12,859 requests for information handled by reference personnel were questions concerning the significance of certain housewarming gifts and the death date of C. Frank Horn, who was a Schuylkill County musician from the Tamaqua/Middleport area.

In 1911, when the Library opened, Pottsville had a music academy, hatmakers, livery stables, a steamship agent, saddle shops and mine supply stores. The music academy burned down shortly afterward and the hatmakers, stables, steamship agent, mining stores and saddle shops have long since disappeared, victims of technological advancements and changing lifestyles and tastes.

But the Pottsville Library remains. Since 1911, it has not merely survived--it has grown from a one-room storehouse of books to a full-fledged, diversified cultural information center with services for people of all ages, incomes, interests and occupations.

 


 

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Last updated April 8, 2010.

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