History of Appleton Public Library, 1887-1997
In September 1997, the Appleton Public Library celebrated one hundred years of service to the community. What began as a small reading room organized by a private citizen has become an 86,600 square foot building where dedicated library employees help people explore and enjoy the information age.
by Bonnie Poquette, Reference Librarian
with contributions from APL staff
APL's Private Origins
Nearly a decade before Appleton had a publicly-funded library, Elizabeth Jones spearheaded the first successful attempt at a community reading room in the fall of 1887. At her own expense, Jones rented rooms over Pardee's Store (near the corner of College Ave. & Morrison St.), provided some materials, and solicited donations of books, magazines, and newspapers. The room was an immediate success. Within months, the Young Men's Free Reading Room Association formed to continue the effort. The Jones family remained a driving force behind the library; George Jones, husband of Elizabeth Jones, was president
of the Association. In less than a year, however, its materials were turned over to a new organization in town, the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). The YMCA operated a reading room until 1894, when a fire destroyed most of the materials.
After the fire, Appleton was without a free reading room until the fall of 1896 when a group of citizens, led by Dr. Lummis, Mrs. J.S. Reeve, A.M. Smith, and George Jones, opened one on Oneida Street. Due to a lack of funds, it offered only newspapers and periodicals. Soon, one hundred books were secured during a "book social" where the public enjoyed refreshments in exchange for the donation of a book. The YMCA shared approximately four hundred books salvaged from the 1894 fire - and citizens continued to donate books - but funding was an ongoing problem. The venture ceased May 1, 1897. The Free Library Association offered to donate its materials to the City of Appleton on the condition that a public library be organized under state law.
The City Takes Over
After hesitating, the City Council accepted the Free Library Association's offer, using the Council's quarters above Petersen-Rehbein Meat Market (106 W. College Avenue) to house a reading room and a book room. Mayor Herman Erb, Jr. appointed the first Library Board of Directors, confirmed by the City Council on August 4, 1897. The Rev. Albertus A. Drown was placed in charge of the library. Since the City did not allocate funds to support the venture, the Board raised $940.55 and urged each of Appleton's citizens to donate at least one book if possible. Soon, the Council approved a 1/2 mill tax to support the library.
On September 1, 1897, the first publicly-owned library and reading room was formally opened. Interest was high and within months the library was circulating an average of sixty books per day. Heavy use and numerous donations required the hiring of library professionals trained in the classification of materials and library management. Agnes L. Dwight, trained at the Library School of the Armour Institute of Technology, was hired as the first professional librarian, a position she held for 19 years.
Growth And Building Projects
As a constantly-evolving entity, the Appleton Public Library has had numerous changes to its physical space over its one hundred years. Under the direction of Agnes Dwight, the library grew rapidly. By the end of the first year of operation, the library held over 3,500 volumes and circulated 21,958 items. The reputation of the library spread and the number of users increased quickly; within three years the number of library users doubled. Larger quarters were needed to accommodate the burgeoning library and, once again, the YMCA was instrumental in helping the readers of the community. The Y offered to deed land to the City on the condition that a public library be built within eighteen months. The City Council accepted the offer. A bitter civic dispute over the location and funding of the building ensued, however. After several court injunctions and a lawsuit, the City of Appleton constructed its first municipal building at 121 S. Oneida Street for a total of $25,000. The building, dedicated March 28, 1900, housed the Library on the main floor and City Hall on the second. In 1939, the city offices moved out, giving the Library much-needed space. Eventually, after the State condemned part of the building, an extensive remodeling project was undertaken in 1954. During May of that year, library services were suspended to prepare for the renovation. Though the building was closed all summer, staff provided service for children from Morgan School and conducted service for adults from the vocational school. In September, service was interrupted again while staff prepared to re-open the renovated building. The building now had space for a teen room and for new formats. A microfilm collection was offered, and a record album collection was in the planning stages. In the 1960s an art print collection was added.
Less than twenty years after the renovation, the building was again filled to capacity. Another civic debate began, with many proposing that the Library move into the downtown AAL building on College Avenue. A referendum defeated that idea. In a second referendum with support from the newly formed Friends of the Appleton Library, Appleton voters approved the construction of a new library building - the present building - at a cost of $4 million. Constructed at 225 N. Oneida Street, the building was dedicated June 1, 1981 by Mayor Dorothy Johnson. She spoke of the importance of libraries, saying, "I dedicate this building to those who seek truth, to those who seek values and knowledge, and to those who are edified by the world of ideas." The new building not only included an inviting atrium that provided passive solar heat, but also tremendously increased space; while the old building had only 20,000 square feet, the new one had 70,000. The first months the new building was open, between 1000 and 2000 people visited daily. In new quarters, the Library continued to evolve, taking advantage of new technology. In 1982, the first online circulation system was installed. Outdated collections of record albums and 16 mm films were phased out to make room for compact discs, videos, and CD-ROMs. Eventually, to increase space and create a better, more flexible floorplan, the second floor was expanded and departments and service points were re-arranged. That renovation, begun in 1995, added 17% more space, improved access for persons with disabilities, increased seating 20%, doubled children's program space, and added small-group study rooms.
Though the traditional function of libraries was to collect and organize information, by the end of the nineteenth century American libraries were beginning to focus on providing other services. The Appleton Public Library was no exception, and a strong service ethic developed. Reference service -- the practice of answering questions and providing assistance to those using resources -- quickly became a priority. Community outreach and special services for children were also developed. The traditional services of collecting, organizing, and circulating information continued to flourish however, as new technology made advancements in these areas possible.
The Appleton Public Library has long been a service innovator. As early as 1904, it provided Sunday hours for working individuals too busy to enjoy the library during the week. The following year, staff began preparing bibliographies upon request for local clubs. Reference service was emphasized, and by 1908 newspaper articles urged businessmen to visit the library for statistics, encouraged railroad men to inquire about railroad books, and requested mothers to seek recommendations about children's books. APL librarians also saw the importance of partnering with educators. Not only were teachers given special borrowing privileges to obtain materials for their classrooms, they were encouraged to share lesson plans with librarians so APL could anticipate students' needs and provide better service. By 1905, librarians began visiting classrooms at Ryan High School to teach students library skills. The first telephone, installed in 1920, greatly enhanced service, enabling librarians to call Milwaukee Public Library and UW-Madison when questions could not be answered with local resources. In 1926, APL became one of the first libraries in the state to tabulate statistics on the number of reference questions answered. That year, the staff spent 406 hours answering 583 questions. By 1946, staff answered about 646 in one month alone. Reference service has come a long way. Today, APL staffs service desks over 3,300 hours per year and users submit questions via e-mail when the library is not open. Combined, reference and children's librarians answer an astounding 179,570 reference questions annually--about one question for every minute the building is open.
APL's commitment to community outreach dates back as far as 1902, when a series of public lectures or "history talks" were offered. Community groups were also invited to use meeting space in the library, and during World War I, many war effort groups, including the Committee on War Services, utilized the space. At this time, APL also participated in a book drive organized by the American Library Association to provide reading material for doughboys. The first year of the drive APL raised $463.50 and solicited 983 books from the community for the cause. After the war, the library worked to provide disabled veterans with information they needed to return to civilian life. In the next decades, the library made additional outreach efforts. During the 1920s the library began placing small, rotating collections of books at some of the larger employers in the area and at drug stores in some small towns like Shiocton. This made library materials more accessible to area factory workers and farmers. By the 1940s, the library operated small, neighborhood "branches" from Wilson, McKinley, and Roosevelt Junior High Schools. Neighborhood residents appreciated the convenient locations and evening hours. Patients of St. Elizabeth Hospital benefited from a rotating collection there, too. Today, the commitment to community outreach remains strong. Through the Community Services Section, the library offers services to the home-bound through the Walking Books program, facilitates services for the blind, coordinates visits by authors, and conducts numerous programs including book reviews, discussion groups, and film festivals. Internet classes and library skills sessions offered monthly by the Reference section enable the community to learn up-to-date skills in electronic formats. A newsletter, Fine Print, keeps subscribers aware of library activities. The library has actively worked to promote literacy and has been involved with the Fox Valley Literacy Coalition since that organization's inception.
Children have always been an integral part of the library's clientele (despite the fact that at one point in the early 1900s children were banned from the library on Sundays). Though the library collected children's books from its inception and offered assistance to students early on, the formal children's department was not organized until 1921. Additional staff was hired, child-size furniture was purchased, and a separate space was designated for juvenile materials. Staff used their expertise in children's literature and issues to assist both children and their parents. For example, during the Christmas season, staff often created special displays aimed at helping parents select quality books for Christmas gifts. Storytime was offered as early as 1918, but APL added a new twist in the fall of 1945. The Saturday morning storytime was broadcast live from the library over WHBY. Three hundred children attended the first broadcast. The radio storytime was so successful it garnered an article in Library Journal, the leading professional journal for American librarians. Today, families continue to tap the resources and expertise of Appleton Public Library and its staff throughout the year. A wide variety of programs and story hours, for all ages from birth onward, bring children and families to the library. The Children's Section staff also works with schools and child care providers. By teaching the fun, joy, and value of reading, the library works to build a community of lifelong learners. Summer is an especially fun time to visit; in the summer of 1997 there were 4,053 children participating in the summer reading program, "Zap into the Past."
None of the high-profile services would be possible without the behind-the-scenes work of the Technical Services and Circulation Sections. The Technical Services staff coordinates the ordering, processing, and cataloging of library materials. This department continually takes advantage of cutting-edge technology to streamline its duties and make materials available to the public faster than ever before. APL's staff members share their technical expertise with libraries throughout the Outagamie Waupaca Library System (as well as some in the Nicolet Federated Library System), leading the effort to develop a shared catalog. The Circulation Section, though highly visible at the circulation desk, also does much of its work behind the scenes. When the two-book limit was discontinued in 1921, circulation began to increase. Currently, in a typical month, between 90,000 - 120,000
items are checked out. As these materials are returned, circulation staff sorts and re-shelves them--a physically-demanding job. In addition, there are about the same number of materials used in-house, adding to the shelving workload. Staff in this department must also be technically savvy. The Circulation Section quietly paved the way to the electronic age, installing its first electronic circulation machine in the 1940s, and moving to a completely online system in the early 1980s. 1997 was a busy year for this department. Receipt printers were installed to give users a detailed description of materials checked out and shorten waiting lines at the desk. As an added benefit, the printers reduce the risk of repetitive motion injuries for staff. For their convenience, users can now electronically access their account information, and an electronic reserve system was initiated, allowing people to request materials from participating libraries. The electronic reserve system is gaining in popularity; the circulation staff fills about 10,000 - 15,000
requests each month.
Cooperation and Technology
In the library of 1897, the card catalog was a recent innovation and the collection was limited to a few materials held within four walls. By the 1970s, interlibrary loan and cooperation among libraries was commonplace. Like most states, Wisconsin established library systems. APL joined with public libraries of two counties in helping form the Outagamie Waupaca Library System (OWLS). The offices of the system are housed in the APL building and the Appleton Public Library serves as a resource library for the system. For decades, OWLS has provided services to member libraries including consulting, training, interlibrary loan, delivery, and printing. Today, OWLS maintains an automated system for circulation and an online catalog of one million items in the collections of thirty libraries. This system allows people to find items or place a reserve on any title from a catalog terminal or from their home or business computer. Additionally, through an Internet connection, developed jointly with OWLS and funds from the Appleton Library Foundation, online catalog users can access indexes to magazines and the full text of articles from hundreds of periodicals. Patrons access this periodical index nearly 3,000 times per month. In 1995, Appleton Public Library developed the first public library web site in Wisconsin. Today the site, (www.apl.org), receives more than 200,000
"hits" per month as people use our library staff's guides to the Internet, find information about library activities, make suggestions, or review lists of new materials. Public access Internet terminals in the library are in constant use, but the majority of the use of the Library's web services is from people connecting from the outside, using APL as a "virtual library."
Appleton has a long tradition of public interest in and support for library service. From those who helped Elizabeth Jones in the 1880s, to those who lobby for quality service today, the community has taken pride in the educational and equal opportunity values represented by a public library. This has reappeared from generation to generation for more than 100 years. To gain the first public support for the library in 1897 was difficult. The construction of the first library building in 1900 was divisive. As the Library has continued to grow, the community has responded in new ways. In 1975, a friends group was organized by individuals who wanted to support library efforts. The group, Friends of the Appleton Library (FOAL), was instrumental in passage of the 1979 referendum that gained
the new library building. FOAL continues to be active, doing volunteer work, holding an annual book sale and providing support for library programs.
In 1989, the Appleton Library Foundation was organized to provide an "edge of excellence" for library activities beyond public funding. The Foundation conducted a successful fund-raising campaign and has established an endowment. Annual proceeds from this fund have provided speakers and programs, plus significant improvements in collections and technology. The Foundation undertook a special campaign in 1996 to fund purchase of the old City Hall property, develop it into parking and green space and donate it back to the City. In editorial support of this effort, the Post Crescent called the Library a "shining star" in the community.
Celebrate the Past, Look to the Future
The Appleton Public Library has seen many changes in its staffing, collection, services, and space in one hundred years. Undoubtedly, it will see many more, but the commitment to librarianship and community service remains constant. Automation and multimedia have opened many new possibilities, but the value of reading and the future of the book seem strong. As Appleton continues to grow in population and size, staff will continue to provide traditional and innovative library service. We celebrate the public support that allows APL to serve the educational, informational, and recreational needs of the community as we begin our second century of service.
First Library Board 1897
Library Directors 1897 - present
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