History of APL (Appleton Historical Society presentation)

Presented by Emily Gilbert to the Appleton Historical Society, November 16, 2011.

The Appleton Public Library really owes its existence to George and Elizabeth Jones. The Joneses moved to Appleton in 1868, becoming pillars of the community. George was a lawyer, though most of his time went to land transactions in mines and timber in Upper Michigan. His wife, Elizabeth, taught Sunday school and was active as a reformer, particularly in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Incidentally, Appleton’s Jones Park is named for George Jones, who gave the property for it in 1909. Their house on Park Avenue later became the residence of Lawrence University’s presidents.

In the fall of 1887, Elizabeth Jones decided that Appleton was in need of a reading room. She was so determined to see this carried out that she rented space over Pardee’s Grocery on College Avenue at her own expense, and stocked the room with her own books. As well as books, that first reading room provided magazines, journals, and a variety of newspapers, including those specializing in religion and temperance.

In 1888, when a branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association was established in Appleton, the reading room was transferred to their care. The original mission of the YMCA was to support the physical, mental, and spiritual development of young men; they frequently sponsored reading rooms and libraries, hoping to provide young men with a respectable, character-building environment. In 1891, the YMCA and the reading room moved into the building of the old Congregational Church, also known as the “Old Brown Church”. However, they were only there two years before the building burned to the ground in a fire caused by defective electrical wiring.

Plans were immediately made to build a new YMCA, bigger and better with more space for the reading room. Unfortunately, that was when the financial panic of 1893 struck. According to an article in the Appleton Crescent, the board decided that “…taking into consideration the stringency of the money market and the unsettled state of the country in regard to business affairs, it would not be wise to undertake to raise the funds necessary to erect the proposed structure at present, but to wait until a better and more prosperous condition of trade and industry existed.” This may sound familiar to those of you who have been following the discussion over the last several years about building a new library. Some things apparently don’t change.

Nothing more was heard of the plans until 1896, when interest in a library became aroused once again. The Appleton Post campaigned to promote the project, and Samuel Plantz, the president of Lawrence University, gave a speech about the benefits of libraries. The City Council thought that financially it still wasn’t the right time, but various groups pressed them to consider a tax levy to support the library.

In October of 1896, a group of people got together and formed the Free Library Association. Elizabeth Jones had died the previous year, but George Jones was the chairman of the finance committee. Carrie Morgan, then the superintendent of schools, was also a member of the association and a strong supporter of the library plan. The association leased a room in the Kurz Building on N. Oneida for $18 a month, and Albertus A. Drown, the minister of First Baptist Church, was hired as the librarian. Everyone was enthusiastic about the library, and it received a great deal of public support.

However, the library was very short of books. To remedy this, they held a “book social”, which offered refreshments in exchange for donation of books. They received about 130 volumes, and the YMCA donated more than 400 others that had been salvaged from the fire. In January of 1897, the library put out a public appeal for more books, and by March they had another 500.

At this point they encountered another hitch: the hoped-for tax levy had not materialized, and in May the rooms the library had been occupying were rented to someone else. Drastic action was needed. The Free Library Association went to the City Council and put forward several arguments: to begin with, that a state law had recently been passed allowing councils to make appropriation of funds for libraries, and levy taxes for the same purpose, without needing a popular vote. George Jones also pointed out that the library had had 100 patrons a day, so there was clearly a demand for its services. The clincher may have been his second point, that Appleton was humiliated by being the only city its size without a public library. The council must have been convinced: they passed a resolution to take steps in the matter.

In July of 1897, the council unanimously passed an ordinance establishing a public library and reading room. They also appointed a library board, which naturally had George Jones as president. The library settled into its new quarters, joining the city offices in the rooms above the Petersen-Rehbein Meat Market. Some sharing of space was necessary – the council chamber served as a reading room whenever the council was not using it. In September the library became publicly funded, and Appleton had its public library at last.

During the following months, the library set about establishing itself, helped by the city’s levying a half-mill tax to support it. There was a subscription drive and another appeal for donated books; local organizations held concerts and other events to benefit the library; gas lighting was installed, and the board had a meeting to set the hours, rules and regulations. Some of them sound amusing to the modern library-user; for instance, “Two books may be taken at a time, providing both are not fiction… Two volumes of the same work are considered as one book.” At that time fiction was considered slightly unwholesome, and evidently the board wanted to encourage patrons to borrow more improving books. You may be surprised to learn that even then the library had a system for placing a hold on a book you wanted, although it was somewhat different from today’s: “Any borrower desiring a book already drawn, except fiction, by leaving with the librarian two cents, will be notified by postal card upon its return and the book will be held one day for such person.”

Perhaps the most dramatic of the rules was: “If a health officer shall place a contagious-disease notice upon any house in which there is at that time a library book, prompt notice must be given the librarian and his instructions followed as to its disposal.” I hope this simply meant what was to be done with it, and not that the book had to be disposed of. The citizens of Appleton, like this young woman, flocked to the library; before long the circulation was up to 60 books per day. The shelves were filling rapidly, some people donating as many as 50 volumes. It soon became necessary to hire a trained librarian, Almena De Puy, to organize and catalog the books. Her stay was only temporary, but she made some important contributions to the library, such as setting up a card catalog and arranging for bound sets of popular magazines. In 1898 the library hired its first permanent professional librarian, Agnes Dwight, who had been trained at the Library School of the Armour Institute of Technology near Chicago. Louise Ellis was hired as her assistant.

As the library became increasingly popular, people started to complain about the cramped space and about the noise of College Avenue outside. Once again the YMCA offered a solution: they still owned the land where the old Congregational Church had been, and they offered to deed it to the city for a library building, provided the city paid off the mortgage on the property. Some people liked the idea, but others did not – chiefly because the proposed site faced Market Street, which is now Soldier’s Square, but was then a space little more than an alley, where livestock markets were held. Various other sites were suggested, including part of Smith Park. The decision was more difficult because there was a deadline: according to the deed for the site, if the library was not built within 18 months, the land could revert to the YMCA, and the city would lose the $3,700 they had paid for it.

The library issue became a battle royal among the city council. There were 6 Republicans and 6 Democrats on the council; the Republicans were for the library, the Democrats against it. Whenever the council tried to vote on anything related to the building of the library, they wound up with a tie vote, and every time the mayor, Herman Erb Jr., who was a Republican, would cast the tiebreaking vote – always for the library. This understandably upset the aldermen who were against it; they claimed the mayor didn’t have the legal power to vote, and vowed to do everything they could to halt the construction. Neither side of the battle was blameless, of course; because many people thought other civic projects were more deserving of funds, such as sewers, bridges, and a new hospital, the pro-library aldermen retaliated by voting down the street and sewer improvements proposed by the Democrat side of the council. Even the newspapers took sides: the Appleton Post was Republican in slant and the Appleton Crescent Democratic, and each was vocal about its own side of the library dispute.

While all this was going on, use of the library continued to grow. It had acquired a sizeable collection of books in German, the language spoken by most of Appleton’s immigrant population – just as today APL has numerous items in Spanish and Hmong. The council finally passed the resolution to build the library on June 21, 1899, with the mayor once more casting the deciding vote. The cornerstone was laid July 4th.

But even the fact that the library was actually being built didn’t stop the battle in the council. In October, the Democrat aldermen brought a court case against their Republican colleagues, the mayor, and the building contractors. Their chief argument, although financial issues were also raised, was that the mayor had no right to cast the deciding vote in council matters, and that any determination of tax amount, like that for funding the library, had to be made by a majority of the council without counting the mayor. The contractor continued to work on the library building during this time, saying he wasn’t worried about payment. In the end Judge George W. Burnell decided in favor of the library supporters; he said that according to the city charter, it’s perfectly permissible for the mayor to break a tie vote when one arises. Though there may still have been some grumbling, that was the end of the active opposition of the new library.

While the building was going up, an appeal went out to the citizens of Appleton for funds to furnish it. A number of women’s clubs took on the task of fundraising, including the Wednesday Club, which is still in existence, the Clio Club, the West End Club, and the Shakespeare Club. They edited and put out a women’s edition of the newspaper, containing reports of civic and social activities and information about the new library, which brought in $362. An opera benefit made $476, and the Prescott Hospital donated $663.54. Since the city offices would be occupying the second floor of the new building, it was agreed that the city and the library would split the utility expenses.

On March 22, 1900, the old reading room closed its doors for the upcoming move, asking patrons to keep the books they had checked out until they could return them to the new library. The building was dedicated on March 28, with speeches by many of Appleton’s civic leaders. It was Appleton’s first municipal building, and it was an imposing structure, built of gray stone with columns across the front. The library occupied the main floor, with a reception room and the children’s area in front, the reading room beyond that, and shelves occupying the rear 2/3 of the floor. At the dedication, the rooms were decorated with photographs that Agnes Dwight, the librarian, had brought back from her trip to Egypt.

There was much excitement over the opening of the library; the Daily Post wrote, “Great cause has Appleton to rejoice that she today possesses a public library. It must, of necessity, make better citizens of our young people, enlarge the horizons of thought of those who are older, and afford to all such entertainment as will make life richer and better.” J. C. Ferber, who was the father of Edna Ferber and ran a variety store on College Avenue, commissioned souvenir vases for the occasion with a picture of the library. Here is another view of the outside of the library, and others of the interior as it looked during the early part of the 20th century.

On April 29, Herman Erb Jr, whose term as mayor had ended the year before, committed suicide. He had been suffering for some time from what we would recognize as depression, even going to a sanatorium for treatment, and the struggle over the library must have exacerbated matters. He was only 27 years old.

Appleton’s new library grew and thrived. Unlike many libraries, patrons were allowed access to the shelves from the beginning. Agnes Dwight says this in a 1900 newspaper article: “The educational influence on children being able to examine books on the shelves and become acquainted with them is incalculable, often books are chosen by the children on biography, history, natural science, etc, etc, which if chosen for them by the librarian would be refused, as being something uninteresting. The pleasure of being able to see a book and not blindly choose it from its title is appreciated by older people as well.” However, at one point during the early 1900s, children were banned from the library on Sundays.

The library offered a variety of services; by 1905, the librarians had begun visiting high school classrooms to teach the students library skills. The first storytime was held in 1911, 13 years before the formation of a children’s department. The storytellers were young lady students of Professor John S. Garns of the Lawrence College School of Expression. The market across from the library that some people found so objectionable was soon removed, and in 1911 the soldier’s monument that still stands there was erected by Albert Priest, then owner of Hearthstone, in memory of his brother killed in the Civil War. A new YMCA was built next to the library in 1915, and in later years the library became dwarfed between the 4-story Y and the 7-story – later 12-story – Zuelke Building on the other side. After World War I, the library provided another important service: giving disabled veterans information on returning to civilian life.

Though the staff was still small – one librarian, four assistants, one page, and a part-time janitor – a great many innovations took place at the library during the 1920s. A telephone was installed, allowing librarians to call other libraries for help with tricky reference questions. They expanded their reach, setting up duplicate collections of books for the use of schools, and placing small rotating collections at larger area employers and in the drug stores of small towns like Shiocton. They started a “picture department”, where photos were clipped from magazines like National Geographic and mounted on cardboard. Anyone giving a talk to a club or society could check out a set of appropriate pictures to accompany it. Books too worn for circulation were given to invalids and elderly people who couldn’t come into the library themselves. The formal children’s department was organized in 1921, with Mrs. Nellie Harriman the first children’s librarian. Also that year, the 2-book checkout limit was discontinued.

The children’s summer reading program began in 1938. That first year 305 children participated; today, there are over 5,000. The children’s librarian in the 1930s was Marceline Grignon of the Grignon family, known to the kids as “Miss Marcy”. Mary De Jonge was the reference librarian, and Nancy Thomas the head librarian. She was president of the Wisconsin Library Association from 1939 to1940, the only librarian from APL to hold that office until Barb Kelly in 2000 and Terry Dawson in 2005. In 1939 the city offices moved out of the second floor of the library building; their new home was on the site of our current library. Other offices, including the County Agricultural Conservation Department and the local division of the Wisconsin Department of Taxation, occupied the second-floor space until 1954, when the library took over the whole building.

Beginning in the late 1930s, the newspaper regularly printed lists of new books arrived at the library, sometimes with brief summaries. This continued into the 1970s. The library’s management of new books was rather different from today’s method of simply having a special shelf for them: in 1944, they announced, “A regular system for the release of new books was instituted 2 weeks ago with 15 to 20 new books ready for circulation on Friday afternoon of each week… A list will be posted and patrons may choose one new book from the list to take out for reading. These books will be held at the library from Friday to Monday and given out only on request to people who come into the library and make their choices from the posted list. Only one new book per person will be allowed.” In the 1940s, the library established small “branches” at Wilson, McKinley, and Roosevelt schools, and another at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. >Storytime took an exciting turn in 1945, when it was broadcast live on the radio through WHBY. Each week 5 or 6 children would be permitted to talk over the air during the broadcast.

By the 1950s, the library was in need of remodeling to adapt the old building to the changing requirements of its patrons. However, the library board missed the mark with the prediction quoted here in the Post-Crescent: “The board estimates that if the remodeling job is accomplished, it will take care of the city’s library needs for 30 to 50 years. No matter how fast the future population growth may be, board members feel that this is as large a building as Appleton ever will need. Future requirements, dictated by expansion, would be met by branch libraries, they said.” The person who photocopied the article for the library scrapbook had marked this paragraph with an exclamation point in the margin.

Once again the city found other projects more urgent, and the library remodeling was temporarily put off. It took place in 1954, expanding the library onto the second floor and almost completely rebuilding the interior, adding fluorescent lights, as shown here, a teen room and a microfilm collection, with plans for a record collection in the works. Here we see two views of the newly renovated library. In 1961 Gordon Bebeau became library director, the first man to do so since Rev. Albertus Drown had been in charge of the reading room. Jerome Pennington and Terry Dawson followed him, making a change from the long line of women who had presided over the library since 1898. APL returned to that tradition this year [2011] with Colleen Rortvedt’s appointment as director.

By the 1970s, the library had outgrown its building, even renting space in the Zuelke Building next door. As well, it had poor handicap access and no nearby parking, except on the street as shown here, since it had been built three years before the first automobile arrived in Appleton. It was time for a new library. There was talk of the library moving into the recently-vacated AAL building at College and Superior, but in the end the idea of an entirely new building won out. The Outagamie County Historical Society tried to get the old library preserved as a historic building, but they were unsuccessful – perhaps because the 1954 renovations had been so extensive that not much of the original structure remained, making it less historically interesting. The new library building, which we still occupy today, was opened June 1, 1981. It was 70,000 square feet, a great improvement on the old building’s 20,000 square feet.

The library thrived once more in its new space, adding new innovations such as an online circulation system in 1981 and a video collection in 1983. Only 26% of the videos were feature films – the library didn’t want to compete with commercial movie venues. In 1986 APL was rated among the top 50 libraries in the United States. The Appleton Library Foundation, formed in 1985, twice held a benefit called Celebrity Showcase to raise money for the library, and although many of you may remember this, I was amazed to learn that the celebrities in question were no less than Bob Hope and Red Skelton. In 1995, APL became the first library in Wisconsin to have a website.

The library of course continued to expand, and a new addition was built in 1996, adding 17% more space, better handicap access, 20% more seating space, double the amount of space for children’s programs, and several small group study rooms. Now we’re in need of a new building again. The library has grown steadily over the years, from 500 volumes in the collection in 1897, to 7,163 in 1902, to over 351,000 items today. In 2010 1.5 million items were checked out, more than any other single-site library in the state. Appleton was one of the first libraries in Wisconsin to gather statistics on number of reference questions; in 1926, the first year they did this, librarians answered 583 questions. By 1946 that had increased to 646 per month, and in 1997 the combined total for the reference and children’s departments was 179,570 questions over the year – roughly one question for every minute the building was open.

Clearly Appleton needs and loves its library. At the dedication of the original library building in 1900, Lutie Stearns, of the State Library Commission, said that the library ought to be “the center of happiness in the community, the place where every man, woman, and child living in Appleton should feel at home and be sure of welcome, where they should enjoy passing some of their leisure hours, a place of recreation as well as education.” I hope that still holds true today.