Paris Carnegie Public Library was established as a city library more than 100 years ago. The library is a member of Illinois Heartland Library System and is governed by a nine-member board appointed by the mayor of the City of Paris Illinois. Parking is available on Main Street and in the lot on the north side of the library. In addition to the front entrance with its imposing steps, there is a street level entrance on the north side of the building. An elevator is located inside the north entrance.
One hundred years ago on June 24, 1904, citizens of Paris assembled at the Christian Church to dedicate the new Paris Carnegie Library, a real brick and mortar structure. Frank T. O'Hair presented the library on behalf of the board with Mayor Baum accepting the gift. Following the celebration, the library building was opened to the public for inspection. Over 3,000 volumes were on the shelves.
More than one attempt to start a circulating library had been made in the early days of the establishment of Paris, Illinois. The first was probably the organization of the Paris Library Association in December 1857. Subscribers were to pay $25 in installments of $5.00 and at this date three to four hundred dollars had been collected. Thomas Marks served as chairman and Henry W. Davis as secretary. By October 1858, six or seven hundred volumes, valued at $925, had been acquired. The books were stored in various areas and loaned during regular business hours. After the Civil War, the association disbanded and divided the books among the stockholders.
A second attempt at a library was made in the 1870's and '80's by the YMCA. Over one thousand volumes were available at this time at a reading room used by boys and young men. This venture lasted until the end of the 1880’s, but in 1899 the Woman’s Club inaugurated a circulating library with about a thousand volumes. It was open four afternoons each week with volunteers offering service.
Dr. E. O. Laughlin, who was on the city council, described the process that finally gave rise to the present Carnegie Library. “The idea of securing a Carnegie Library for Paris crystallized in the Ferris drug store, which served the purpose of a popular club in the ‘90’s and later. It was presided over by the genial Dr. Edmund Ferris, veteran of the Civil War, who talked well, listened better, and whose hospitality was such that he never thought of closing the store as long as one guest would remain.”
Regular members of the “club” gathered around a base burner as “Dr. Ferris made the suggestion that a library might be secured from Carnegie for Paris if some one would write to him.” Dr. Laughlin agreed to undertake the task, writing the first of several letters to the Carnegie foundation.
Finally Paris learned that forty applications had been submitted and thirty-eight had been granted. Would Paris be one of the accepted? Two key conditions had to be met: the city had to donate the land, and the city had to commit to maintaining the library by an annual amount equal to 10 percent of the initial grant. Paris anxiously awaited the decision from James Bertram, Carnegie’s secretary. It arrived in March, 1902. Paris would get the grant.
Paris agreed to levy a two mill tax, 10% of the $18,000 grant, Mayor Dr. Z. T. Baum appointed a nine-member library board, and the board of directors was sworn in on April 2, 1902. Directors’ terms were to be three years. A committee was also selected to secure options on various building sites for the library. By May 6, over six other possibilities, the present building site was accepted at a cost of $6,500. That same month it was learned that the $18,000 grant was to be remitted in installments of $3,000 or $4,000 upon written request of two members of the board. Meanwhile a committee was busy studying architectural plans and visiting other communities where Carnegie libraries were being erected.
On August 8, 1902, the firm of Charles Henry & Sons from Akron, Ohio (architects of the Methodist Church) was selected, and on February 17, 1903, H. B. Newman, a local contractor, was awarded the contract with his bid of $18,000. Work began on the construction.
Finally, on June 4, 1904, the library board held its first meeting in the stately new structure on South Main, another of the eighty-one libraries in the state of Illinois, established through donations made by Andrew Carnegie, the controversial steel magnate. He had publicly claimed that it was wrong for a rich man to die rich, and, all in all, by the1920’s his donations made possible almost 1700 Carnegie libraries owned and operated by local governments in over 1,400 communities.
Until 1908, communities were given free rein in their selection of building design. Because both Carnegie and Bertram felt that many designs were impractical, they began exercising more control over the plans. They felt exteriors were too expensive and interiors inefficient. Bertram discouraged fireplaces because they wasted space. The Paris library, established before this time, included at least one fireplace in the north meeting room and possibly two. The Carnegie plans which included tall ceilings and basements necessitated stairs which create problems for older people. These stairs are thought to be “an identifying characteristic of a Carnegie library.” Most buildings were built of brick, more expensive in terms of construction cost, but less expensive to maintain, and none are wood. Although designed four years before these conditions were outlined, the Paris library is fairly typical of the Carnegie plans.
The Woman’s Club had donated the books in their collection housed in the Bibo building on West Court Street; this library continued until the present library was finished. Mrs. Jane Bishop served as librarian at a salary of $2.00 a week.
When Mrs. Bishop resigned, Miss Emma Boyd was named the first librarian of the new building. Miss Ruth Link, Miss Cressie F. Strimple, Miss Minnie Denton and Miss Leota Price each served as librarians following Miss Boyd. In March 1929, Mrs. Nina Dulin Russell succeeded Miss Price as librarian. Mrs. Russell dedicated many years to the Paris Carnegie Library, serving until 1961, the longest tenure of any other Paris librarian. She received her library training at the University of Illinois and was first assistant from 1924-1929 before she became head librarian. Mrs. Alice Feutz served from 1962-1969, Mrs. Susanne J. Spicer from1969-1982, Mrs. Judy Caveney from 1982-1988, and Ms. Teresa Pennington from 1988 to date.
Through the years many dedicated members of the community served on the library board, some remaining only a few years and some for many. Mary Ida Riedell held the longest board tenure. She served from 1948 until 2002 and held every office more than once. J. E. Parrish was the first president serving on the first board in 1902. From 1915 to June, 1918 there was no appointment of a library board. The City Council made appointments of librarians during this time, but on June 14, 1918, Mayor Hoff swore in a complete nine-member board.
In 1966, Paris Library became a member of the Lincoln Trail Libraries System. This membership gives patrons access to many more books, periodicals, and other materials than would be possible from one library. That same year Miss Katherine Bishop left a $90,000 bequest in memory of her sister Lucy Bishop with the income to be used to supplement the library’s reference works and nonfiction collection.
Gradually, the Paris Library collection grew to capacity. The children’s collection had found a new home when the meeting room once used by the Friends in Council was remodeled for that purpose in 1972, but it was finally deemed necessary to add to the structure to accommodate the nearly 30,000 volumes which had been added and to make the library more accessible to the handicapped. The board hired Frederick A. Schlipf of Urbana Free Library as consultant and Bhupen Panchal as architect, who designed a 2,540 square-foot addition with the construction cost estimated to be $314,000.
The library staff then, in the spring of 1990, applied for a construction grant from the Illinois State Library. On July 12, 1990, Secretary of State/State Librarian Jim Edgar arrived here in Paris to announce that the Paris Carnegie Public Library would receive a grant of $124,000. On July, 1991, one hundred volunteers began manning the phones to raise $100,000. Among the contributors were two of special interest: the Monday Club which had met in the library for more than seventy years, and the Paris Woman’s Club which was disbanding and from which the original donation of books had been made in 1902.
Ground was broken on July 25, 1991 and R. J. King Company, Inc. began construction on September 11, 1991. By June 1, 1992, the new accessible entrance was opened to the public. The total cost of the project was $322,895 in construction and $9,045 in new shelving. Amazingly, through the entire period of construction, the library remained open to the public with the circulation at 67,616, only 1,000 items short of a typical year’s circulation.
The addition includes, as well as the new shelving to accommodate the present collection of 33,576 volumes, an elevator, two public restrooms, a handicapped accessible entrance, and a large meeting room, named for Robert Gibson who served on the board from 1983 until his death in 2001. The exterior closely matches the original building.
The staff has continued to keep the library efficient and current with trends in technology. In 2002, the northwest room was adapted to house, in addition to two walls of books, 6 computers. The southeast reading room was rearranged to accommodate the growing collection of large print books. In May 2002, the library was placed on the National Register of Historic Buildings.
The hum of today’s activity probably would probably shock the first librarians, but it is indicative of a vibrant, functioning place of learning in the small town of Paris.
by Teddy Day (for our Centennial in 2004)