The first evidence of any sort of a library in Syracuse comes from the minutes of a town meeting in 1886. It seems there was a circulating library in effect with about 40 subscribers. A circulating library allowed people to rent a variety of books for an annual fee, and were important in that they allowed the people who could not afford to buy books a chance to read when no free library was present.
It was in 1908 that a local judge, Lemuel Royse, was petitioned to form a library board. Three of the members had to be of Royse’s choosing, and the other four by the town. Royse appointed Mrs. B.F. Hoy, Joseph Dolan and Aaron Rasor. The town of Syracuse appointed Charles Bachman and Irene Sprague, and the township trustee chose Ida Knorr and A.W. Buchholtz. The new library board had their first board meeting on October 24th, 1908, and the library was organized in the basement of Syracuse School, which was across the street from the present library (picture at right). On November 2nd, the board hired Ida Knorr as the librarian at a salary of $125.00 a year to be paid quarterly, and purchased a few pieces of furniture – 2 reading tables, 10 chairs, 3 rocking chairs, lighting fixtures, and a little later, a desk and a wastepaper basket. The board also set aside $20 for Knorr to travel to Indianapolis to meet with the State Library Board, as they thought it would be helpful for her to get some training in library science before her position began. The library was a single room in the basement, and was open fifteen hours a week on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., although according to the minutes of a library board meeting a few months before the library opened, the hours were originally going to be 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. Most of the books in the collection were gifts or donations. Apparently many of them were older books from the school’s collection. The school also donated about $250 to the new library for the purchase of books. The original library opened on Lincoln Day, February 12th, 1909.
Some may have noticed the plaque upstairs near the main entrance which reads, “In Memoriam, Wilma Agnes Kitson, Librarian, Nineteen Hundred and Eighteen.” (picture at left) Ida Knorr was the librarian until about 1916, when Kitson took over for her. In the minutes of a board meeting from September 29th of 1916, it’s recorded that Ida Knorr was taking an “indefinite vacation” and thus Kitson was hired as the librarian for one year. Unfortunately, Kitson passed away in April of 1918. Strangely, she had just been asked by the board on April 13th of that year to stay for another year as the librarian, but by the board meeting on April 20th, it was noted she had passed away. So, Ida Knorr resumed her former duties as librarian. We don’t know very much about Mrs. Kitson, but according to her memorial, she was “brave and sincere,” which isn’t a bad way to be remembered.
Another important thing happened during this same board meeting on September 29th, 1916, in that the members of the board decided to seek a grant from the Carnegie Foundation of New York for a free-standing public library in Syracuse.
Andrew Carnegie was a Scottish immigrant who came to America in 1848. His young life was very hard, but Carnegie always had a passion for education and for books. He was a shrewd investor, and eventually made his fortune in steel. In his later years he became a philanthropist. In 1881, Carnegie funded his first library by building one in his hometown in Scotland. This gift to his native city was so well received by its inhabitants Carnegie decided to do the same for other areas of the world where no free library was available. From 1890 until 1917, Andrew Carnegie gave more than $56 million dollars towards building over 2500 libraries all over the world, which earned him the nickname “The Patron Saint of Libraries.”
Indiana had the most Carnegie libraries of any other state, with one hundred and sixty five libraries. The city of Goshen actually had the first Carnegie library in Indiana. The grant from the Carnegie foundation was applied for in 1901, and in 1903 the Goshen library’s doors were opened to the public. The original Goshen Library still stands on the corner of 5th Street and Washington in Goshen and is now used for city offices.
In order to qualify for a Carnegie loan, all towns or cities that applied had to agree to certain conditions, commonly called “The Carnegie Formula.” The first condition to be met was for communities to show they had a demonstrated need for a freestanding public library. The town of Syracuse achieved this by virtue of the small library in the school basement, which not only was fast becoming too small for its collection but also the space had to be shared with the school, as the basement was used for student speeches and debate events. Nevertheless, the citizens of Syracuse had shown that they enjoyed having a library at their disposal. So, Syracuse met the first criteria – it had displayed a real need for a freestanding library building.
The second requirement was for the town or city to provide a building site for the library. In 1918, the library board of Syracuse bought a plot of land for $2,195 from the Stiffler estate. The house on the site was sold for $100 and moved further down the street, where it’s still standing today.
The third requirement in the Carnegie formula was that the community had to annually provide ten percent of the cost of the library’s construction to support its operation. This was in keeping with Carnegie’s so-called “Gospel of Wealth,” concerning the responsibility of a person of wealth towards creating opportunity for all through free sources of knowledge, but never giving funds in free charity. Carnegie didn’t mind helping communities get their projects up and running, but once they were, Carnegie expected the community to provide for its libraries, churches, parks, and anything else the Carnegie Corporation helped to build. Thus, a tax levy had to be established in Turkey Creek Township for this purpose, and this levy still supports the library today.
After much correspondence, it was recorded in the library board minutes on February 13th of 1917 that the Carnegie Corporation of New York had offered Turkey Creek Township $10,000 if all of the conditions of the Carnegie Formula could be met. This is the memo that James Betram, who was Carnegie’s secretary, sent to the treasurer of the Carnegie Corporation, R.A. Franks, requesting that he reserve funds for the building of a library in Syracuse. It reads:
“Please make the following payment on account of library donations: Syracuse Town and Turkey Creek Township, Indiana. Sums as needed to pay for the erection of a free public library building as work progresses, to the extent of $10,000.” (picture of the memo at right)
It became clear soon after plans were made to build the freestanding Syracuse Library that the cost of construction would easily go over the $10,000 budget. According to the correspondence with the Carnegie Corporation, the cost of labor and materials had gone up during the time between getting the promise of Carnegie funds and the actual start date for the construction. Keep in mind this was about 1919. World War I had just ended. 117,000 American soldiers had been killed and over 200,000 had been wounded. Material, especially steel, was scarce, as most of it had gone towards the war effort. Additionally, labor was at a premium during this time. The library board wrote to the Carnegie Corporation, asking them for either more money or an extension on the deadline Carnegie imposed on building projects, but Carnegie wouldn’t budge. The people of Syracuse had to get creative.
Details are fuzzy as to how much exactly was needed on top of the $10,000 from Carnegie. It seems it was anywhere from $4,000 to $6,500. We know that the library board got a loan from Syracuse State Bank to cover the cost of buying the plot of land to build the library, and that the board also solicited donations from the community. It seems they didn’t wait to get the full amount for the whole project before beginning; for instance we know that the foundation of the current library was laid in 1919, at a cost of $640. On April 6th of 1918, the library board decided to hire S.A. Craig, a local architect, to design the building, although it wasn’t until 1920 that his designs were accepted by the board. He also seems to have been the one who sold the bricks to build the library, all 24,000 of them.
An interesting note about the architecture: Recipients of Carnegie funds were encouraged to build in any architectural style they wished, but Carnegie did make two stipulations. One, there had to be a staircase leading up to the front doors. Carnegie believed that by climbing steps to enter a library, it represented elevation of mind by learning. Also, he wanted a lamp or lamppost outside of every library he helped to build, as he believed a lamppost symbolized enlightenment by learning. Carnegie also sent a portrait of himself to every library built with Carnegie Corporation funds, so that no one ever forgot their benefactor. The Syracuse Public Library still displays the portrait we received from Carnegie.
The first check sent by the Carnegie Corporation arrived on October 27th of 1920, in the amount of $4,500. In November of that year another $1,850 was received, and the final $3,650 was received on February 11th of 1921. The library was opened almost exactly a month later, on March 15th, 1921.
Most of the festivities that day took place downstairs in what is now the children’s department. It wasn’t until 1956 that the library was renovated and the basement was finished, creating the children’s department, but in 1921, it was a very small space used for meetings and staff offices. Historic documents tell us that March 15th was a rainy, cold Tuesday, and the activities that might have taken place outside on a nicer day were instead relegated to the indoors. A short speech was made by William Hamilton, who was then the secretary of the State Library board. We know that the Syracuse High School orchestra played a number, followed by a performance from the Girls Glee Club. It seems several impromptu speeches were made, and there’s even something about a spontaneous violin duet by two of the new patrons. Afterwards, the public was encouraged to go upstairs and take a look at their new library that their funds and tax dollars, along with some help from Andrew Carnegie, had built.
We can catch a few glimpses of how our library was operating through the years. For instance, in an annual report dated August 1st of 1928, we know that there were 1,171 citizens in Syracuse and the library was open 27 hours a week (it was increased to 33 hours a week starting in 1929). There were about 3200 books in the library, including children’s books, and about 14,000 checkout transactions per year. To put that in perspective, currently the Syracuse Public Library has over 55,000 books in its collection and has an average of 87,000 library visits per year.
There have been plenty of physical changes to the library as well. In 1956, the basement of the library was renovated to house the expanding children’s department and also created an enclosed front entrance. Less than a decade later, in 1964, another renovation took place which added space for offices, and also created the lower-level entrance to the children’s department. It was during this renovation that all exterior steps were enclosed, as it was said the steps became slippery in winter weather. It cost $20,000, and was completed in 1965.
In 1990, the biggest renovation yet of the Syracuse Library was undertaken and it is what gave us the library we have today. The renovation of 1990 – 1991 added about six thousand square feet to the library, bringing the total square footage of the library to over ten thousand feet. Along with the front entrance being updated, a vestibule and the elevator were put in, which made the library handicapped accessible. Also, a space was added to house the Syracuse-Wawasee Historical Museum. This museum was moved to the community center several years ago, and the space is now used as the adult fiction section.