Celebrating a century: 100 years later, library still focused on providing resources

In a small second-story room in Greenwood, the town’s first public library came together book by book.

Members of the Greenwood community had donated the books, donated to form the first collection of the newly formed library. Titles included “The Arabian Nights,” a biography of Andrew Jackson and “The Fifth String” by composer John Philip Sousa.

Two copies of Ian MacLaren’s collection of stories “Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush” had been given.

In the end, 33 books were arranged neatly on a shelf.

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“It’s always been a community effort, all the way from the very beginning. I’ve always felt that it’s been the community that pushed,” said Cheryl Dobbs, library director.

Much has changed in 100 years. The library’s collection now has more than 130,000 books, e-books and DVDs, among other materials. More than 200,000 people use the library each year, borrowing materials, using the library’s 49 public computers and taking part in the programs planned throughout the week.

The Greenwood Public Library has become an integral hub of community activity. Parents bring their young children to storytime, teens gather after school for video game tournaments and anime events, and people take part workshops on everything from ukulele to culinary dishes inspired by works of literature.

“We want to actively enrich lives, promote discovery and foster personal growth. You can get any of those things here. People come for different reasons, and people come at different times in their lives for different reasons,” said Jane Weisenbach, director of development at the library.

To recognize its history, as well as to look towards the future, the library will celebrate its 100th anniversary Monday with a public party featuring guest speakers, snacks and surprises.

Mayor Mark Myers will offer a proclamation honoring the library, and Jacob Speer, the Indiana state librarian, will make a presentation as well.

Children involved in the library’s storytime program will perform a special birthday song. Former employees and volunteers will mingle with people who started going to the library as children and have continued on as adults.

Library staff have also put together an exhibit telling the history of the library.

All 33 of the original titles in the library collection have been acquired or borrowed, and are set up as they would have been in 1917.

“We’ve recreated that collection by buying those exact books on eBay, so it’s been fun finding all of those,” Dobbs said.

Photos show the library buildings over the past century, and personal accounts of what the library meant to them are recreated on placards mounted on the wall. The writings of important leaders such as longtime director Hazel Wishard and library backer Harold Toombs show the dedication people had to the library.

On one placard is a short poem written by Toombs. The poem, which was presented during the 75th anniversary celebration in 1992, speaks to the difficult path taken to form the library.

There had been a longtime dream.

Dreams to make it true had failed

Until seven leaders formed a team

That, against great odds, prevailed.

Efforts to create a permanent Greenwood library had been percolating since the mid-1800s. A school library had been created at Greenwood High School in 1874, but it was not open to the public. A traveling program started by the Indiana State Library brought books to the town, and eventually the state library set up a collection at the high school for people to borrow items.

Local residents wanted a separate public library of their own, Dobbs said.

A committee was formed to apply for and construct a library through the Carnegie Foundation, which provided grants to communities for library buildings. The foundation approved the town’s proposal in 1914.

“Then there was the fight about where to put the building. They couldn’t agree and there was a huge fight, and Carnegie said forget about it. So we lost our Carnegie library,” Dobbs said.

Though discouraged by the setback, supporters didn’t give up fighting for their own town library. In 1915, a board was created to oversee the library, a petition circulated among the community to establish the organization and a space was rented in Cook’s Hall, a building on Main Street.

On Feb. 6, 1917, when the library was supposed to open, 100 books from the state library had not yet arrived. So leaders asked for help from the community to donate used books.

“In doing all of this research, what stands out is how tough it was to get going. You have these different individuals from all different walks of life, who have their own opinions about how this should happen, and they finally persevered,” Dobbs said. “They wouldn’t be stopped.”

Growth at the library was rapid. The organization moved into the newly created Community Building, built using $75,000 left to the city by industrialist J.T. Polk, in 1920. For the next 43 years, it stayed there until it was “busting at the seams,” Dobbs said.

“They were really dedicated in collecting resources. By the time we moved, we had about 15,000 books in 1,100 square feet of space, so that was a lot,” she said.

When a brand new library building opened in 1963, at the site of the current library, local Boy Scouts and parents driving station wagons moved the collection into the space. As Greenwood grew, the library building expanded with construction projects in 1974, 1991 and 2001.

Now at more than 51,000 square feet, the library has adapted to meet the changing needs of the people who use it. Programs are planned not only to encourage reading, but to give people tutorials on everything from computer literacy to preparing your own taxes to lawn care.

A Teen Room has become a unique space tailored solely for young people to socialize, learn and just hang out.

Computers are a vital tool for people searching for jobs, doing research or simply hoping to communicate with others. When Dobbs arrived in 2004, the library only had four computers, and only two were connected to the Internet. Now, 49 machines with web access are available.

E-books are increasingly popular, and the library’s collection of 30,777 titles is utilized more every year.

“Technology has just expanded what we’re able to do,” Dobbs said. “Just like you used to have paperbacks and hardbacks, or cassettes and books, it’s continued to expand. People can read however they’re reading.”

In doing their research for the anniversary, library officials have uncovered wise words with which to view the future. Wishard, who served as library director from 1928 and 1956, is quoted as saying, “Any library that wants to last can never sit still.”

Officials will continue to adapt to the needs of the community and provide the materials that people are interested in, including growing its book collection. The emphasis on reading, and its importance in people’s lives, will only increase, Dobbs said.

“It looks so different, but the library hasn’t changed at all. What Carnegie envisioned, that having access to resources and information allowed the common man to elevate himself and educated himself to benefit the whole community, it still true. And that still happens,” she said.

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Timeline of Greenwood Public Library history

1874: The first school library in Greenwood is created inside the town’s high school. The library was used by students, but not the public.

1894: A subscription-based library was founded at the Polk Canning Factory, where people could pay $1 per year to borrow books. The library was not very popular and discontinued in 1896.

1906: A civic committee was formed to work on creating a site for a Greenwood Public Library to be built by the Carnegie Foundation, which provided funds for community libraries.

1914: The Carnegie Foundation approved Greenwood for a library grant. Disagreements over the location of the proposed library led to the grant being taken away.

1917: The Greenwood community decided to elect a library board of trustees. The board voted to rent space in the upstairs of Cook’s Hall for the library, which opened on Feb. 6

1920: The Greenwood Public Library was moved to the new Community House, built using $75,000 that J.T. Polk left the city of Greenwood.

1963: Constant growth forced the library board to construct a new building, located at Old City Park at a cost of $119,030.

1974: To meet the demands of the community, the library building is expanded by 21,500 square feet, adding meeting rooms on the ground floor and installing an elevator.

1991: A second renovation and expansion of the library is finished, adding a dedicated 5,500 square-foot children’s area, individual and group study rooms and room to house 100,000 more books.

2001: Construction begins on a 20,000 square foot expansion project. It allowed for increased room for the collection, public computers and enlarged community rooms.

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Greenwood Public Library 100th Anniversary

When: 6:30 p.m. Monday

Where: 310 S. Meridian St., Greenwood

What: A celebration of the founding of the Greenwood Public Library on Feb. 6, 1917. Organizers have lined up guest speakers, light refreshments and some surprises for guests who attend.