Our public library by the numbers

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 29, 2008

By Ed Shannon, staff writer

Albert Lea&8217;s first attempt to have a public library took place on March 27, 1873. This was five years before the city was incorporated.

The prime organizer of this library was a pioneer merchant, civic promoter and banker named Francis (Frank) Hall, who later became the city&8217;s first mayor.

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This first library was located above the post office in a building on East Clark Street. After about a year interest with a venture in recreational and educational reading faded and the first of three attempts to organize a local library ended.

On Feb. 11, 1897, a group of women organized a library association. Thus, the city&8217;s second library opened in May 1897 as a reading room in a residence near the corner of North Broadway Avenue and Water Street. This would be the second of five locations to be used for a library through the years.

That particular library started with 50 books and subscriptions to four newspapers and two magazines. Membership cost a dollar a year and the library was only open on Saturday afternoons and evenings.

In the fall of 1899 Clint Luce, editor of the Albert Lea Enterprise weekly newspaper, suggested that a special election be held to authorize a tax levy to create a free public library. What may have provided the winning margin in this election was allowing local women to vote for the first time. The city&8217;s present public library system started with a relocation to the Enterprise building and an expansion of hours to two afternoons and evenings a week.

A second local newspaper man led the movement to have the city&8217;s library located in its own building. He was Harwood Galusha Day, an attorney and editor-publisher of the Freeborn County Standard weekly newspaper.

In 1902 the logical place to find funds to finance a new library building was to contact Andrew Carnegie. This Scottish immigrant had made a real fortune in the steel business. Starting in 1883, he began to pay for the building of library buildings all over the nation, plus Great Britain and Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Serbia, the Caribbean regions and even Fiji.

A local committee contacted Carnegie by mail to ask for a grant to build a new library structure. However, this was just one of a multitude of requests for funds. What really resulted in the creation of Albert Lea&8217;s Carnegie Library came when Day went to New York City at his own expense to personally visit Carnegie.

As a result of this visit, Carnegie made an initial grant of $12,000 in 1903. (There&8217;s also an indication that an added $1,000 was allocated later for the Albert Lea library construction project.)

Yet, there were several conditions to be met before these funds could actually be provided. One, there had to be a proven need for a public library. Second, the city would have to provide the land for the building site. And, third, the city would have to appropriate at least 10 percent of the construction cost yearly to operate the library.

The first condition was easily met because the city&8217;s library in 1903 needed much more space for future expansion. Property at the corner of South Washington Avenue and West College Street was purchased at a cost of $3,000. Of this amount, the city paid $1,300 and the remainder was raised with a local fund drive. And the city met the third condition with Carnegie by providing

an annual one mill tax levy which provided $2,000 for the first year&8217;s operations at the new library.

From 1883 to 1929, Carnegie provided funds for 1,689 library buildings in the United States. Of this number, 64 were built in Minnesota. This state was also eighth in the ranking for those new buildings. Some of those buildings had the Carnegie name and others didn&8217;t. Carnegie seemed to be indifferent to this added feature. The new building in Albert Lea had the wording Carnegie Library under the arch over the entry and AD 1903 to denote the year construction started.

The two-story brick and stone building which evolved at the corner location had one feature Carnegie stressed. Each library was supposed to have a prominent doorway accessed by a stairway. This stairway was intended to show that the person was elevating himself or herself for enlightenment. Thus, when the Albert Lea Public Library opened in April 1904, the building had 16 steps leading up to the front entry.

Hours of operations for this new library were from 2 to 9 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

An important initial donation of 500 books by Rev. George H. Mueller, rector of Albert Lea&8217;s Christ Episcopal Church, helped to fill several library shelves.

This library served the city&8217;s citizens for 64 years. In July 1968 the library was moved to the west side portion of the more modernistic City Center on East Clark Street.

The building at the corner of South Washington Avenue and West College Street was converted into the Senior Citizens Center and a sidewalk-level handicap entry was added on the building&8217;s north side. To avoid causing confusion, the wording of

Carnegie Library was removed from the area above the front entry. Yet, the wording of A.D. 1903 is still in place. In later years the former library was used as an operations center by Americana National Bank, and since August 2007 has been the new location for Minnesota Abstract and Title.