I heard that the CEO of the Indianapolis Public Library was conducting tours of IPL facilities all around the city. I’m curious to know when Indianapolis first opened a public library and where the early library branches were located. ~ David B., Indianapolis
Within a few years after Indianapolis was founded, libraries began to be established in various locations around town. However, their collections were limited in subject matter and availability. The Indiana Law Library and the Indianapolis Bar Association Library contained legal volumes. The Indiana Medical Society’s books pertained to medicine. Many churches had libraries, but their materials were mostly religious in content and were available only to members of their own congregations. The Young Men’s Christian Association Reading Room also had books that were religiously oriented. The State Library had a wider collection than most of the other libraries, but its original mission was to support the work of state government officials. The few libraries that offered a broader range of subjects — like novels, poetry, philosophy, and pamphlets — were private subscription libraries. Because their revenues were not consistent, and because their hours of operation were erratic, these libraries were generally short-lived.
It wasn’t until after the Civil War that citizens began to lobby for a public library that would be funded by tax dollars and available to all citizens at no charge. In 1868, Reverend Hanford A. Edson (1837-1920) of the Memorial Presbyterian Church (now known as the Second Presbyterian Church) preached a sermon on the Sunday after Thanksgiving in which he made an impassioned plea for a public library. His enthusiastic support of the value of reading and related intellectual pursuits inspired a group of citizens to form the Indianapolis Library Association. Its members turned over their own personal collections of books to start a public library. The group held meetings to determine a course of action that would lead to the ongoing funding of a public library for all of the city’s residents. The association met in the Vinton Block, a popular mixed-use building on the southwest corner of Market and Pennsylvania Streets. Today, 50 N. Pennsylvania Street is the site of an 8-story parking garage.
The first Superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools, Abraham Crum Shortridge (1833-1919), was eager to take up the cause, as well. Shortridge felt that free public libraries went hand-in-hand with free public schools. In 1870, Shortridge worked with the members of the Indianapolis Library Association to draft a bill to present to the next session of the Indiana State legislature. It passed! So that the funds could be provided from taxes already being collected for educational purposes, the library was placed under the jurisdiction of the Indianapolis School Board.
Superintendent Shortridge had recently succeeded in acquiring the former Baptist Female Seminary on the northeast corner of Michigan and Pennsylvania Streets. That structure was about to become the new home of Indianapolis High School, which had outgrown it first location in Circle Hall on Monument Circle. Shortridge happily designated a portion of the high school building to house the new Indianapolis Public Library. Today, the former site of Indianapolis’ first public library is the location of the Minton-Capehart Federal Building.
The Indianapolis Public Library opened its doors to the public on April 8, 1873, with about 12,000 volumes. The library was open every day from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., including Saturday and Sunday. The first librarian was named Charles Evans. He enjoyed a long and highly respected career in library work.
The public library was a huge success. In its first full year of operation, more than 3,000 patrons borrowed more than 100,000 books during that twelve-month period.
Donations of books to the library, as well as purchases of books by the Indianapolis School Board, resulted in the need for a larger facility. From 1876 to 1884, the Indianapolis Public Library was located on the southwest corner of Monument Circle and Meridian Street. No photo of that building could be found. In 1923, the 9-story Guaranty Building was constructed at 20 North Meridian Street, which survives today.
From 1884 to 1893, the library was located on the southwest corner of Ohio and Pennsylvania Streets. The original building on the lot was a 3-story residence built in the 1840s by Elijah S. Alvord, owner of several stagecoach lines headquartered in Indianapolis. Alvord had sold his home of several decades and moved to Washington, D.C. The Indianapolis School Commissioners arranged a ten-year option on the property with its new owner, Edward F. Claypool (1832-1911). The School Commissioners occupied the former Alvord residence, and the Indianapolis Public Library occupied two newer buildings that had been added on to the home. When the 10-year option period expired, IPS declined to exercise it and instead built a new building one block west of it. In 1901, the structures on this corner were replaced by the 7-story Newton Claypool Building. Newton Claypool was Edward’s son. In 1990, the Newton Claypool Building was replaced by a portion of Chase Tower, now the tallest building in Indiana.
In 1893, the new home for both the Indianapolis Public Library and the Indianapolis Public Schools was erected on the southwest corner of Ohio and Meridian Streets. Although the Central Library eventually moved one last time, the building at 150 North Meridian Street remained the headquarters of the Indianapolis Public Schools until 1967. When the present IPS Education Center was erected at 120 East Walnut Street, the property at Ohio and Meridian was replaced with a Hilton Hotel. Today, it operates as a Sheraton Hotel.
In 1917, the original portion of the Indianapolis Public Library was constructed on the north side of East St. Clair Street, between Meridian and Pennsylvania Streets. An interesting fact is that a sizable portion of the land on which the library was built was donated to the Indianapolis School Board by James Whitcomb Riley in 1911, five years before his death. It was his desire to distribute his wealth while he was still alive, so that he could see the benefits of his gift while he was living. Riley owned three adjacent lots on the west side of Pennsylvania Street, beginning at the corner of East St. Clair Street. They were valued at $75,000 in 1911. That amount is equivalent to almost $2,000,000 today.
Branch libraries were established under the administration of Eliza G. Browning (1856-1927). In 1896, four branches were opened in rented spaces in commercial buildings. The concept of branch libraries was not readily supported by everyone in the community, due to the their expense, but Eliza Browning was nonetheless determined to put libraries in the neighborhoods. In 1906, the first freestanding library branch was built with local funds at 3101 North Clifton Street. Branch Library #1 was also called the Riverside Branch.
In 1907, the Indianapolis Board of School Commissioners entered into negotiations with Andrew Carnegie to fund additional library branches. In 1909, Carnegie finally came through with $120,000 for the construction of six IPL branches. Ultimately, only five libraries were built.
The neighborhood libraries soon became not only educational centers, but social centers, as well. Children met there to do their homework and to connect with their friends. Neighborhood organizations often used a room in the library for meetings.
By 1917, there were twelve branch libraries and several delivery stations in the Indianapolis Public Library system.
A few of the early branch library buildings are still standing today, but not all of them still function as libraries. Branches #1 and #2 remain but are no longer libraries. Branches #4 and #6 remain and still operate as libraries. Sadly, Branches #4 and #5 have been demolished — the former to make way for Interstate 70 and the latter for the construction of the Mary Rigg Neighborhood Center.
There is much more history to be told about the Indianapolis Public Library, after its relocation to 40 East St. Clair Street in 1917. Next year will mark the library’s 100th year in its present location. As the reader’s question asked about the library system’s early years, that was the focus of this report. The last century of the library’s history may be a topic for a future article.
If you have a question about Indianapolis history, please send it to historicindianapolis(at)yahoo(dot)com, with “HI Mailbag” in the subject line. We will do our best to answer it. Sponsors and Subscribers are given preference for extensive research on specific properties or specific families featured in HI Mailbag articles. ~ Sharon
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