Library a lasting treasure

Register Reporter

Register/Anne Kazmierczak
Iola Public Library Director Roger Cars-well holds a picture of the original Carnegie library building, dedicated in 1906. Made of local concrete to look like stone block, the building was crumbling by 1940 and was replaced with the current library building in 1967.

Iola Public Library Director Roger Carswell spoke to a tiny but receptive crowd Monday night about the library’s history in a sesquicentennial speakers series event.
The library celebrates three anniversaries, Carswell noted: when it first formed as a members only club, when it became a public entity and after it was designated a Carnegie library.
The library formed after a five-year campaign that began in 1879 with an editorial in the Iola Register advocating for the cause, Carswell said. In 1884, the Iola Library Association organized.
Members could join for $1 per year, plus 25 cents quarterly. Non-members checked out books at 10 cents per volume.
The library club established a board which included the first librarian, Nettie Scott, who served until 1888. According to library bylaws, librarians had to be elected by board members, a practice kept in place through the 1930s.
In its first 21 years, the library was housed in four different locations. It wasn’t until the library became a public body that it was given a permanent home.
“By 1904, the limitations of a paid library were becoming apparent,” Carswell said. Containing 2,000 volumes, the collection needed to stop roaming. After voting by the board, the current location, at 218 E. Madison, was selected.
Funds were raised for the library through lawn socials, soap bubble parties, teas and theater presentations, Carswell said.
At the time, industrialist Andrew Carnegie was promoting the establishment of free libraries across the country. Carnegie pledged $15,000 to Iola to build a permanent library building if the city would levy annual taxes for 10 percent of that amount to sustain it.
More than 77 percent of the population voted in favor of the tax, Carswell said.
A structure of local concrete, made to look like stone block, opened in October of 1906. The building contained living quarters for librarian Nanny Armstrong, who was voted by the board to be Iola’s fist public librarian.
It was a good choice, Carswell said.
Armstrong canvassed citizens for donations of money and books, garnering $225 plus more than 1,000 volumes for the new shelves. Citizens were allowed to check out two books per day, “providing at least one of them was non-fiction,” Carswell said. That requirement was dropped during the Depression, when library use surged, he said. However, the original checkout period of two weeks per book, or one week for new fiction, was not changed until 2008.
The impact of a particular librarian was again felt strongly in the hiring of Luella Varner in 1927.
Library historian Lewis Henry Wishard wrote in 1929 that “never before has Iola had a librarian ... like the present one ... Children now come to the library because they love her, and older people come because they know they will be greeted with a smile.”
This aspect of the library has not changed, as evidenced by the crowds of youths who flock to the library every afternoon, joining local elders and citizens who also find the halls of the city’s bibliotheca to be a home away from home.
It was during Varner’s reign that the library established children’s programming and a focus on Kansas authors. During the Depression, Varner’s salary was cut 10 percent, to $1,350 per year. At the same time, circulation rose from 30,000 to 45,000 volumes checked out per year.
“Libraries always get busier during times of economic depression, and that certainly holds true here in Iola,” Carswell said. Use settled again during the 1940s, but has been rising since.
“By the 1940s, the library was outgrowing its building and the building was starting to show signs of deterioration,” Carswell said.
Despite that fact, a replacement was not to come for another 20 years.
A series of ads, including one showing librarian Lucile Wagner placing her hand, up past her wrist, in the gap between the library walls and floors, finally led to a bond issue for a new building passing in 1965.
At this same time, the Southeast Kansas Library System was established, Carswell said, and Iola selected as its base. That fact gives Iola’s library an expanded collection — over twice as many volumes as it would have without the system’s presence, Carswell said.
A novel aspect of the library that has remained is that Westerns and mysteries were not housed with the main fiction collection, but given their own shelves, Carswell said. “Those are two categories that are somewhat suspect,” he said of the genres thought to have more entertainment value than literary merit.
Repeating history, the “new” building, built in 1967, proved too small for expanding use.
Two additions were added, one in 1971 and one in 1985. Neither used tax dollars, Carswell said.
The 1985 wing was built primarily to house the SEK Library System’s offices, but now houses the public genealogical collection.
A statement made by Wishard in 1929, “The attendance and use of the library grows with each passing month,” still holds true.
Circulation is currently at 80,000 volumes per year, Carswell said.
To address that growth, the library sought bond funds to expand in 2002.
The issue failed and the library will now use Community Development Block Grant funds plus local matching funds to renovate, but not expand, the current location.
Remodeling should begin in January, 2010, Carswell said, and run through November of next year.