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The public library in America and Agincourt in particular…

The United States invented the free public library system. During the 19th century, America set the pattern for public education in many respects: public schools were an important part of westward expansion and an integral aspect of the Northwest Ordinance. Publicly-supported libraries followed close behind, first in New England and then transplanted wherever Yankees took themselves. Ken Breisch has a recent book on the architectural history of America’s libraries, but my favorite introduction to the Carnegie phenomenon was written in 1969 by George Bobinski. It might still be on your own library’s shelves.

The impulse to improve the general level of public education—for K-through-12 children and out-of-school adults—would have arrived in Agincourt with its first settlers, most of them coming from the Mid-Atlantic states through the Ohio River valley. There was no question that Agincourt’s townsite would have provided multiple sites for public schools; if there was debate, it was where, not whether, to build them. A library would have soon followed, though its setting might have varied: sponsorship by a fraternal organization (the Masons, for example), a denomination (very often Methodist), the public school system or the municipality itself. For Agincourt, I can tell you this:

  • The 1888-1889 Fennimore County Court House included a room for the public library, though I suspect it existed somewhere else prior to that building.
  • The library functioned there for thirteen years until a fire at the Masonic Lodge cleared a downtown site and encouraged the community to consider a free-standing structure.
  • The competition of 1914 drew entries from as far away as Omaha, Chicago and Minneapolis.
  • Local son Anson Curtiss Tennant won that blind competition and designed the new library that still stands at the northwest corner of Broad and Agincourt, though the library function itself has migrated to a 1970s building near the Catholic church and now serves a county-wide audience.
  • The library of 1914-1915 has been adaptively used as the law offices of Scanlon, Klein & Coomaraswamy, LLP.

As budget cuts affect all of us in local government, I wonder how the library is faring.

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