“From coast to coast, elementary and high school libraries are being neglected, defunded, repurposed, abandoned, and closed.” This is the first line of a 2015 article that documents a situation which can only have deteriorated during the last four years. Remember, we were still in the midst of a political campaign then that has brought us to the brink of a new Dark Age. If that seems pessimistic, you haven’t been paying attention.
I prefer the view of Jorge Luis Borges — someone probably from one of those “shit-hole countries”, so pay him no heed — who said, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library,” but he continued, expansively: “Time is the substance from which I am made. Time is a river which carries me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire.” Eat your heart out, Herakleitos.
At odd moments during the last two years, I’ve wondered [as someone educated to be an architect but who never followed through, for obvious reasons] about the Donald John Trump Presidential Library. Where will it be located, do you imagine? Who will be its architect? That is, who will have the cojones (or lack of good judgment) to even seek the commission, let along have their name and repute linked with it for all time? Putting all that aside, if you can, try to form in your mind’s eye an image of the completed building; I’ve tried and have only a migraine for my trouble. It is even more frustratingly amusing to conceive its contents. I briefly considered developing a studio design project for the DJTPL but realized it would be the end of my so-called career in higher education. These are perilous times to have socio-cultural views measurably left of center — especially when you are suckling at the Public Teat.
If you fear an ongoing treatise on the decline of American culture, rest easy: This is merely the politically-loaded introduction to some thoughts on the origins of the Agincourt Public Library.
“A room without books is like a body without a soul.”
America’s public library movement during the 19th century had its roots in New England about 1850. Earlier libraries were “social”, joint stock companies providing access to those who could afford a membership. Libraries supported by taxation, and thereby accessible to the public at large, began in 1849 in New Hampshire and spread rapidly westward. It was Pittsburgh industrialist Andrew Carnegie’s influence, however, between 1880 and 1920 that shaped the library networks we enjoy today.
Efforts toward a public library in Agincourt date to about 1880; prior to that time there were small lending libraries in churches (the Methodists and Episcopalians primarily). Planning for a new county courthouse begun in 1886 — the earlier stately Italianate courthouse was wooden and had long since been outgrown — afforded inclusion of a library room (at county expense) which would be centrally situated. It would be readily accessible during normal business hours and some evenings by arrangement with the Ladies Literary Society. Indeed, the new courthouse, dedicated in 1889, evolved into a genuine cultural center: courtrooms were used for lectures and recitals (and the occasional religious service); the northwest corner room was dedicated to the G.A.R. (a gathering place for Civil War veterans to reminisce while their numbers dwindled); and the newly-formed library collection. So, beyond its use for civic business and law enforcement, the second courthouse welcomed a broad audience of adults and children before the suffrage movement and while Victorian norms consigned children to the home and the care of mothers, older sisters, and maiden aunts.
Like the Community Collection of art, which originated there (in 1912 in the increasingly ceremonial G.A.R. Hall), the library collection began in much the same way: with no formal organization or source of financial support, the shelves filled slowly from family donations and the occasional business. Newspaper and periodical subscriptions were divided among a core of contributing families; books arrived from overcrowded shelves at home, for the first dozen years or so. The library functioned this way, informally, for almost twenty years. But my 1910, still in the early years of “library science”, the growing collection required an orderly system of shelving and circulation other than the honor system. A trained librarian was sought.
At about the same time, the first “library board” was established, in a loose affiliation with the city council, and discussions began in earnest for a free-standing, self-sustaining library on another central site. Several were suggested, but none had suitable “prominence”, and those that did were beyond the budget — until the tragic Masonic Lodge fire of New Year’s Eve 1911. Before the smoldering ruins cooled, what may have been the ideal site was suddenly open, a gift from the A.F. & A.M. Lodge “…in the interest of Civic Virtue.”
The next installment of the story will outline the planning process for the new library: developing a professional program within budgetary constraints; interviewing architects; and the actual construction process which yielded the building we enjoyed for fifty-five years.