Cleveland Public Library

From the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

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The CLEVELAND PUBLIC LIBRARY, the third largest research library in the United States, has provided free public access to books and information since 1869. A school district library, it is governed by a seven-member Board of Trustees appointed for seven-year terms by the Cleveland Board of Education.

Although earlier library service had been offered through the Cleveland Municipal School District’s CENTRAL HIGH SCHOOL, the present library system opened for business on February 17, 1869 in rented quarters located in the Harrington Block on the southwest corner of PUBLIC SQUARE. Luther M. Oviatt was the first librarian.

The Cleveland Public Library’s innovative, service-oriented philosophy was established by the third and fourth librarians, WILLIAM HOWARD BRETT† and LINDA ANNE EASTMAN†, with the support of long-time Library Board president, lawyer JOHN G. WHITE†. Beginning with Brett, the library worked to bring books to the entire community. It offered open access to bookstacks, services to children and youth, extension work in neighborhood branches and school libraries, and library stations in businesses, factories, and hospitals. Through Brett’s persuasion, Andrew Carnegie donated $590,000 for the construction of 15 branch libraries. Service to the blind began in 1903 with a collection of books in Braille. Specialized reference services to business were developed, leading to the establishment of the Business Information Bureau under ROSE VORMELKER† in 1926.

The Main Library occupied several downtown locations prior to the opening of its landmark building at 325 Superior on May 6, 1925. Bond issues financed the building in 1912 and 1921. Cleveland architects WALKER AND WEEKS were selected in a national competition for the Library, which was to conform to the design of the other civic buildings in Daniel Burnham’s group plan for the MALL.

During the Depression, the Library set all-time attendance records with intensive use of all its resources by Cleveland’s unemployed population. The continuous growth of the Main Library reference and research collections filled the building by the late 1940s. In an effort to alleviate space problems, in 1959 the trustees acquired the adjacent PLAIN DEALER building to house the Business and Science Departments. The area between the two buildings, named Eastman Park in 1937 in honor of Linda A. Eastman, was landscaped as an outdoor reading garden under the leadership of board president Marjorie Jamison in 1960.

By the late 1970s, library use had declined and revenues from the state intangibles tax were no longer sufficient to support the extensive network of neighborhood branches. Branch buildings and their collections deteriorated. In 1974 ERVIN J. GAINES† was appointed the eleventh director; he began a reorganization and revitalization of the Library system. Additional funding was secured through a successful city tax levy in 1975, which supported a $20 million building program to upgrade the branches. Eighteen new or remodeled facilities with attractive new book collections opened.

Gaines oversaw the installation of a computerized on-line bibliographic database to replace the card catalog in 1981. Internal systems and procedures were streamlined and an automated circulation system was introduced. This technology was made available to other local libraries. Cleveland Heights-University Heights was the first to join the CLEVNET system. By 2004 more than 31 libraries from nine Ohio counties, as well as 28 Cuyahoga County Public Libraries were members of the network.

Gaines deferred a major renovation of the Main Library building in favor of the branches, but by the late 1980s the physical deterioration of the older Plain Dealer building placed the collections that it housed at risk. In Sept. 1986, Marilyn Gell Mason was named director and immediately began to plan for a complete modernization of the Main Library complex. In 1991 a $90 million bond issue was approved by Cleveland voters for the renovation of the Walker and Weeks building and for the construction of a new annex to be called the East Wing. In an international architectural competition, the New York firm of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer was selected to design the replacement for the Business and Science building. The former Plain Dealer structure was demolished in May and June of 1994. The completed Louis Stokes Wing, named in honor of Ohio’s first African-American U.S. Congressperson, was dedicated on April 12, 1997, and included 11 floors totalling 267,000 square feet and more than 30 miles of book shelves for a capacity of 1.3 million books.

Director Mason accelerated the library’s technological innovations with the introduction in 1988 of remote access to the library’s catalog through the Cleveland Public Electronic Library from personal computers in homes and offices.

After 12 years, Mason left her post in 1999. Andrew A. Venable, Jr., who had served as deputy director under Mason for three years, became director in June of the same year. Venable remained committed to technology, making the Cleveland Public Library a national leader in web-based services. In addition to on-line resources such as KnowItNow24X7 and Seniors Connect, the institution was the first public library in the United States to offer eBooks, which are electronic books that can be downloaded on to a laptop or PDA for a set period of time. Venable also remained committed to giving people access to the printed word; in 2001, after a 15-year hiatus, the Library re-launched mobile services with a new, high-tech, handicapped accessible mobile library unit. By 2004, the Mobile Library served 43 different locations, including The City Mission, Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital for Rehabilitation, Karamu House, and the Miles Avenue YMCA after-school program.

Cramer, C. H. Open Shelves and Open Minds: A History of the Cleveland Public Library (1972).

Wood, James M. One Hundred and Twenty-Five, 1869-1994: A Celebration of the Cleveland Public Library (1994).

Cleveland Public Library. Annual Reports (2001, 2002, 2003)



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