Libraries, Archives and Historical Societies through the 1880s

From the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. Written by Kermit Pike.

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LIBRARIES, ARCHIVES, AND HISTORICAL SOCIETIES In general, the development of libraries, historical agencies, and archives in the WESTERN RESERVE has followed patterns experienced throughout the Old Northwest Territory. There are some differences, in part dictated by location, population trends, wealth, and select creative individuals. During Cleveland’s first 70 years, libraries and historical societies offered few indications of their future national preeminence. The libraries, literary associations, and reading rooms which formed prior to the Civil War were generally organized as stock companies or subscription libraries with membership fees. Hard economic times or lack of interest often contributed to their demise. Only one, the CLEVELAND LIBRARY ASSN. (CLA) (est. 1848), left a lineal descendant that existed in the 1980s.

Of necessity, Cleveland’s early residents focused their energies on surviving the environment and settling the land. Although relatively little is known about their reading ability and habits, it is believed that only a few brought books with them. Reading matter consisted of almanacs, home remedy and legal guides, farming manuals, and, when they could be obtained, newspapers. The first formal attempt to establish a library occurred in 1811, when 16 of Cleveland’s 18 families formed the Cleveland Library Assn. It lasted for approx. 2 years, a victim of the turmoil fomented by the War of 1812. In the 1820s several state and national movements focused, in part, on establishing libraries. Interest in public education was growing. Calvin E. Stowe, Ohio disciple of Horace Mann, crusaded for the establishment of tax-supported schools and public libraries. Beginning in 1826, the American Lyceum Movement supported the development of libraries, in addition to lyceums, to provide intellectual stimulation and improvement through courses based on reading and discussion. Increasing numbers of bookstores handled remedy books, almanacs, political and religious tracts, and, to a lesser extent, literary works. Despite these developments, the growing village of Cleveland took a back seat to 2 neighboring communities in library development. In 1827 the Newburgh Library Society was founded in NEWBURGH, largely through the efforts of Daniel Miles. Members paid an initiation fee and annual dues, until the 1870s when the books were divided up among society members. Charles H. Olmstead had a library of some 500 volumes, which in 1829 he offered to the community of Kingston (later Lenox) if the village would rename itself in honor of his father, Aaron Olmstead, an original shareholder of the CONNECTICUT LAND CO. Although some volumes were lost in transit from the East, the NORTH OLMSTED book collection was probably the largest in Greater Cleveland at that time.

During the 1830s, Cleveland, a booming city due to the opening of the OHIO AND ERIE CANAL, developed a variety of book-oriented associations. Members of the CLEVELAND LYCEUM gathered to hear lectures and exchange books and periodical literature. The Cleveland Library Co. operated for the benefit of its subscribers. Periodicals and newspapers were available to the members of the Cleveland Reading Room Assn., open daily to members. The library of the Young Men’s Literary Assn. consisted of some 800 volumes. AFRICAN AMERICANS, only a small percentage of the city’s population at the time, formed the Colored Men’s Union Society, and could boast of a library of 100 volumes. By 1838 attempts to merge several of these failed; only the Young Men’s Literary Assn. survived the 1840s. In 1848 its members incorporated as the Cleveland Library Assn. Although continuing to sponsor lectures, the association emphasized the collection and dissemination of books for the benefit of its members. Among its leaders were WILLIAM CASE† andCHARLES WHITTLESEY†. Case was also the moving force behind the Arkites, an informal association interested in natural history and collecting specimens, precursor to the CLEVELAND MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY.

Whittlesey was one of the first residents to manifest an interest in collecting and preserving letters, diaries, maps, and other documents of the area’s early settlers. He published many of these documents in his Early History of Cleveland (1867, see HISTORIES OF CLEVELAND). Whittlesey also paid tribute to Judge JOHN BARR†, prominent Cleveland lawyer and jurist and former officer of the Cleveland Lyceum, who had begun collecting reminiscences from early residents of the city in the early 1840s. Barr gathered information relating to the period of exploration and settlement of northeast Ohio and, in 1846, published a short history of Cleveland in Fisher’s National Magazine. Despite these efforts, no established institution as yet intentionally preserved original records or manuscripts. City and county government records were considered the responsibility of officeholders, and libraries in the 1850s continued to focus on printed books and lectures. The collection of the Bethel Reading Room was open to the public 2 evenings a week, and the Mercantile Library Assn. offered a platform for the most prominent public speakers of the day. In 1854 the new YOUNG MEN’S CHRISTIAN ASSN. (YMCA) included a circulating library. Prior to the Civil War, privately funded libraries were gathering places where one could spend an evening discussing current events and issues.

Educators, however, increasingly recognized books as essential in the process of disseminating knowledge. An 1853 state law provided tax funds to purchase books for school libraries. The first major U.S. city to establish a public library was Boston (1852). Fifteen years later, an act of the Ohio legislature empowered local boards of education to establish libraries and supported these institutions from the general property tax. The Cleveland Public School Library, created by this law, did not formally open until 1869, some 16 years before the formation of the New York Public Library. The CLEVELAND PUBLIC LIBRARY‘s early years were characterized by controversy and financial crises; it struggled to define its mission and to gain cooperation from the community and its leaders. The year 1867 also witnessed the creation of the WESTERN RESERVE HISTORICAL SOCIETY (WRHS), then called the Western Reserve and Northern Ohio Historical Society, as a department of the Cleveland Library Assn. Several members of that association wanted to preserve the history of this region, which was undergoing major changes.

The city’s new tax-supported public library did not stop interest groups from sponsoring special libraries to address specific needs. In 1870 the Cleveland Law Library was established to benefit its members and local government officials. Reading rooms were opened as alternatives to saloons by the Women’s Christian Assn. (see YOUNG WOMEN’S CHRISTIAN ASSN. (YWCA)) as part of its program of TEMPERANCE. The CLEVELAND MEDICAL LIBRARY ASSN. was organized in 1894, with the books and journals accumulated by the Cuyahoga County Medical Library as the nucleus of its collection. Although created for the benefit of members, most special libraries made their books accessible to the public. For example, the collections of theROWFANT CLUB (est. 1892), an association of book lovers and collectors, were available to nonmembers by appointment. The libraries of Western Reserve College, which moved to Cleveland from Hudson, OH, in 1882, and the Case School of Applied Science (est. 1881, see CASE WESTERN RESERVE UNIVERSITY), also opened their reading rooms to the public.

The profession of library science considers the formation of the American Library Assn. in 1876 as crucial in its history; in Cleveland, the appointment ofWILLIAM H. BRETT† as Cleveland Public Library director in 1884 was pivotal. Under his 34-year leadership, the library gained national prominence, emphasizing proper training of librarians and easy access to books by the public, including children. This was manifest in the development of a network of branch and school libraries. The application of a decimal classification system permitted better control of a growing collection, which by 1900 consisted of more than 100,000 volumes and annually circulated more than 600,000 items. At century’s end, the library, although seriously overcrowded, was poised for even more dramatic growth.

During its first 3 decades, the WRHS had accumulated significant collections of books, manuscripts, newspapers, and maps documenting the early history and settlement of northern Ohio. In 1892 the society ceased operating as a branch of the Cleveland Library Assn. and received a charter from the State of Ohio. In 1898 it exchanged its quarters on PUBLIC SQUARE for a new building on EUCLID AVE.. at the western border of UNIVERSITY CIRCLELike the public library, the WRHS was positioned to play an expanding role.

As was common elsewhere in the nation, an important aspect of local history was still being ignored: no effective plan had yet developed to preserve local government records. As early as 1836, CLEVELAND CITY COUNCIL had appointed a committee to obtain records from the former trustees of the Village of Cleveland. Periodically thereafter, city officials bemoaned the lack of adequate storage facilities, and city records continued to be the responsibility of department heads. In 1876 CLEVELAND CITY HALL moved to the Case Bldg., where a fireproof vault provided temporary protection for some city archives.

The first quarter of the 20th century witnessed substantial growth and innovation for Cleveland libraries. Andrew Carnegie, relenting to years of solicitation by Brett, in 1904 provided a $100,000 endowment to initiate the 4th school of library science in the U.S. at Western Reserve Univ. Several municipalities opened public libraries, including WHITE MOTOR CORP.) (1918), the CLEVELAND CLINIC FOUNDATION (1921), and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (1921), among numerous other corporations, schools, and medical and educational institutions. Nationally, in response to this rapid growth, the Special Libraries Assn. was founded in 1909. By 1925 its U.S. directory listed 975 special libraries. Ohio ranked 6th among the states with 54 such libraries, 17 of which were in Cleveland. Despite the increasing number of libraries in Cuyahoga County, however, not all communities were served. In 1922, a year after Ohio law authorized the formation of county library systems, Cuyahoga County residents voted approval to the first such system in the state. Until 1942, the CUYAHOGA COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRARY SYSTEM (CCPL) had its headquarters in the Cleveland Public Library building.

In 1916 Cleveland’s government offices moved into the new city hall, on the MALL, with spacious quarters allotted for records storage. In less than 2 decades, however, expanding staff levels relegated the records to the subbasement. The Cleveland Public Library also welcomed its new Mall building, which opened in 1925. With shelving capacity for 2 million books, many separate reading rooms, and a variety of provisions for special collections, the blind, and children, the magnificent building was, among other things, a manifestation of the high esteem in which the library was held, both locally and nationally. While Brett, his successor, LINDA EASTMAN†, and board president JOHN G. WHITE† led this library during its most expansive era,WALLACE H. CATHCART†, WRHS director, and WILLIAM P. PALMER†, president, greatly enhanced the society’s holdings and reputation during the 1910s and 1920s. The collections amassed and those solicited from wealthy Clevelanders provided a substantial basis for future library and archival programs.

During the Depression, most of the city’s libraries and cultural institutions suffered serious reductions in financial support and staffing. In 1933 the source of funds for Ohio’s public libraries changed from the property tax to the newly created intangible property tax. However, revenues remained low in the face of increasing costs. Nevertheless, the Cleveland Public Library, with 69 branches and a 2-million-volume collection, continued to lead the nation in per capita circulation. One highlight during these otherwise bleak years was the “discovery” of the records of the CLEVELAND CITY GOVERNMENT and theCUYAHOGA COUNTY GOVERNMENT. Under the sponsorship of the public library, in 1935 Works Progress Administration employees began to inventory the records of Cuyahoga County as part of a statewide project. The inventories were condensed and published in 1937 in 2 volumes, which also contained a recommendation for the establishment of a central department of records to assure their preservation and accessibility. Unfortunately, nearly 4 decades passed before the county government moved in this direction. A similar program was undertaken for the state’s municipalities by the Historical Records Survey program of the WPA. The inventories of Cleveland’s records were issued in 5 volumes between 1939-42. Workers found many records in poor storage conditions; City Hall lacked sufficient space for the old records, let alone for records being created by a city whose population was approaching 1 million. In 1941, in one small step, a local ordinance required that copies of every printed city report and document be deposited in the Municipal Reference Library, a branch of the Cleveland Public Library at City Hall. No provisions were made for the voluminous unpublished records basic to the city’s operation, and invaluable to historical research. Beginning in the 1970s, certain city records, particularly the surviving office files of mayors back toTOM L. JOHNSON†, were transferred to the WRHS. In 1978 a city council ordinance created a city records commission to review records disposal.

The post-World War II years saw a substantial increase in the number of local historical agencies, especially in the SUBURBS. The following historical societies were established: CHAGRIN FALLS HISTORICAL SOCIETY (1946), SHAKER HISTORICAL SOCIETY (1947), LAKEWOOD HISTORICAL SOCIETY (1952), BEDFORD HISTORICAL SOCIETY (1955), BAY VILLAGE HISTORICAL SOCIETY (1960) and the SOLON HISTORICAL SOCIETY (1968), as well as societies in BRECKSVILLE (1944), GATES MILLS (1948), EUCLID (1958), STRONGSVILLE (1964), and ROCKY RIVER (1968), among others. Beginning in the late 1960s, the WRHS expanded its collecting policy to include urban, black, ethnic, Jewish, architectural, and labor history. In 1959 a state law gave the Ohio Historical Society the responsibility for administering the records of Ohio’s counties and municipalities, but the state did not provide necessary funding until 1974. Field representatives began working in each of the 8 regions defined by the Ohio Network of American Research Centers, created in 1970 to provide a framework for the record and manuscript preservation. In 1975 Cuyahoga County formed its own archives department (see CUYAHOGA COUNTY ARCHIVES).

The 111 manuscript repositories and institutional archives listed in Cuyahoga County by the Society of Ohio Archivists in 1974 ranged from colleges and museums to banks, churches, businesses, newspapers, and professional associations. In the 1960s genealogy became fashionable nationally, increasing the use of local, as well as federal government, records. The Ohio Genealogical Society, with 6 chapters in the Greater Cleveland area by 1983, was founded in 1959.

Cleveland’s population decline and racial strife in the mid-1960s affected its libraries. For example, the Cleveland Public Library closed some little-used branches and reduced professional staff. Of all the steps taken to streamline and modernize library operations, none was more profound than automation. In 1980 the Cleveland Public Library implemented a systemwide, on-line computerized catalog, one of the first major public libraries in the U.S. to do so. By late 1983, patrons and staff could access the 975,000 computerized records (entered at a cost of approx. $4 million) via terminals at the main library and the 31 neighborhood branches. By 1985 several other library systems, including those in Cleveland Hts.-Univ. Hts., SHAKER HEIGHTS, Euclid, Willoughby-Eastlake, and in Lorain, Medina, and Wayne counties, had tied into Cleveland Public Library’s on-line service, while the Cuyahoga County Public Library and local university libraries developed their own databases.

The growth of competing library systems in the Greater Cleveland area resulted in duplication of services, as well as increased competition for tax support. The Library Council of Greater Cleveland, founded in 1969 and composed of directors of 16 library systems, explored potential areas of cooperation. In 1975 the Cleveland Area Metropolitan Library System (see CAMLS), an agency that included 43 member institutions with 131 outlets and combined holdings of 7.4 million volumes in 1986, was established to facilitate such cooperation. Since the 1940s, institutional studies, community leaders, and some library officials have periodically called for consolidation of Cuyahoga County’s library systems. By 1952 5 suburban systems had merged with the county library system, but 9 still operated independently. Competition for the intangible property tax was heated and, after 1984, for the income tax proceeds that replaced the intangibles tax as the principal source of library funding. Into the mid-1980s, the Cuyahoga County Public Library, emphasizing its larger geographic area and population base, clung to its autonomy, as did the Cleveland Public Library. The failure to effect a merger, however, does not diminish the fact that residents of the Greater Cleveland area have access to a plethora of excellent library institutions and comprehensive collections for recreational and scholarly purposes.

Kermit Pike

Western Reserve Historical Society


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