Bring in the Books

By 1884, Willard Library, at a construction cost of $60,000, was nearly ready to open. It was time to stock the shelves with books.

The purchase of new volumes for the Library was personally overseen by Samuel Bayard, who traveled to Cincinnati for that purpose. Alongside the newly purchased volumes, most of the first 10,000 books to grace the shelves were hand-me-downs from the Evansville Library Association and the Public Library of Evansville.

The first librarians at Willard Library, Otilda Goslee and Lou Scantlin, had been employees at the Public Library of Evansville.

Opening ceremonies were scheduled for March 28, 1885, and a public invitation ran in the morning Courier that day:

“A cordial invitation to the public is extended, and as the library is for the masses, rich and poor alike, the capacity of the house ought to be fully tested…. The members of the board desire it to be distinctly understood that all citizens are cordially invited to attend the opening ceremonies and that they will be heartily welcomed.”

The Courier article also contained a detailed description of the interior of the Library—since most onlookers would have been familiar with the exterior that had been under construction in plain view for some time. The article contained a characterization of the books, as well.

“On entering from the wide stone stairway into the vestibule the unique patterned tile flooring attracts the eye at once. To the left is the spacious library room, which, with its handsome tile flooring, heavy oak finished woodwork and corniced ceiling, does full justice to the outer appearance of the building. Behind a railing reaching across the room are ranged the book shelves substantially filled with mental food of so varied an order and supply to meet the wants of ‘all sorts and conditions of men.’

“The books represent a judicious and careful selection, and it is observable from the well-worn and used condition of those of a solid nature that the study of the sciences, philosophy, history and the arts here is extensive. Of light fiction the number of books is very meagre, and this fact has caused not a little complaint, but it has been the means of elevating the taste of not a few to a liking for standard novels, with which the library is well stocked, and even to heavier reading.

“The office room on this floor is furnished in the same excellent manner as its surroundings. From the vestibule the broad heavy balustrade staircase leads to a large room above corresponding with the library room below. It is proposed to make this the reading room. Instead of plate glass, as in the library room, the windows here are ornamented stained glass. In one corner is a room corresponding with the office down stairs, and which has been engaged by the Ladies’ Literary club, which has furnished it with exquisite taste.”

On opening day, the Library had been decorated to receive its public for the first time. An orchestra was prepared to play. Addresses were scheduled to be delivered by prominent citizens and members of the board of trustees. And the weather was dreadful.

Although the crowd size was no doubt diminished by the elements, the opening went on, as scheduled, on March 28, 1885.

Just two days later, on March 30, patrons began checking out books. In a two-day period, 98 people registered as patrons. In that day, to be issued a library card, one needed a co-signer who would vouch for the character of the cardholder.

Source: “Where There’s a Willard: The First 100 Years of the Willard Library of Evansville, Indiana.” Copyright 1986, Friends of Willard Library, Inc.