A library, to modify the famous metaphor of Socrates, should be the delivery room for the birth of ideas -- a place where history comes to life.

- Norman Cousins

History of Our Library

[The following article, written for The Times News by Cassandra Kane, appeared in the paper on April 3, 2009.]

Seventy-five years ago this May, a 24-year-old schoolteacher with a passion for books and education discovered dreams can indeed become reality. 

In the cold cement basement of the former Masonic Building at West Broad and Nescopec Streets in Tamaqua, Kathryn "Kit" Schaeffer arranged donated books on shelves built in kind by a local lumberman. She beheld in front of her the library, although a bit smaller than desired, she had envisioned for many years.

A few hours later, the Tamaqua Public Library opened its doors for the first time, a product of a group of citizens who recognized the value and importance of establishing a public library for the flourishing town. At a meeting in the Junior High School on May 8, 1934, the Tamaqua Library Association laid the foundation to provide books and other services free to the community, and above all, to foster literacy and civic engagement. Although the Tamaqua Public Library has undergone five relocations, numerous transitions of board presidents and library directors and the advent of technology, the avid spirit of those first library pioneers endures 75 years later.

The Early Years

The Tamaqua Public Library was founded near the end of the Great Depression, an era that revealed all too well the need for a venue to provide free books, newspapers and a place for neighbors to meet and discuss life's hardships and world events. With funds secured from the Works Project Administration--one of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's legendary "alphabet soup" programs in the New Deal--and 50 books from the Extension Division of the State Library, Schaeffer, who later became Mrs. H. James Moyer, stepped into her role as the first librarian. Not deterred by the confined space of the Masonic basement, she received help from neighborhood boys Russel Kellner, Charlie Jeronis, Bobby Gallagher and Charlie Smith arranging furniture loaned by the Old Post Office. As a reward for their assistance, the young men became the first library members. Meanwhile, members of the Girl Reserves canvassed houses, collecting books, magazines, newspapers and other materials to enhance the library's humble collection.

The Rev. William E. Myers, pastor of the First United Methodist Church, was appointed the first president of the library's Board of Trustees. Other members of the first board included Mrs. Oliver Follweiler, Salma Steigerwalt, Harry Weaver, Mrs. William Woodwell and F.G. Horner.

All of the pieces fell into place. Schaeffer wrote in her account of the first official meeting, "Thus, with the general support of the townspeople, the support of the Tamaqua clubs and organizations, with the State promising assistance in an advisory and helping capacity, the Library Association was formally organized."

Even with public support and enthusiasm, the library struggled financially through its first year. For instance, it operated without a typewriter until school superintendent and board member F.G. Horner bought one for $10. Schaeffer's $50-a-month salary came from WPA funds, and the library depended on book and monetary donations from the community, a challenging task during a depression. Books were first placed on a "pay shelf" with a charge of 10 cents per week. Once the book was paid for through the fee, usually about six months later, it was placed on the "free shelf." 

With steadfastness that accompanies passion for books and learning, though, the library survived. After one year, the library held 4,500 books and circulated 36,733 materials. At the end of the second year, 2,728 members borrowed an average of 100 books a day from a collection of over 5,000 books. By October 1937, membership increased to 3,313, and another 1,000 books were added to the shelves.
The library was growing--and gaining community support.

"The town has become to feel the actual necessity of a Library, and I am sure if W.P.A. funds cease they would not let it drop," Edith Dallas wrote in her account of the library's history in October 1937.

Moving Time

With its cement floor and cement walls, the library's residence in the Masonic Building's basement tended to be one of the coolest recreational areas in Tamaqua. But with this accommodation came increased membership rolls, and thus the necessity for larger quarters. Not only did the library outgrow the Masonic basement, but it also faced a constant threat of flooding from the Wabash Creek.

In 1943, the library moved to the rear of the then Meredith Stationary Store, with an entrance on West Rowe Street. Ten years later, it found its third home on the second floor over Johnson's Radio and Television Store at 111 E. Broad Street, later the location of Cassidy's Camera Shop and now a vacant building near the Company Store.

The weight of the many volumes of books proved too strenuous for the ceiling of the storeroom below, and patrons also found climbing the steps an inconvenience.

So the books were packed once again and taken to a storeroom building adjacent to Miners National Bank, 114 W. Broad Street, in 1957. During this move, members of the Junior Chamber of Commerce assisted moving books, placing the tile flooring, painting and purchasing shelves for the new quarters.

In its first 23 years of existence, the Tamaqua Public Library served the community in four different locations. Soon the library would move once again--but this time with a much longer life expectancy.

"Libraries are not made; they grow." -Augustine Birrell

Throughout its various relocations, the library faced continuous membership growth and acquired funding to supplement its collection of books. Eventually, the library would need a building of its own with spacious room for shelves to fill with volumes of books and plentiful reading areas. 

In 1969, the Board of Trustees, led by President E. Franklin Griffiths, acquired a plot of ground at 30 S. Railroad Street for $18,500 from the George Kolb estate. John E. Morgan Knitting Mills operated a warehouse in a three-story brick building on the lot, which was originally occupied by Kolb Bros. Wholesale Grocers and later J.H. Goeser Wholesale Grocery.

The brick building was razed, and plans for a 96-by-86-foot modular building were submitted to Speed Space in Hometown in October 1971 (the library proved to be one of Speed Space's final projects). The structure came together section by section and was moved to the Railroad Street location in February 1972. In April, the library made its final move to date. Librarian Helen Raab, who joined the library staff on October 15, 1952, finally settled in to her new oasis with room for 26,000 books. The current library was officially dedicated on October 8, 1972.

At a cost of $145,000, the new library was funded entirely by private contributions and trust funds and did not rely on any government grants. With fundraising events like teas, tag days, a marionette show and card parties, the library was able to meet the financial demands. Trust funds established by E.M.B. Shepp and Mr. and Mrs. Charles E. Christ provided valuable assistance as well.  

By October 1972, the library was experiencing monthly circulation upwards of 2,200 books and serviced over 2,000 members by February 1973.

Ed Gildea, Times News editor, wrote in his editor's notes on Oct. 11, 1972, "Tamaqua's new public library is a fitting monument to the kind of citizen spirit which got the library idea started in the community in 1934."

And on Oct. 9, 1973, the following appeared in the Times News: "The Tamaqua Library has grown from small inadequate quarters in depression days of the 1930s to a modern and well-equipped institution of which Tamaqua should be proud."

Mrs. Susan Belle Bogden of Hazleton became head librarian in February 1974, and Raab continued to work as a librarian assistant until April 1975 after nearly 25 years of service.

By October 1974, the library was providing a number of services, including headphones to preview records, history cassettes and Saturday film showings once a month. That month, 1,323 adult fiction and nonfiction materials were borrowed, with 939 juveniles. Nineteen seventy-four also brought pre-school story hour, a story time program still offered every fall and spring.

Like many cities across America, Tamaqua celebrated the nation's bicentennial in 1976. NBC television broadcast the American Series - A Personal History of the United States, a series of 13, 52-minute color films. Starting in Nov. 1975, the library showed these films free to the public.

Under the leadership of board president E. Franklin Griffiths, the Board of Trustees launched its "Friends of the Library" fundraising campaign in January 1976.  

Also in honor of the American spirit, area sculptor and florist William "Bill" Guy of Hometown presented a 7-foot, 350-pound wood carved Indian statue he hand-carved from a 35-foot black walnut tree that fell in his back yard. Dedicated in September of 1975, the Indian still guards the library's reading lounge.

Also in 1976, the Tamaqua library became affiliated with other county libraries, eliminating membership fee. It was the starting stages of the Access Pennsylvania system, a program in which any Pennsylvania resident who obtains a free library card from his home library can then visit any library in the state and acquire a library card free of charge.

In 1978 the library took its first steps in information technology. With assistance from community organizations like the Tamaqua Lions and Rotary clubs and individuals like Guy, the library received duplicates of the Tamaqua Evening Courier on microfilm from Beth Mines, Panther Valley Division, and a microfilm reader on which patrons and genealogy seekers could read the files.

Another leadership shift came in July 1979 when Jean Towle was named head librarian after Bogden's resignation.

The numbers continued to grow, as nearly 4,500 materials were circulated in February 1979. On July 19, 1979, Mary Alice Boyle wrote in the Pottsville Republican "The library is a sign not only of Tamaqua's progress, but also of its cultural habits and leisure time." The library's Dial-A-Story program also took off in 1979, as children made 34,938 calls throughout the year. In November 1982, the number climbed to 7,034 calls. The program began in 1978 when the Tamaqua Right-to-Read organization closed and donated its collection of eight-track story tapes to the library. By 1990, however, Dial-A-Story was halted due to the tapes' deterioration. The Benevolent Association of Pottsville granted the library $1,000 in December 1991 to purchase new machines on which to run the story tapes, and the program resumed in February 1992, with children continuing to make hundreds of calls each month. However, at the Board of Trustees' monthly meeting in March 2009, the Dial-A-Story program was ended since only about 10 calls were received on average each week.

To demonstrate their appreciation for the community's support, members of the library staff dressed as characters from the "Wizard of Oz" in the 14th annual Tamaqua Halloween Parade in October 1980. The float won the $100 first prize.

In May 1984, the library celebrated its Golden Anniversary. The Tamaqua Lions and Rotary clubs paid tribute to the library at the John E. Morgan Yankee Peddler Room. Around 200 people attended the event.

New Librarians and Board Presidents

In March 1985, Towle resigned as librarian to take the position of District Consultant for Pottsville Library, a role in which she continues to serve today. Gloria Sterusky became head librarian in April 1985, followed by Sharon A. Haffey in May 1991, who returned to a previous position as a librarian for the state in 1992. Melissa O'Connell-Cook then became librarian to replace Haffey. After Cook's resignation in 1999, Georgia Depos was named associate director for a short while before Debi Dodson became librarian in 2001. Gayle R. Heath currently serves as library director, a position she has held since April 2008.

In 1991, Jon Zizelmann became president of the Board of Trustees, seceding Earl Behr. Zizelmann presided over the board for around 9 years before Vice President John Handler took over the reigns. Arthur Connelly now serves as board president.

In his over 20 years of service to the library, Zizelmann has witnessed a number of changes, especially with the advent of the computer age.

"Libraries are essential, especially in rural communities like Tamaqua," Zizelmann said. "As a kid, I used the library all of the time, and it's just one of those things I've always felt strongly about."

Financial Strain, Then and Now

Although people flocked to the library and utilized its services, the library faced financial challenges in the early 1980s, due most in part to cuts in state and local aid and grant programs. In 1981, the library faced a $10,000 shortfall but was kept from drowning when the borough council increased its annual appropriation from $250 to $1,250. To save revenue, the library operated with a limited staff and relied on volunteers to keep the library running smoothly as more and more people visited and became members.

Once again, the community also proved a valuable asset and support system. On March 4, 1983, the Zeta Omega Chapter of Beta Sigma Phi, Tamaqua sponsored a benefit dance at the L&M Hall on East Broad Street, with proceeds used to purchase educational equipment.

During this time, Earl Behr served as president of the Board of Trustees. He, with the assistance of trustee member Phyllis Carter and former board president Willis Parnell, oversaw the establishment of the library's Endowment Fund in 1986. According to current library director Gayle Heath, the endowment continues to provide financial security and stability for the library. With bequests in wills and gifts to honor loved ones, the fund's interest grows each year and is used to purchase books and materials for the library each year.

"It really is the cornerstone of our financial health," Heath said.

Indeed, while the library has experienced edifice and technological changes, one thing has not changed: The library still relies on community support to keep operating and providing free services to the public. Over the past few years, federal and state aid has decreased, leaving the library to rely on contributions from the Tamaqua Borough Council and school district, and most importantly, the patrons. Individuals, businesses and organizations are asked to contribute to the 2009 Annual Fund Drive.

"Funding is not only necessary. It's crucial," Heath said. "If you have greater funds, it gives you the flexibility to hire more people, and if we want to expand programs, we definitely need more people."

Present Day

Like Kit Schaeffer, Gayle Heath also thrives on reading and promoting literacy. She says she has always been a collector of books and is still pursuing a lifelong goal to create her own personal library.

Most noticeably similar to Schaeffer, though, is Heath's recognition of the importance of a public library, especially during tumultuous economic times. It's hard not to strike an economic resemblance between the era in which the library was founded and the present situation.

"We know our patrons are facing economic hardship, and the library really is the place they turn to for job searching tools and other free services," Heath said.

In addition to its volumes of adult, young adult and juvenile books, the library also boasts eight public access computers, with two more to be added this year through a Gates Grant. Patrons also find newspapers, periodicals, and collections of videos, DVDs and audiobooks. Copying and fax services are also offered for a small fee.

In the fall, spring and summer, children can participate in story time and reading club programs. Centered around different themes each year, the sessions include read-aloud-stories, songs, crafts and snacks.

In order to keep pace with ever-morphing technology, the library recently overhauled its Web site, www.tamaquapubliclibrary.com. The new site, spearheaded by Board of Trustees Financial Secretary Eric Zizelmann, provides easy access to information regarding the library's services, programs and events.

Alongside the advancing technology and other major changes at the library, however, linger the spirits who forged steadfastly ahead to see their plans for a public library come to fruition. Seventy-five years have brought a great deal of shifting ideas, plans, personnel and buildings--but the underlying mission to foster literacy and community involvement endures and serves as the integral foundation for the library's continued progress.

"I wish I could be around for another 75 years," Heath says, "to see where this library goes, because it is going places very quickly."