FREE & PUBLIC: One Hundred and Fifty Years at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, 1853-2003
By John Fleischman
The Library began quietly on March 14, 1853, little noticed and seemingly headed for administrative oblivion. An ambiguous paragraph buried in a complex Ohio education reform act allowed common school districts to levy a library tax and provided that local families could borrow one book at a time. From this glimmer, Rufus King, the president of the Cincinnati school board, coaxed, pulled, and pounded a shapeless state mandate into a tax-supported public library with a professional librarian in 19th century America's most astounding library building. The greatest miracle awaited at the Registration Desk: cards were free to all citizens.
Free & Public revisits the lost library of Vine Street, which made Cincinnati a national model for public libraries in its day. It follows the long line of branches, bookmobiles, and "new" Main buildings that have come since, making the Library a national leader in our time. Free & Public relives the Library's greatest moments when it reached out to the blind, to children, and to country people. It recalls its Depression-era lows when hard times and legal hairsplitting brought the Library to the brink of ruin. Then in 1933, Library Trustee James Albert Green took out a $180,000 personal loan to keep the doors open. He kept it a secret for two decades. In good times or bad, the Library has always found champions who wouldn't take no for an answer.
Free & Public brings to life some of the almost forgotten players who've kept the Library in the public library major leagues: Trustee Green who struggled for fifty-six years to build a new Main Library, dying a week after it opened; the quarreling Librarian Thomas Vickers who stabbed himself repeatedly with his own acid pen; the canny Scottish philanthropist Andrew Carnegie who "gave" Cincinnati nine branch libraries, chuckling to himself over how the citizens would pay for his "gifts" themselves in ten years of operation.
In modern times, it introduces the "builder-librarians," Carl Vitz, James Hunt, and Robert Stonestreet, who transformed a paper-bound Main into an interactive, multi-media, virtual Main Library district. One hundred and fifty years later, the Library that was almost overlooked is hard to miss in locations across Cincinnati and Hamilton County. Cards are still free.
Covering everything from the Carnegie branches to free public Internet access, Free & Public is an intriguing mix of urban history, social pageant, and library science. It provides a long overdue exploration of one city's role in creating an institution that most Americans take for granted, that is, until they really need a free and public library.
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