From the Archives: Happy 140th, Omaha Public Library!

The Omaha Public Library turns 140 this year. I bet many of us have fond memories of the older branches with the musty smell of books, the hardwood floors and the chairs (ouch), as well as the adventures we discovered on those old high shelves.

I had no idea that the library has been around for 140 years!

On Dec. 23, 1871, a group of Omaha pioneers incorporated the Omaha Library Association.  Among the 94 who purchased stock — at $10 per share — were A.J. Poppleton, the first president of the Omaha Library Association and former mayor of Omaha; Lewis Reed, who was connected with the library for nearly 40 years; and John T. Edgar, for whom the first library branch was named. Other investors included Byron Reed, S.S. Caldwell and J.M. Woolworth.

The first library opened its doors in April 1872. Use of the library was not restricted to stockholders. From a 1952 World-Herald story on the library: “Individuals other than shareholders, to whom books and reading were important, were permitted its use on payment of an annual subscription fee of $3.”

The very first library, in 1872, was on a top floor of the Simpson Carriage Factory. This photo shows early Omaha looking north from 14th and Farnam Streets. THE WORLD-HERALD ARCHIVES

 

The Omaha Library Association was the parent to the Omaha Public Library. The City of Omaha established the Omaha Public Library on June 13, 1877, and the association turned over its books and equipment. Its librarian, Jennie Allan, assumed the same role at the Omaha Public Library. By the way, that’s NOT Jennie in the photo below!

The first public library building in Omaha was at 15th and Dodge. It is shown here in 1877. LOUIS R. BOSTWICK COLLECTION

 

The library moved to several other locations before July 1894, when a beautiful new building opened at 19th and Harney Streets.

A 1969 story about the building offers this quote: “As can be seen, this building is a very handsome structure, with its four floors including a large basement. It is in the finest Italian renaissance style and seems especially in consonance with its purpose.”

Built between 1891 and 1892 and opened in in 1894, this served as the Omaha library system’s main branch until it was closed in 1977. Shown here in 1927, the building was restored by a group of private investors and reopened in 1982 as office space called the Historic Library Plaza. LOUIS R. BOSTWICK COLLECTION

This 1944 photo shows some the intricate medallions under the cornice of the building. This corner displays Virgil, Horace and Plato. THE WORLD-HERALD

 

The next four photographs ran with a story in The World-Herald’s “Magazine of the Midlands” on June 29, 1969. These photos were taken in the late 1800s.

The female employees. THE WORLD-HERALD ARCHIVES

Children reading by gas lights. THE WORLD-HERALD ARCHIVES

The library was also a museum. A mummy is in the case on the right. THE WORLD-HERALD ARCHIVES

The auditorium where books were reviewed. THE WORLD-HERALD ARCHIVES

 

The library has served many purposes through the years. Some were unintended.

This 1938 World-Herald photo caption read: “Some people go to the library for a definite book, some for ‘just something to read.’ But one class of patrons, most numerous in cold weather, haunts the newspaper room to soak up the heat, to loaf, to sleep. Homeless men and flophouse residents most of them are. Flophouses are not so well heated, they tell Librarian Bertha Baumer. Most popular papers, after The World-Herald, are those from the nearest cities. The ‘help wanted’ columns are most in demand, were the most frequently stolen, until librarians began clipping and filing them in the upstairs periodical room. Even a blooming geranium has disappeared.” THE WORLD-HERALD

 

This was a little before my time, but my older sisters speak fondly of the bookmobile visits.

Four pupils at Windsor School, members of a committee to carry books from the school library to kindergarten and first-grade classes, constructed their own bookmobile from an orange crate in 1950. They compared theirs to the city’s new Bookmobile when it visited their school. The children’s bookmobile holds about 50 books and weighs 32 pounds when loaded. The library vehicle weighs 14,700 pounds and carries 3,000 books. The children are, from left, Terry Holmes, 9, Susan Farris, 10, George Wilson, 10, and Patricia Holmes, 10. The adults are Mrs. Elizabeth Latta and John J. Weber, neighborhood service librarian and clerk. THE WORLD-HERALD

 

This neon sign was added in 1953 to draw attention to the location.

This 6-by-8 sign cost $488 in 1953. “Just as a business man calls attention to his commodities so must the library call attention to its services,” said Library Director Arthur H. Parsons Jr.  YANO MELANGAGIO/THE WORLD-HERALD

The library added film service in 1957. Projectors and films were available for rent to organized groups. Getting things ready are, from left, Mrs. A.R. Busch, Librarian Frank E. Gibson and Mrs. Donald Frazier. Both women are representatives of the Junior League. ROBERT PASKACH/THE WORLD-HERALD

 

The library even saw some real-life crime drama in 1963.

Detective Sgt. Robert Sieborg studies abandoned burglary tools. The tools were left behind by three men who tried to burglarize a rare books and coin collection at the library in the Byron Reed Collection Room, which houses artifacts valued at more than $250,000. THE WORLD-HERALD

 

Remember getting your first library card? That yellow piece of paper was our ticket to the world.

Lita Glasser, 5, gets her first library card by showing she can write her name in 1968. ROBERT PASKACH/THE WORLD-HERALD

 

The main branch had a glass floor on the second level. Glass floors were typical in libraries and were designed to let in natural light. The glass floor was opaque. The librarian at the shelves is standing on it in the photo below.

Omaha Public Library staff dressed as it would have in 1894 to celebrate the library building’s 75th anniversary in 1969. In the foreground are Phyllis Weinroth, left, and Debbie Covert. In the background are Mike Punches, left, and Gary Schweikhart. RICH JANDA/THE WORLD-HERALD

 

I never knew you could check out art at the library. Though free to borrow, the late fees were quite hefty back in 1974 — 15¢ per day!

North Branch Head Librarian Caroline Green with “White Fluted Vase” in 1974. The North Branch was the only branch where people were allowed to check out art for their homes for 28 days. It was quite popular. SEBI BRECI/THE WORLD-HERALD

 

The downtown library is also home to a 145-year-old scalp! World-Herald columnist Matthew Hansen recently wrote about the scalp of William Thompson.

Thompson lost his hair in 1867 as he was scalped by a Cheyenne attacker. He was working for Union Pacific when Indians derailed the handcar he was riding near what is now Lexington, Neb. All the railroad men but Thompson were killed, and he was able to retrieve his scalp. Thompson survived and then, so it is said, tried to regrow the hair by having a physician sew it on. But the scalp didn’t take. So he returned to his native England to show it off, then mailed it back to the physician, who gave it to the library.

Mrs. Alice Station, library specialist in history, with William Thompson’s scalp at the Omaha Public Library in 1977. PHIL JOHNSON/THE WORLD-HERALD

 

In 1975, the city began to clear the area where a new downtown branch of the library would be constructed. The branch would be named after W. Dale Clark, the president of First National Bank in the late 1920s and early 1930s who was instrumental in the financial backing of Peter Kiewit Sons. Later he helped maintain The World-Herald’s local ownership.

This block, bounded by 14th, 15th, Douglas and Farnam Streets was cleared in 1975 so the new downtown library could be built. ROBERT PASKACH/THE WORLD-HERALD

 

And finally, the library’s main branch moved to its current home downtown in 1977.

Where’s Fay Wray? JoAnn Svoboda of Norfolk, Neb., snaps a photo of the giant gorilla balloon perched on the east side of Omaha’s W. Dale Clark Library. The balloon, owned by Robert Keith & Co. of San Diego, is helping publicize the Henry Doorly Zoo’s family membership drive in 1985. MEL EVANS/THE WORLD-HERALD

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look back into history of the Omaha Public Library. If you haven’t visited a library lately, you should check it out. There’s much more than books – classes, movies, even wine tastings. I bet you’ll love it as much as you did as a child!

Jolene McHugh

About Jolene McHugh

I was a graphic artist prior to coming to the Omaha World-Herald in 2007, and now I’m a photo imaging specialist, which means I prepare photos to print properly in the newspaper. I also have the incredibly fun task of restoring old photographs from our massive library. My favorite part of my job is getting lost in the history and stories behind the photographs. Many of the archive photos have little or no information attached, so I need to properly date and identify the people and places in them. Researching the stories is a bit like being on a historical scavenger hunt. The largest challenge I face is restoring photos we run in our books. Our newest book, “At War, At Home: The Cold War” is filled with hundreds of old photographs, and most of them small and in poor condition. I live in Omaha with my husband, one of my daughters and three very furry Maine Coon cats.
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