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Library to celebrate centennial Wednesday

A Ladies Library and Reading Club formed in 1899, meeting on the second floor of the fire hall on the northwest corner of Second and Main Avenue. (Submitted photo)

It was 1909.

U.S. explorer Robert Peary was declared the first man to reach the North Pole.

Henry Ford's Model T - "the car for the multitudes" - had hit the market.

Mary Pickford claimed fame in the starring role of "Her First Biscuits."

And Park Rapids' Andrew Carnegie Library began welcoming patrons on West 2nd Street.

Wednesday, Sept. 23, the Park Rapids Area Library will celebrate a century of promoting and enhancing literacy with an open house from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Several local dignitaries will kick off the event with opening remarks at 10:30 a.m.

The magnitude of a community library had been recognized from the village's inception, early settlers reportedly eager to form a repository for books.

A Ladies Library and Reading Club formed in 1899, convening on the second floor of the "new" fire hall, located on the corner of Second Street and Main (the current Clow's Nest).

Patron rules were to be enforced by the librarian (earning $12 per month): Do not ask for a book if you owe a fine. Do not spit on the floor and refrain from talking loudly.

Among the librarian's duties: See to it the curtains were drawn to keep sun off the books.

In 1908, Scottish-American philanthropist Carnegie offered to donate $5,000 for a library's construction in Park Rapids, provided the village council furnish a site and support a free public library at a cost not less than $500 a year.

The requirements were met and in 1909 the Carnegie Library began welcoming patrons.

Board meetings were held semi-annually until 1923, when a special meeting was called to direct the janitor to "start fires earlier."

The first mention of a juvenile section was in 1931, when the board voted to add an assistant - at $6 per month, year 'round.

A year later, the library board faced a quandary. A special meeting was called to determine if a "young lady" should be permitted a library card, after failing to return books to the library.

The family, the board learned, had been quarantined for scarlet fever; the doctor had ordered the books burned.

The family was exonerated; the library card reinstated.

Tourist info center nixed

"Up until the summer of 1969, everything was peaceful in the city and the library board," Einar Johnson wrote in a historical account for the Enterprise's 1980 centennial edition. "Then someone got the idea the library would be a good location for the Chamber of Commerce and a tourist information center."

The proposal was suggested in subliminal fashion: Why not merge the public library with the school library?

The board was opposed to the move, as were state library officials. Board members decided to put it before the electorate.

"Both sides expended considerable effort to publicize their position," Johnson wrote of engaging Enterprise readers and the KPRM radio audience.

Election officials expected a small turnout, but it "developed into one of the largest number of votes being cast in a year with no state or national officers to be elected," Johnson wrote.

The voters nixed the proposal on a 739 to 53 margin.

In 1972, two additional attempts were made by private companies to buy the building. Library board members appeared before the city council in opposition. Both parties withdrew.

Un-Friends-ly reception

Friends of the Library, a non-profit advocacy group, formed in 1981, initially meeting opposition from members of the library board.

Eleanor Olson recalls broaching the proposal to the board and being told it was "unnecessary."

"It was very discouraging," she recalled. She had witnessed the volunteer organization's success in St. Cloud and worked with commissioners to establish a chapter in Thief River Falls. She recognized the need to assist paid staff members and saw the group as an "important fundraising component."

JoAnn Benjamin, a charter member of Friends, persevered and the group formed. Olson was out of town for the first meeting.

"We were $100 rich," Olson recalled of the group's inception. Since then, the coffers have grown appreciably, thanks to book sales. Outreach efforts also blossomed.

The Park Rapids Friends assisted the Ada and Rousseau libraries after flooding damaged buildings and contents. And the Friends assisted victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Back on the home front, members of Friends work with area schools to promote reading. Authors arrive at their invitation. And members head to township meetings to request donations.

"Friends do what the staff doesn't have time to do," Olson said in summation.

'A tremendous difference'

The Park Rapids Area Library joined the Kitchigami Regional Library System in 1990, a move that had been previously opposed.

City and county officials feared books and assets would become property of the multi-county library and the county would face additional assessments.

But the move proved to be advantageous.

"It made a tremendous difference," former librarian Gail Gruis recalled. "We had access to much more materials and education as librarians."

The Kitchigami system was "instrumental" in cataloging the library's materials on the computers, she said. The library could not have done this without assistance.

"There were a lot of pluses," Gruis recalled.

The library moved from the Carnegie building to the former Citizens Bank building in January 1994.

Middle school students were recruited for the task of moving books, the kids trotting off with armfuls of books in frigid climes. A noon pizza meal was served as a thank you.

The move followed a successful $225,000 fundraising campaign, with city officials, Friends and library board members tossing hats into the air in celebration.

The library has evolved from a repository for 19,000 books to its current 41,000 items - now including movies, DVDs, sound books, magazines, newspapers and microfilms of the Enterprise and Northwoods Press since the newspapers' inceptions.

Staff has grown from the initial single librarian to six, including branch manager Becky Walpole and Karen Zwirtz, Michelle Yliniemi, Nancy Minkel, Rhoda Jackson and Judy Willey.

The library is home to eight computer stations, two Web catalogs and free wireless access.

Spitting in the library is no longer an issue; but voices must remain on low volume.

"It's the heart of the community," said Sandy Drury, a charter member of Friends and historian for the group. "It's a meeting place, a research center and it enriches the lives of children."

Plans are on the docket to build a new library to accommodate an ever increasing demand.