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History of the Emmitsburg Library

Brenda Weeks

Originally published in the Emmitsburg Dispatch 11/17/2006

"By all means let us have a library" were the infamous words that appeared in an editorial by Sterling Gault in The Chronicle newspaper in June 1906. As editor and manager, Gault used the newspaper to champion his dream of a town library and is credited for sparking interest in the community.

Gault's message resonated in the minds of Emmitsburgians as the library stands this year at its 100th anniversary, being the oldest in Frederick County. Through the Great Depression and government quarrels the library has survived. No matter where the library has been located, the idea of public learning remained. Today, in a recently renovated building, the library serves as a focal point for community creativity.

Gault's 'member' library takes shape

Shortly after Gault's editorial appeared, a committee formed and began planning to open the library in August of 1906. After a few months of preparation, the Emmitsburg library opened on Dec. 1, 1906.

The library started out in a rented room of storeowner Christian Zacharias, which was located next to the Reformed Church of the Incarnation, with a mere 52 members and less than 200 donated books. Unlike today's libraries, it started as a subscription library with a yearly $1 membership fee and nickel late fees.

The committee agreed on 12 rules to help preserve the collection, including "No person living in a house where there is a contagious disease can draw a book from the library. And no book which has been in such surroundings can be returned to the library;" and "All books may be kept two weeks and, except fiction, may be renewed for the same time."

By the end of the first year the library held 438 books and 77 members. Two years later when the annual report from the Maryland State Library Commission came out, field secretary J. Herbert Stabler said "In only one town, Emmitsburg, in Frederick County, did I find a thriving public library in good working order, with a good selection of books of reference and good modern fiction."

Expansions and moves over the years

As the library expanded, extra space was needed. In 1912 the library made the first of many moves to a larger location, to the home of Henry Stokes on West Main Street.

Committee members and volunteers got creative in raising money to keep the library thriving. A "women's exchange" was formed and proved to be the greatest source of income for several years. The program was designed to profit not only the library, but also women in the community interested in peddling goods. If, for example, a woman wanted to sell a cake for 30 cents, the library would sell it for 45 cents and keep the profit.

When the library wasn't able to raise the money needed, community members would pitch in, donating simple items like box fans or pencil sharpeners. Free trash collection was offered and community civic groups even paid the rent from time to time.

"It's really a story of the community valuing a library and coming together," said current librarian Joan Fisher. "This was a central place in the community where people came for culture."

Revitalization in the '60s and continued growth

After suffering through the Great Depression and a loss of interest in the 1950s, the Greater Emmitsburg Junior Chamber of Commerce took it upon themselves to revitalize the spirit of the library in 1961.The committee worked to acquire necessary funds and relocated yet again, this time into the C.A. Harner building. In a little over half a year since the revamping, the library had reached a circulation of over 2,800 with 454 members.

The library remained in the Harner building until 1976 when it moved to the former high school and their current home on South Seton Avenue. The chairman of the library board, Mr. Holmes, toasted to the new location at the next meeting saying, "After years and years of trying to get into a new building, we finally made it into an old building, but it is far superior to our old facilities - to the new library."

Again in the 1990s the library would have to fight for survival when Frederick County officials made a motion to tear down the building and consolidate the Thurmont and Emmitsburg libraries.

"There was such a strong sentimental feeling about the building itself," said Fisher. "People were really upset."

Not about to stand for this, the community invited county commissioners for a meeting in the town about the proposed closing. With over 100 citizens in attendance and letters and petitions pouring in, Emmitsburg proved to the county that the library wasn't going anywhere.

Celebrating a century of history

"It is the oldest library and over the 100 years different people have stood behind the library as something important," said Bo Cadle, member of the Emmitsburg Branch of the Friends of the Library.

From a small room with less than 200 books to a 6,000 sq. ft. building with a collection of over 33,000 items, including a unique local genealogy section, the library has come a long way.

Today, patrons come to the library and are able to enjoy more than just reading. Paintings from Caroline Jones and Linda Postelle are on display, as well as children's art that was submitted for the "100 years of service" contest. The library also hosts a filmmaking class for kids, an anim club, and a yearly holiday tea party for children.

The library offers downloadable e-books and videos, as well as wireless Internet service. "(These features) make this little library a big library," said Fisher.

In honor of the 100th birthday and in support of the library, the Friends of the Library are raffling off a watercolor painting of the building, painted and donated by local artist Reverend R. Benjamin Jones. The painting has an estimated value of $2,000, and the winning raffle ticket will be drawn at the library's birthday celebration on Dec. 2.

The library invites all residents to come out and celebrate the birthday at the community center, 300 South Seton Avenue, beginning at 7 p.m. on Dec. 2. "We will have some fun stuff, because after all this is a birthday party," said Fisher, "You don't turn 100 every day."

Read Ed Houck's: The Founding of the Public Library

Have your own memories of Emmitsburg Library? 
 Send them to us at history@emmitsburg.net