First Posted: 2/4/2014
WILKES-BARRE — When the Osterhout Free Library, which recently celebrated 125 years as the anchor of knowledge in the city, first opened in 1889, it was under the watchful eye of Hannah Packard James.
James was born in Scituate, Mass., in 1835. She moved to live with an older sister in Newton, where she would eventually work at a free library in that town. There she rose from a clerical assistant to head librarian.
In the 1880s, she moved to Wilkes-Barre, thanks to her connection to none other than Melvil Dewey.
The idea for the Osterhout came after the death of Isaac Smith Osterhout in 1882. A prominent area merchant and real estate official, he willed a large portion of his estate to be used to establish a free public library. The library’s board of directors hired Dewey, the creator of the Dewey Decimal System for organizing and cataloging volumes, to act as an adviser for the board.
As per Dewey’s recommendations, the board bought the First Presbyterian Church, which eventually became the library’s permanent location. The new establishment needed somebody to look after it, and in January 1887, a library board member asked Dewey if he could find a librarian up to the task.
After a brief search in New England for someone suitable, the board decided to hire James.
John Hepp, a history professor at Wilkes University, said that during the late 19th century, women could finally begin establishing themselves as professionals. Women were becoming doctors, lawyers and even academics.
“Two other professions that women could move forward on were nursing and then also in libraries,” Hepp said.
Hepp also guessed that Dewey realized the Osterhout needed someone who would be dedicated to it and nurture it through its difficult beginnings.
James was no stranger to the business at that point. She had been a librarian for 17 years, was elected councilor of the American Library Association and lectured at the School of Library Service at Columbia. That was the first professional academic program for librarians.
Hepp compared James to U.S. President George Washington in a sense; she was going to set the tone for the library’s future. She had to engage in community outreach, make books available for for the public and hire staff.
The idea of a free library for the public was also a new concept at the time. Hepp said Wilkes-Barre had a free library before Philadelphia did. “It’s not like she has a lot of examples that had 20-year track records,” Hepp said, referring to the job facing James.
Once James was on board, she hired a number of assistants to assist her with organizing the library’s collection. That daunting process included typing descriptions for each book on subject cards.
The result of that work was a “Class Catalogue and Author Index.” By 1895, James and her assistants created a 308-page document that listed everything the library received between 1889 and 1895.
Hepp said each book had a card for its author, title and subject. Every book had to have a card for each, which he said could result in a single book having as many as 20 cards.
Libraries relied on those systems back then, as librarians would not let the public browse the stacks themselves. Hepp said patrons had to go to the card catalog, find their book and write up a call slip. That slip then had to be taken to the librarian, who would then retrieve the book.
“It was incredibly important as libraries grew in size,” Hepp said. “You needed this incredibly complex system.”
One of James’ goals was to get books into the hands of people. Hepp said the working and upper class believed that the only way for people who worked in the mines and factories to move forward was through education.
“She was very big on doing community outreach, getting books to members of the working-class community,” Hepp said.
James’ goal of getting books into the hands of patrons extended beyond the Osterhout Free Library. She published a monthly publication called the “Library News-Letter,” which instructed people on how to care for books. She also included her thoughts on certain matters.
James also undertook other endeavors to try to educate the masses. She helped to establish “reading rooms,” areas where men and women could borrow books. After the idea failed due to a lack of financial support, James then embarked on a “university extension” program. She would deliver lectures at a local YMCA and would recommend books on the topic before she did.
Illness eventually caused James to retire in 1902, and she died on April 20, 1903.
Though it has been nearly 111 years since she died, her legacy lives on in the form of today’s Osterhout.
“To me, her greatest legacy has been the continued survival of the library,” Hepp said.