One of our area’s greatest genealogical resources turns 125 this month. It’s the Osterhout Free Library.
To most people in Wyoming Valley, of course, this red-brick building with the churchlike windows and spire is the place you go to pick up the latest best-seller, take the kids for stories or research a term paper.
To genealogists, it’s where you find an excellent collection of local history books, great research services and a lot of newspaper microfilm – including some that you can’t get anywhere else.
The windows and spire?
Well, the building began life as a church and that’s why, despite additions, it looks the way it does.
The story begins in 1882 when businessman Isaac Osterhout bequeathed $325,000 in property for the purpose of founding a public library in Wilkes-Barre. Under the will, a board of seven trustees was created.
According to Sheldon Spear in “Wyoming Valley History Revisited,” the board retained as consultant Melvil Dewey of Columbia University (creator of the Dewey Decimal System). He then recommended purchase of the First Presbyterian Church, which was about to be vacated by the congregation in favor of a new and larger building just down South Franklin Street. He also recommended hiring professional librarian Hannah Packard James of Massachusetts to head the new institution.
On Jan. 28, 1889, the Osterhout was opened with a ceremony at the new First Presbyterian, with the attendees then taking a stroll up the street to check out the library, whose books would not arrive for another day.
Wrote S.R. Smith in “The Wyoming Valley in 1892” of that day, ”many warm commendations of its beauty and convenience were expressed, and gratification that at last the long anticipated treasures were open to their use.”
That looks like 1892-speak for “they just loved the place.”
The Osterhout has seen growth and change in the decades since. A large addition was made at the rear of the building in the 1920s, now housing the cozy reading room and many stacks. A modern children’s library, matched to the original structure’s architecture, was added in the 1980s.
It’s also acquired its own folklore. Academy Award-winning screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, who as a youth lived in Wilkes-Barre, turned the theft of his beloved bicycle from outside the library one day into the controlling symbol of lost youth “Rosebud” in his script for the 1941 movie “Citizen Kane,” numerous sources agree.
The library has faced many challenges, not the least of which were disastrous floods in 1936 and 1972, when it was inundated and many books were lost.
But it’s always bounced back. That’s saying something for a building that was originally constructed as a church and opened in 1851, when, according to Edith Brower in “Little Old Wilkes-Barre as I Knew It,” cows could be seen grazing along South Franklin Street.
Today’s computerized inter-library catalogue, just to mention one feature, would be unrecognizable to her and the original visitors of 1889. But they would certainly recognize — and be moved by – the sight of the original mission still being served.
Well, pronunciation remains divided between “awsterhowt” and “oosterhowt.”
But there is something that can be agreed upon. We genealogists, no less than other visitors, should give thanks for this magnificent resource.
“It is a perennial blessing, growing richer and of greater value the more it is used and the longer it flows,” wrote Smith just three years after the opening.
So may it continue.
Happy birthday, Osterhout Free Library.