Beyond its books and periodicals, perhaps beyond all else, the Osterhout Free Library — one of the first libraries in Northeastern Pennsylvania — provides something today as valuable as when it first opened its doors 125 years ago.
A place for us.
A place for all people who care to cross its entry on Wilkes-Barre’s South Franklin Street, regardless of age, aspiration, education or income.
This place serves as refuge for people smitten by the written word as well as, admittedly, those in need of something as basic, as vital, as an escape from harsh temperatures, pelting rain or snow. It puts knowledge, power really, within the grasp of anyone who reaches for it via text, discussion group, video or website. It imparts lessons to senior citizens seeking an introduction to the Internet or email, and to all those preschoolers attending its story times. It harbors children on summer break and helps students with their homework assignments and book reports. It supplies answers to philosophical questions and more practical ones, provides job-search support, holds observances, hosts activities such as knitting groups and game nights, nurtures, humors, inspires, entertains, teaches and sustains.
It wasn’t exactly supposed to be this way.
Founders of the place intended for this library to be housed in the Gothic Revival-style brick building, originally constructed as a church, for only a few years, 10 at most.
Area merchant and real estate magnate Isaac Smith Osterhout had died in 1882, willing a major portion of his estate for the establishment of a free public library. He left behind some books and a vision. Organizers of the place initially amassed about 10,000 volumes, including nearly 9,500 purchased from Charles Scribner and Sons.
Melvin Dewey, famed creator of the Dewey Decimal System for cataloguing books, was hired by the library board in 1887 as an adviser. He suggested converting the city’s former First Presbyterian Church, presumably designed by architect James Renwick Jr., into “temporary” quarters for the newly created library.
The Osterhout Free Library’s grand opening — to be re-enacted by staffers this morning — was held at 10 a.m. Jan. 29, 1889.
Since then, the place has grown, evolved and been refurbished, but never relocated.
In 1904 it opened a children’s department, presumably one of the first in the nation. It added library branches for the convenience of residents in other city neighborhoods. It endured funding setbacks and the Agnes Flood of 1972, the latter of which claimed about 69,000 books and all its magazines and newspapers. It continues each year to acknowledge the donation of Isaac Osterhout, buried in a nearby cemetery. And it houses, in a separate, nearby building, the county’s historical society museum.
By virtue of its existence and mission, the Osterhout — this library, this gathering spot, this public resource — has made the community better. Congratulations to the long line of people, the board members, the employees, the Friends of the Library, the volunteers, the donors and the patrons who have ensured the continuation of this remarkable place in the heart of the Wyoming Valley.
Let us never take it for granted.