Editor’s note: The cutline for the lead image of this story has been corrected. The initial origin and type of image was incorrect in an earlier version.
My memory of a book I checked out of the Elyria Public Library when I was a child, circa 1962, is unassailable. Rosa, the central character, reminded me of me: long dark hair (hers, worn in braids, mine in a ponytail), and a last name, Maldonado, that, like Abookire, was difficult to pronounce and spell.
There also was an important plot point identifiable to any 6-year-old: Rosa was getting her first library card.
I could not remember the book’s title or author, but the keywords “Rosa Maldonado children’s book” were enough to toss down the Google rabbit hole. Upon my laptop screen popped “ ‘Rosa-Too-Little’ by Sue Felt,” with a link to Kirkus Reviews. I found a copy of the book through an online used bookseller. When it arrived, I held it in my hands, looked through the pages and felt an immediate sense of time rushing backward.
1870:Elyria’s first library, a gift from Charles Arthur Ely (the only son of Heman Ely, Elyria’s founder, and his second wife, Harriett Salter Ely) opens June 1 on the second and third floors of the Center Block on Broad Street; the first floor is rented to First National Bank. Two-and-a-half months prior to opening, the first librarian, Nettie E. Wheeler, is appointed. She earned $25 a month, working six days a week, for the next 13 years.
1873: Fire destroys the section of Broad Street between Lodi Street and Washington Avenue — the Commercial, Center and Ely blocks — reducing all but 375 of the 4,000 books in the library’s collection to ash. Melvil Dewey devises a classification system for organizing the Amherst College Library.
1874: Elyria quickly rebuilds, and the library returns to its original Broad Street site, again on the second and third floors, despite a decision by its Board of Trustees to sell and rebuild elsewhere. Charles Arthur Ely’s will, however, specified that the library be located on Broad Street, and his wishes are upheld in court.
1876: Melvil Dewey publishes the first edition of the Dewey Decimal System.
1886: Due to the size of its growing collection, the library adopts the Dewey Decimal System to classify and catalog its holdings, hiring Mrs. J. E. Dixon of New York at 50 cents an hour to oversee the transition from Nettie Wheeler’s original filing system.
1903: The Elyria Board of Education secures the library’s first operating levy.
1904: The library begins school service with an additional collection of 150 books at Elyria High School and hosts the ninth annual convention of the Ohio Library Association.
1914: The library’s collection grows to 26,232 volumes, with an annual circulation of 58,000.
1915: The first children’s librarian is hired.
1916: The Board of Education cancels its contract; the library reinstitutes membership fees.
1927: Space and finances are serious problems. The Board of Trustees petitions the Court of Common Pleas for permission to relocate the library. The court rules in favor of the board the following year.
1928-1929: Negotiations begin with Dr. Karl Reefy, son of the building’s original owner, the late Dr. Philip D. Reefy, to purchase the family’s Third Street mansion, including a building at the back where the doctor’s medical office was located. The library sells its Broad Street building for $60,000 and purchases the Reefy property for $30,000. Architect R.W. Silsbee redesigns the mansion’s interior and designs an addition of brick with stone trimmings at the rear of the main building to house the stacks. A Chronicle-Telegram article from the era notes that “the board expects (the materials to) offer a pleasant contrast to the stone masonry of the main structure.” The new library opens Feb. 12, 1929, with the children’s department located on the second floor of the main house.
1938: School library service is re-established, with libraries in 11 schools.
1939: A contest is held among community children to rename the library’s children’s room; the winning entry is the “Longfellow Room.”
1943: Miss Elizabeth Taylor is hired as assistant school librarian. She worked at the library until 1984, when she retired as its first reader adviser.
1945: A gift from Frank Seward establishes a phonograph record collection. The children’s department moves from the second floor to the basement of the 1929 addition designed by R.W. Silsbee.
1948: The library becomes a charter member of the first cooperative film circuit in the United States to circulate 16-millimeter educational films among its member libraries.
1952: The library premieres its first radio program on WEOL-AM. Its Saturday morning programming relies on a series called the “Teen Age Book Parade.”
1962: Circulation reaches the highest point in the library’s history— 475,072.
1963: The library sells its Third Street property to the First Methodist Church for $85,000; arrangements are made to permit the library to remain there until a new building is constructed.
1964: The Board of Trustees appoints an advisory committee to assist in the library’s building campaign.
1965: The Elyria Kiwanis Club spearheads the building fund drive, establishing a goal of $265,000. The State Library of Ohio provides a $200,000 grant toward the new building.
1966: Donald Sager is appointed library director. Plans progress for the new building at 316 Washington Ave. At the Oct. 4 groundbreaking, according to a Chronicle-Telegram article, Mrs. J. Clare George, president of the Board of Trustees, “turn(s) the first shovel of earth.”
1967: In September, the library closes for three weeks to move to its new location, with the staff receiving assistance from the Elyria Jaycees. On Oct. 8, the library is formally dedicated. With 28,000 square feet and a cost of $601,000, including furnishings, this is the first time in the library’s history that it has a building expressly designed for library service.
1969: The library’s book collection passes the 100,000 mark, doubling since 1950. NASA awards the library a contract to administer its library of 1,000 films serving seven Midwestern states. The library is chosen to administrate an 8-millimeter film circuit for the seven libraries in Lorain County.
1970: The library begins its second century of service.
1979: The Friends of the Elyria Library is formed to maintain an association of people interested in the library and its welfare.
1981: A Nordson Foundation grant allows the library to access 200 national online computer information databases.
1982: The King Fauver Memorial Fund makes it possible for the library to begin automating its catalog.
1984: The bookmobile program begins. The library joins an online computer cataloging and circulation system with the Cleveland Public Library and several other libraries. An adult literacy program is launched and videocassettes are added to the collections. A front parking lot is added.
1987: Keystone School District and the village of LaGrange become part of the Elyria Public Library service area.
1991: A bond issue passes to build a new 31,000-square-foot branch on West River Road and renovate the main library on Washington Avenue.
1997: Every computer used to look up books is now connected to the internet through the Cleveland Public Library. Today the system is known as CLEVNET, and according to Adam Matthews, the library’s marketing and communications director, as of 2017, CLEVNET has allowed the library to share its collection with 43 other libraries.
2003: The Keystone-LaGrange Community Library opens. Before this, LaGrange was served by the bookmobile.
2012: Lyn Crouse is hired as director of the library in January.
2016: A new bookmobile begins service.
2017: Voters support Issue 39, providing funding for an ambitious building program encompassing four sites throughout Elyria and LaGrange. Total library usage, including materials, wireless, downloadable items and computers, is 1,340,987.
2018: CBLH Design of Middleburg Heights is hired as architect for the Elyria Public Library System’s building project. Elyria Public Library System includes the Central, West River, Keystone-LaGrange branches and a branch at 1611 Middle Ave., which serves the southside branch. The library has a partnership agreement with Lorain County Community College’s Bass Library called EPLS @ LCCC.
SOURCES: “Binders, Books and Budgets: A Short History of the Elyria Public Library, 1870-1970,” by Donald J. Sager; “Elyria 175, 1817-1992,” Heritage House Publishing Company; and newsletters of the EPLS.
There was her older sister, Margarita (whom I’d forgotten), holding Rosa up to peer into a library show to see miniature scenes of Peter Rabbit and his friends. There was Rosa, sitting on a porch step, her chin in her hands, sad when no one was around to take her to the library. (I knew that feeling, too.) And there was the page where Rosa printed her name, in pen, on the library card.
This book is among the comforting memories I have of the library when it was in the old Reefy mansion on Third Street, next to the United Methodist Church. I remember walking down stone steps to enter a place that seemed holy to me, with a fragrance not of church incense, but of old books. It was known as “the children’s room” and more officially as “the Longfellow Room,” but I knew it simply as “the library.” I remember standing at a low counter with my chosen books in front of me.
I don’t recall the spacious, wood-paneled rooms of the main library, an absence of memory that fills me with longing, especially when I look at beautiful old photographs. For the people I interviewed who do remember them, those antique rooms were important touchstones of their youth.
‘The light of another world’
Robert Muller grew up in Elyria on Ohio Street. He and his brother James were frequent visitors to the old library; both, in fact, were photographed as “Robbie” and “Jimmy” in a 1965 Chronicle-Telegram article by Norma Conaway about story hour in the children’s room featuring a woman known as “the Library Lady.” Muller shared his library memory with me on Facebook Messenger:
“I remember the old stone steps. I really loved the feeling (of) entering … the library. I have frequently thought about the space, maybe because I was young but it felt like you were walking down through a dark tunnel and coming through into the light of another world... I guess that’s true.”
The sensitivity to light and shadow revealed by Robert’s recollection is indicative of his profession: He’s a photographer at the Cleveland Institute of Art.
Barbara Yarish Stydnicki regularly walked up and down those stone steps from 1957 to 1967, the year the library shuttered its doors and moved to its new location on Washington Avenue. She was the “Library Lady” featured in the 1965 article, and in a phone interview from her home in Grafton, she described the steps as seeming to contain “little flashes of light.”
Stydnicki incorporated music and puppet theater in her story hours.
“When I started we had six kids,” she said. “I worked on (the program) and got it up to about 100 kids in various story hours per week.” According to the article, two of those story hours were on Saturdays, with about 25 preschoolers, first-, second- and third-graders in each group.
She also prepared the displays in the Longfellow Room, including the Christmas decorations.
“We had a live Christmas tree and the janitor put it up for me. We got ready to decorate it and they said, ‘We cannot put lights on it because of the fire code.’ I got an idea. I made red satin ribbons and covered the tree with bows and ornaments and set it under the ceiling lights so it would be illuminated from the top. It sat right in the middle of the room.”
Although she loved her work at the library, Stydnicki left in 1970 to work at Sears at Midway Mall, in the display department, where she remained for 30 years.
Nooks and crannies
Dr. Philip D. Reefy began construction on the mansion in 1902, a project that took nearly five years, according to a Chronicle-Telegram article by Connie Davis published in the fall of 1967, prior to the building’s demolition.
“The doctor changed his mind frequently and had things ripped out and rebuilt,” Davis wrote. “Much time was also required for the carved woodwork and paneling and for the numerous built-in alcoves, window-seats and other niceties. A shell and a cluster of oak leaves are motifs repeated in the woodwork embellishments. Dominant feature of the house is the circular tower rising from the basement to a castle-like battlement topping the third floor.”
Richard McGinnis grew up in Eastern Heights. Today he is a retired computer analyst living in Illinois, “two blocks away from Wisconsin,” he said by phone. His memory of the Reefy mansion recalled “a stone castle … built with a turret and (having) many, many, many rooms, and a large cubicle structure added on behind it which formed the main stacks, and down below in the basement of that cube was the children’s section.”
The annex McGinnis describes was built in 1929 and designed by architect R.W. Silsbee when he redesigned the interior of the main house. The library opened to the public on Feb. 12, 1929, with the children’s section on the second floor. It was subsequently relocated, in 1945, to the basement of the stack room — the “cube” recalled by Richard.
Children’s author Lila McGinnis of Elyria is Richard McGinnis’ mother. She was the children’s librarian from 1972 until her retirement in 1986. Before her library career, however, she was a wife, mother and writer of national magazine articles who regularly took her children to the library in the old Reefy mansion. In a telephone interview, she shared her son’s reaction when he came to visit her at the Washington Avenue library for the first time: “Mom, there are no nooks and crannies in this library.” That, she said, is her most vivid recollection of the transition from old to new. And although Richard McGinnis did not recall the anecdote, he did say that he was “very sad” when the library closed.
Routine and ritual
Two other children pictured in the 1965 article were Alan and Janet Lichtcsien. Janet died in 2003. Alan, vice president of sales for a multinational furniture company, lives in West Palm Beach, Fla. He said by phone that he remembered story hour “completely and totally. We never missed it. The library was part of a whole weekend routine.”
The Library Lady “made a big impression on all of us,” he said. “I remember what a sweet lady she was, and how she would try to pick out books each kid would like.”
Alan and Janet’s mother, Harriet Lichtcsien Margolis, still lives in Elyria, within walking distance of the library. Looking at a digital file of the old article, she seemed to be traveling back 53 years to a time when all of her children were small, and something as essential as a library opened up new worlds for them to dream about and discover.
“With five kids we couldn’t miss the library,” she said. “It was a ritual by us. If it was story hour, or if they had homework, I had to go get them or they walked. The little ones I would take in bad weather. I’d be happy to take them, you know, because they were learning. That was it. They lived in that library, those kids.”
More than books
In 1956, following a year at Bowling Green State University, Elyria native Mary Ann Novak was working at Romec Pump as a timekeeper when she spotted a help-wanted ad in the newspaper for “somebody who likes to read. I’m an avid reader. I’m always reading. I read everything.”
Novak was hired to work the circulation desk.
“When the new books came in I would go down and look at them and take whatever I wanted overnight or the weekend,” she said in a phone interview. “I read all the bestsellers.”
She also read “all of those wonderful magazines on travel. We came out of the Depression … there was no television, so most of what I learned about the world I learned at the library. I got the travel bug and traveled all over the world.”
Novak loved working with the public.
“The people were all so nice … it was a warm, warm place,” she said.
She also enjoyed working the reference desk, where every phone call would bring a new and interesting question to research.
“I had the best time doing that,” she said.
She eventually was promoted to audiovisual librarian, taking care of the film and recordings in the collection. In 1948, the library had become a charter member of the first cooperative film circuit in the United States to circulate 16-millimeter films among its member libraries. According to Novak, this was significant.
“At the time, libraries were synonymous with books, not with visual media. This expanded the boundaries of what a library could do. Anyone — not just teachers — could check out the films.”
By 1967, Elyria became the administering library for the Northern Ohio Regional Film Circuit. With a collection of more than 700 films, 35,000 annual bookings and a total audience of 2 million, this was the largest film circuit in Ohio and one of the largest in the United States. Then, in 1969 — the year of the moon landing — NASA came calling, awarding the library a contract to serve as the administrator of its library of 1,000 films, serving seven states in the Midwest.
Novak worked at the library for 25 years.
Knowing the public by heart
Colleen Moore Pollack, of Vermilion, graduated from Elyria High School in 1955. After two years at Kent State University on an education scholarship, “I knew,” she said, “that teaching wasn’t for me, so I came home.”
An employment agency led her to library director Merlin Wolcott, who hired her for the front circulation desk in September of 1957.
“It was the first job I ever had.”
Pollack was well-acquainted with the library before she ever started to work there.
“I walked from my home on East 13th Street when I was … 6 or 7 years old,” she said. “I went down the steps and would find the books that I wanted and I would sit on the floor and read. I just loved reading. I was interested in science fiction … and the biography series with the orange covers. I read all of those books. I remember reading about Jane Addams.”
Although she worked at the library for only a year and a half, she remembers her time there fondly. In a subsequent joint interview with Stydnicki and Novak at the library’s central branch in May, Pollack recalled the old library’s beauty and how friendly everyone was.
“The kids were really good,” she said. “We didn’t have problems with mouthy kids or anything. My co-workers were wonderful. We were all really dedicated to doing our job … and helping the public.”
One could say that the librarians knew the public by heart.
“People who came in on a regular basis, we became so familiar with them that we knew their library numbers,” Pollack said. “Every book had a card in the back pocket with the name of the book, the author, everything. We took that card out of the book, we wrote their number on the card, and we put it in a daily file so that at the end of the day we knew what books went out. Then we stamped the date when it was due on another card and put that in the back of the book.”
Pollack, Stydnicki and Novak became such good friends that they still get together to reminisce about the old days.
“We were happy young women,” Stydnicki said.
Back to the future
Lyn Crouse became director of Elyria Public Library in January 2012. She believes that a library “should be the civic, social, cultural and education center” of a community. By adhering to that “mantra … we enrich every aspect of people’s lives. The library is so much more than a book warehouse.”
Crouse grew up in western Pennsylvania, where, she said, libraries are not funded by levies. By contrast, “Ohio is library heaven if you’re in the profession,” she said. She is “constantly amazed at how much Ohioans love their libraries. They are used to high-quality library services because they are willing to support their libraries financially. My predecessors must have done a great job in serving the community, because we have a very loyal following.”
Crouse oversees the building fund campaign green-lighted by the 2017 passage of Issue 39 — an ambitious project that will, among other things, support the building of a new branch to replace the central branch (the Washington Avenue location) and a new branch on the south side of town. Although site location negotiations were still underway, Crouse acknowledges “a very aggressive timeline to complete all these projects by the end of 2020.” That year marks the library’s 150th anniversary.
“We’ll throw the biggest party ever,” she said.
And then? “Then I’m retiring.”
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