Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Allen County’s Amazing Library

(Fort Wayne Monthly “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” – March 2011, No. 76.) 

The concept of a public library had its beginnings in 1850 when Allen County provided for one in its budget and the newspapers listed the new books available.  A reading room was established on Wayne Street in 1887 with private funds by Emerine Hamilton.  She was Emerine Jane Holman a southern Indiana woman whose father, Jesse Lynch Holman, was a judge on the Indiana Supreme Court, a United States District judge and one of the founders of Indiana University and Franklin College.  One of the distinguishing features of Emerine and husband Allen Hamilton’s mansion was the thousands of volumes of rare and contemporary books that filled the shelves of several libraries in the big house.  She became the founder of the first public library in Fort Wayne, the predecessor to the Allen County Public Library.

Although state law had authorized a tax levy for a public library since 1881, the Fort Wayne City Council refused to respond until 1893 when the Woman’s Club League of Fort Wayne persuaded City Council to change its mind.  Fort Wayne’s first public library opened in January 1895, in a room in the new City Hall on East Berry Street.  Later that year, the library moved to its own quarters in the Sol D. Bayless residence at East Wayne and Clinton streets.  A new address for the public library was found in the Brackenridge home on the corner of Wayne and Webster streets in 1898.

In 1904, with a grant from the Andrew Carnegie Foundation, the first permanent public library was constructed at Webster and Wayne streets. During construction, the library was placed in the Elektron Building on Wayne Street.  The Carnegie building remained the library’s home until 1968, when it was demolished. The present building was constructed on the same site and the northwest wing was added in 1981.  On January 27th 2007, the doors were opened to a greatly expanded structure and Allen County improved its position as home to a world-class library.

The Allen County Public Library holds the second largest genealogical collection in the United States and was the first public library to obtain all the available Federal census records.  The origins of this extraordinary genealogical collection can be traced to the Great Depression when library director Rex Potterf and his young friend and disciple, Fred Reynolds, went on the road searching for inexpensive books to fill the library’s shelves.  Without much money to buy expensive new books, they found many local and family histories, directories and other records.
When Fred Reynolds became director of the library in 1960, he focused the collection specifically on genealogy, with a room set aside in the old Carnegie building.  Reynolds made arrangements with the Newberry Library in Chicago – then the largest genealogical collection in the country – to preserve Newberry’s prized and rapidly deteriorating books and records through a massive photo-copying effort at the Allen County Library.  Originals and a copy were sent back to the Newberry, but a copy also stayed in Allen County’s facility.  As many as 37,000 volumes of rare reference works were acquired by the library in this way, and these became the foundation of the great genealogical collection.  The practice continues with the library copying and binding donated family histories always returning a copy to the donor.  On a much larger scale major collections are preserved. When the Lincoln Corporation decided to close its Fort Wayne Lincoln Museum, the ACPL was chosen to digitize its massive book and document collection to be placed on the Web and a project that will take years to complete.

Today, our ever-improving library’s resources extend beyond genealogy providing excellent services for us all.  Stories like these help keep alive the assets of our community… making this a very interesting place in which to call home.


Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi© is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; hosts “On the Heritage Trail” which is broadcast Mondays on 89.1 fm WBOI; and “Historia Nostra” heard on Redeemer Radio 106.3 fm.  Enjoy his previously published columns on the History Center’s blog “Our Stories” at historycenterfw.blogspot.com.

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