On Details and Memory

Boys in front of Carpenter Home - 1880'sOne of the interesting aspects of doing a historical display involving photographs, books, and documents – many a century old – is the way small details of daily life pull you in and almost make you forget the reason you started searching through them in the first place.

Many of these details aren’t noticeable unless you look closely: a faded note scribbled into the margin of a book, a boy in a photograph caught in the act of trying to balance on a street curb. Taken cumulatively, the bits and pieces start to work on you, and you’re reminded that these leftovers from the world of people now dead had their origins in a real moment in time.

A friend of mine who is an art conservator once told me the story about working on a major work from the Renaissance, and finding the impression of a fingerprint in the long-dried paint. Whether or not the fingerprint belonged to Caravaggio or one of his assistants, my friend still found it incredibly moving – for a moment he felt as if he were back in the moment of creation, standing next to a living, breathing artist.

Abundant trivia exists in reminiscences and formal written histories of Park Ridge, especially of the early part of the 20th Century. A likely reason why these details were recorded was because the town was still small and people knew one another. Residents also tended to stick around for a long time. A note of familiarity comes up in the histories, as if the authors were writing about people they assumed everyone knew.

One often reads, for example, about a pair of enterprising young brothers named Bob and Fred Stagg, who at the age of 10 or so were known for operating the only available delivery cart in town at the end of the 19th Century. A few years later they would develop another lucrative business for themselves: operating a homemade toboggan slide on the south side of the railroad tracks. They charged about 10 cents per person for its use, and it was hugely popular each year. In their own way they stand out as prominently in Park Ridge history as does George B. Carpenter, if only because the boys’ personalities shine through.

Along with the names, there are vivid moments and images that come across in the documents: street lamps being turned off at midnight, so that anyone still out had to go home in the dark; courting couples sitting on the white picket fence of the park; Mrs. Carpenter taking time during a picnic to speak German with an immigrant family that knew no English.

Along with its more contemporary roles, the Library is an important repository of the past, especially of local history. Like the Historical Society, the Kalo Foundation, and other organizations, it preserves memories and artifacts of the past in the belief that these things matter – not just the big moments but the little ones, where for a brief moment we stop thinking of past lives in the abstract, and recognize ourselves.

“Park Ridge in 1913” Now on Display at the Library

Display Images (2)The first display dedicated to the 100th Anniversary is now up in the 2nd Floor display cases at the Library!

Come get a glimpse of our community as it looked during the earliest years of the Library’s existence. In addition to photos and artifacts showing civic and cultural activities of the period, you’ll find original book catalogues, check out ledgers, notes left by Ruth Colman, and other bits of historical library trivia.

The Library wishes to thank the Park Ridge Historical Society for generous assistance provided during the creation of this display.

Art Patrons, Social Clubs, and the Creation of the Library

A lot of attention has been paid to the artists that thrived in Park Ridge a century ago, including the Kalo silversmiths and Alfonso Iannelli, but less focus has been put on art and culture circles inhabited by everyday folk, which were equally active. While less glamorous a history, perhaps, it has far more significance for the Library.

Park Ridge didn’t have a library until 1913, but it had its origins in the literary clubs, non-professional art leagues, and cultural institutions of the town – especially those run by women – years earlier.

The late 19th Century was a period in history when prominent Americans living outside the cultural hubs of the East Coast were anxious to prove that they could be refined, and had the means to do so. In this spirit Bertha Palmer drove the creation of the Palmer House, with its ballrooms and frescoed ceilings, and residents in smaller communities, such as Mr. and Mrs. George B. Carpenter, opened their doors to cultural events.
Carpenter Home
They were joined in Park Ridge by societies like the Pierians, men and women who met on the site of the Gillick building at Main and Prospect to discuss political, literary, and scientific subjects. In 1894 another group of 20 women formed the Tuesday Literary Club, eventually changing its name to the Park Ridge Women’s Club. Their established purpose was to undertake the study of history, literature, and art.

An example of the kind of programs offered by the Park Ridge Women's Club in the early 20th century.

An example of the kind of programs offered by the Park Ridge Women’s Club in the early 20th century.

These groups, with their semi-formal structure, combined elements of the salon, continuing education classroom, and social networking. They not only knit together the community and provided recreation, but they also helped drive the development of the town itself.

By the turn of the century Park Ridge was hosting operettas, concerts, lectures, poetry readings, and plays – it’s not surprising that talk of a library would start early. In 1910, when members of the Park Ridge Women’s Club heard about Andrew Carnegie’s offer to fund the creation of public libraries, a group of women (and one man) met in the home of Mrs. J.H. Collins to discuss the possibilities. They worked to obtain the City’s permission for the project and drafted a letter to the Carnegie Foundation, which would eventually grant $7,500 for the project.

It will be interesting in later posts to talk about some of the ways that Park Ridge maintained this dedication to the arts and culture over the years – through its arts studios as well as its clubs and, of course, the Library. While some of that interest flagged in the last few decades, there has been something of a revival. The success of the Kalo Foundation to generate support for the Iannelli Studio reflects a longing by people to reestablish a connection to that heritage.

Many older organizations still exist, including the Park Ridge Art League and the Fine Arts Society. And the Library itself attracts more than 30,000 people each year for book discussions, storytimes, lectures, concerts, and other free programs.

These are all healthy signs, even in an era dominated by online social media and other distractions. It’s nice to imagine Park Ridge taking its place once again as a city where people embrace art, culture, and the kind of community that comes from gathering together. Park Ridge once held this distinction, and it’s a reputation worth getting back.

What Carnegie Teaches Us Today

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Andrew CarnegieYou’ve probably heard that the Park Ridge Public Library is a “Carnegie Library,” meaning that it was first built with funds donated by businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in the early part of the 20th century. More than 2,000 libraries were built with Carnegie money between 1883 and 1929 (nearly half of all public and university libraries in the U.S. at that time), and to understand why this has particular significance today, it’s worth knowing a little more about Carnegie himself.

Born in 1835 in Scotland, Andrew Carnegie had little formal education (his father was a handloom worker), but he grew up in a family with a deep respect for books and learning, combined with a powerful work ethic. The Carnegies came to America when Andrew was just 13. He immediately got his first job as a bobbin boy in a Pennsylvania cotton mill, earning $1.20 for a 72-hour work week. Yet he was determined to move up in the world, and within three years was working as a telegraph operator.

During this period Carnegie came into contact with a retired merchant named Colonel James Anderson. A progressive thinker when it came to working class boys, Anderson offered them the use of his personal library on Saturdays, and Carnegie took advantage of the opportunity to improve his mind. In fact, “improvement” hardly begins to describe the voracious reading habits of Carnegie, who as time passed began to outline a personal philosophy of the self-made man that still influences society today – and lies at the heart of his vision for public libraries.

“This is but a slight tribute and gives only a faint idea of the depth of gratitude which I feel for what (Anderson) did for me and my companions,” Carnegie wrote years later. “It was from my own early experience that I decided there was no use to which money could be applied so productive of good to boys and girls who have good within them and ability and ambition to develop it, as the founding of a public library in a community.”

Carnegie determined that there were three stages in a man’s life. The first part, he said, should be dedicated to amassing a good education, and in his view access to books played a crucial role.

The second third of life should be spent amassing a fortune. Carnegie applied as much energy to getting rich in the steel industry as he did to his other projects (at times arousing criticism – although by accounts he was less blood-thirsty than other 19th Century tycoons), and might have died one of the richest men in the country in terms of personal income, had he not already given most of his fortune away to philanthropic causes.

Indeed, in the last third of his life, Carnegie proved astounding in the sheer extent of his generosity. He treated philanthropy as the true purpose of his life – one that he felt had the potential to most deeply affect humanity for the better – and he worked from a clear plan. The case of the Carnegie Library project provides a good example.

Nearly all Carnegie libraries were built according to the “Carnegie Formula,” which required matching contributions from the town receiving the donation. In 1913 a town needed to:

• Demonstrate the need for a public library
• Provide the building site
• Annually provide 10% of the cost of the library’s construction to support operations
• Provide free service for all

Town officials had to respond to a list of questions that helped determine their eligibility. Few towns were rejected, for this was a time in American history when young communities like Park Ridge were growing at a rapid pace, and the interest in providing cultural and learning opportunities for residents was keen.

Carnegie’s influence on the modern library went beyond simply having them built. He has been credited for ensuring patron access to open book stacks, where people could browse at length and choose a book to read (prior to this, a clerk was required to retrieve books from closed stacks). The young boy from Dunfermline, Scotland knew what it meant to him to have free access to his employer’s library, and years later he wanted to make sure it remained that way for others.

It would be easy to think of Andrew Carnegie’s vision for libraries as a quaint relic of the past, especially as the layout of libraries has changed. The risk of looking at public libraries today as little more than information centers is to believe that technology has the potential to replace them. Yet libraries are more than sources of facts and data, or recreation and entertainment – although they offer all this and more. Above all they are places where people can still come to find the tools that can change their lives for the better. Literacy, enlightenment, and the pursuit of knowledge remain firmly at their foundation.

As Carnegie once wrote, “There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.”

One hundred years later that still holds true, and it’s worth a celebration in itself.

Our Miss Colman

Ruthn Colman

The website button for the anniversary blog features a century-old photo of a young woman, standing  with her arms crossed and  smiling into the camera. This is Ruth Colman, the first librarian of the Park Ridge Public Library. She was only about 19 when she was offered the job, thanks to her reputation for being extremely well-read (the kind of girl they called a bluestocking in those days) and after taking “a course in library work.”

“The board would appear to have made a splendid move in securing Miss Colman,” the local paper said. “She is careful, accommodating, and is well-acquainted with Park Ridge people.”

In fact it must have been a dream job for a girl with a passion for reading and an organizational mind – Ruth also taught Sunday school and sang in the choir, and when the Library was being built she and her sister Marie went around town, asking for book donations, which they then spent weeks cataloguing.

Despite the idea many people still have of librarians in the old days being pinched and severe, Ruth Colman was nothing like that: she liked the theatre and dreamed of bobbing her hair (eventually managing to persuade her father, who was opposed to the trend). Like her sister, she chose to go to work, in time serving as a business librarian for the Carnation Milk Company and the National Safety Council. She also pursued her dream of studying journalism at Northwestern University late in life, while working in the university library.

The Colman family lived first on Clinton Street and later at a house on Northwest Highway and Washington. Ruth walked from there to the Carnegie library every Tuesday and Saturday for seven years, working a total of 10 hours a week. another old llibrary photoThis picture of the old library’s interior give you some idea of her environment. She organized materials, checked books in and out, and helped both adults and children in their reading. Because the town was still small and she knew almost everyone who came in the door, it was probably easy for Ruth to keep track of much of her job in her head.

In 1920 she passed the torch to Frances Holbrook, who would serve as librarian for the next 38 years. Under Frances the Park Ridge Public Library truly came into the modern age, adding a dedicated children’s area and developing Reference Services into a specific department. (Frances would also see the Library move into its present location in 1958.)

Unfortunately Ruth herself did not live to see that happen – always frail after a childhood bout with rheumatic fever, she became ill in the winter of 1946 and died in May of the following year.

Not long after starting here as the Information Coordinator, I came across the photo of Ruth Colman in the files and felt an immediate affinity for her – who would not like seeing that friendly face when you came inside the old library? It seemed an easy choice to make her a kind of unofficial mascot for the 100 Year Anniversary, since much of the small-town service she initiated still exists here, even as library services have grown far beyond anything she might have imagined.Ruth Colman in 1912

Welcome to the Anniversary Blog!

Any resident who’s lived in town long enough has a memory of the Library. Some people (myself included) feel like they grew up there. I remember summer days spent in the cool of the Library, cross-legged on the floor, reading for hours.

As author Nancy Slonim Aronie writes, “Books and reading once saved a very lonely childhood. At the library I found people who took interest in me. From books I learned about people and compassion.”

Poet Rita Dove remembers, too: “My childhood library was small enough not to be intimidating. And yet I felt the whole world was contained in those two rooms.”

Author Ray Bradbury, a passionate advocate of libraries, put it in even more strongly: “You must live feverishly in a library. Colleges are not going to do you any good unless you are raised and live in a library every day of your life.”

The people who visit the Park Ridge Public Library are from all walks of life and of all ages, but they all have their own personal reasons for coming. Some are here daily. Whether they come for books, or for information, or merely to have a place to sit (even on the floor), the Library exists for them – it is first and foremost an egalitarian public space, where all are welcome.

This 100 Anniversary blog is more than a place for posting news and highlights of events held during the coming year. We’re also going to share memories, images, and other curiosities from our past; some moments significant, some merely passing – but it’s in the details that we see the big picture. What better way to honor the Library’s centennial than to tell its stories?

This is also an open invitation for residents – even former residents – to share some stories of their own. Feel free to comment on any of the posts, or drop us a line if you have something you want to share. We know there are some great stories out there, and we want to hear from you.

Happy holidays, everyone!