by Nathaniel A. Thomas, MLS

The year was 1763, and the original Thirteen Colonies were a hotbed of unrest between the colonists and the indigenous peoples of North America. On February 10 of that year, the Treaty of Paris ended the seven-year-long French and Indian War. Pennsylvania became involved in Native American conflicts in August as Pontiac’s War broke out between a union of tribes against settlers in Fort Pitts and Fort Presque Isle, both located in the far western provinces of the Commonwealth.

In the same year, Thomas Penn served as Pennsylvania’s colonial proprietor (a role similar to governor), and Benjamin Franklin was on the verge of being elected Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives (an office he would hold officially the following year). As these historical events took place, a group of men met in a tavern to plan the establishment of the first English-language library in Reading, Pennsylvania.

At least six gentlemen gathered at Widow Drury’s tavern in Reading sometime in 1763 to discuss the establishment of an English-language library open only to subscription-paying members. The men were largely figures of prominence, politically and socially. Among them was Thomas Lincoln, half-brother of John Lincoln, who was the great-great-grandfather of our sixteenth president. (Thomas Lincoln also served as Berks County’s third sheriff from 1757 to 1758.) James Read was a first cousin of Deborah Read, the wife of Benjamin Franklin. Read also served as the official custodian of the original library book collection. The first recorded attorney in Reading, James Biddle, was also there. Biddle had distinguished himself as a representative of the Commonwealth at the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia. James Biddle’s younger brother, Edward, played a role in the development of the library though he was not present at the initial English subscription library’s meeting. He also served at the First Continental Congress. His wife, Elizabeth Ross Biddle, was an aunt to Betsy Ross, who created the first American flag.

Jonas Seely (the county’s first treasurer from 1752 to 1768) and Peter Spyker (one of the county’s first judges from 1768-1790) were present as well. Charles Evans was a prominent Reading lawyer and served as a member of the original Reading Library Company board; he also held one term as its president. His legacy to Reading, in addition to his public library service, is the massive cemetery named after him, which he endowed in 1846.

The library officially opened to subscription holders on February 12, 1764, in the Reading residence of James Whitehead, who is considered the first librarian. However, the founders’ enthusiasm for a library was soon eclipsed by events taking place outside Reading. The political unrest brewing in the colonies was against the injustice of the taxation system imposed by the British Crown and led to a spirit of rebellion. With the full outbreak of the Revolutionary War, attention to the fledgling library dwindled, and the project was ultimately abandoned. The original books were then distributed among the subscription holders for safekeeping in 1774.

Not until the first decade of the nineteenth century did the matter of library establishment once again arise. In 1808 — at yet another tavern, this time the Conrad Fesig pub — a meeting was held to organize The Society of the English Library of Reading. It would later that same year be renamed the Library Company of Reading, a shareholder-owned corporation which helped oversee the financial stability of the library proper. The first library company dissolved in 1845. Its successor, the Library Company of Reading, exists today to provide the same support to the institution as its forbear.

John McKnight was elected librarian in 1808. A Philadelphia native, he founded the Reading branch of the Pennsylvania Bank (named Reading Bank of Deposit) which was the first financial institution in the city. McKnight served as librarian through 1812. Henry Augustus Muhlenberg, a Pennsylvania state senator and member of the U.S. House of Representatives, contributed books from his own collection to the library and served on the board of trustees for many years.

At this point the library was housed in the county government building at the corner of Fifth and Penn Streets. The enthusiasm of this second wave of library forbears waned with time, and the library was shuttered on April 18, 1845.

The Reading Library was an institution facing a cycle of short-term enthusiasm followed by a lack of long-term financial support. Each reiteration of the library concept was born of a fervent desire on the part of a small coterie of individuals for access to reading materials. Unfortunately, each library stage met with its demise because fees were either consistently paid late or remained unpaid outright. This lack of self-generated fiscal reliability, coupled with the complete absence of any kind of subsidy from an outside source (state or federal aid, taxes, etc.), made the library’s stop-and-start life cycle inevitable.

In three years, renewed interest in the establishment of a library arose, and on September 30, 1848 a library opened at the Reading Academy Building, located at the intersection of Fourth and Court Streets. This third attempt to create a successful library also failed and was abandoned in 1856. A fourth attempt likewise folded in 1866.

Reading natives continued to hope for a lasting library in their city, and dogged perseverance eventually resulted in success. Augustus Boas of the Reading Savings Bank advanced $10,000 for the purchase of a floor of the Odd Fellows Hall at the corner of Fifth and Franklin Streets. Jacob Knabb served as librarian, and the investors in this library were both more fiscally benevolent and civically committed than any of their predecessors. The Odd Fellows Hall (the original name of the first building to house a library in Reading) had been dedicated on October 26, 1847 and served as a central meeting space for various events hosted by its parent fraternal organization. By the 1860s, however, the Odd Fellows organization faced difficulty paying the mortgage and thus sold the controlling shares of the building to the Reading Library Company. The subscription library occupied one floor of the building, and the Reading Library opened its doors at Fifth and Franklin Streets on the first day of August, 1868.

The library slowly expanded to the other floors of the original structure, which came to be called Library Hall. Neighboring floors had initially been rented out to myriad parties: a natural history society, an artillery association, a traveling freak show, and even the local chapter of the Salvation Army. The latter’s worship services grew so rowdy with loud singing and band music blaring that after making unsuccessful requests for a quieter service, the library terminated the lease. The Salvation Army moved down the road to the three hundred block of South Fifth Street and has remained there ever since.

The first woman to have an important role in the library’s existence was Miss Mary E. Richards, who was elected librarian on June 1, 1872 at an annual salary of $300. She was also the last woman to hold the position of head librarian. In fact, she is the only woman to have served as head librarian in the library’s history.

The Boas Bank, which had proven so instrumental in providing the library’s fiscal security, became insolvent and was forced to close in 1877. Library forefathers Albert R. Durham, Jacob Knabb, and Richmond L. Jones scrambled to salvage the subscription fund and keep the library intact. After much argument, the Reading Library Company was finally able to acquire a mortgage from the Farmer’s National Bank, primarily through the advocacy of the bank’s president, Henry S. Eckert. Additional financial discord arose when bills for services were challenged as being the responsibility of the Reading Library proper or the overseeing body, the Reading Library Company. In 1883, this situation grew so volatile that several members of the library board of trustees including Henry S. Eckert of Farmer’s National Bank peremptorily resigned. The new leaders’ first action was to remove the library from the financial control of Mr. Eckert and seek assistance from a private citizen.

Miss Emily Ewing Spears made a loan to the board in 1884 for the significant amount of $10,500 for five years, with a rate of interest set at 5 percent. The loan was used to pay off the Eckert mortgage outright. Miss Spears’ one minor condition was that the interest be paid every quarter. The board firmly refused, stating it was challenge enough to pay it twice yearly. The good will of this worthy matron led her to be referred to by the library administration as “Fairy Godmother Spears.”

Records indicate the subscription dues (in 1882) were a fee of $2.00 annually. Those who did not have subscriptions were permitted to use the library rooms at a rate of 5¢ a day. The library’s hours were, by contemporary standards, parsimonious: It was open on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday afternoons and very early evenings only.

Considering the relentless series of closures, relocations, and seeming failures, the continual rebirth of the library appears almost miraculous. The tenacity and perseverance of the library concept is a testament to the efforts of the library proponents to establish a working library in the community. And the library did receive enough support to establish the most lasting collection it had enjoyed to date. However, even a fifth phase of life met with failure when, due to the same problems, the money ran out and the doors were closed on July 12, 1888.

On January 30, 1889, Jacob Knabb — who had served as one of the first librarians — died. Mr. Knabb. In his last will and testament, Knabb bequeathed $500 to the library from his estate.

In February of the same year, Richmond L. Jones became president of the board of trustees. The “Father of the Reading Public Library,” Albert Riggs Durham, became librarian on January 4, 1892. He had served briefly as a reference librarian in the library exactly thirty years earlier (1862-1863). Mr. Durham’s first order of business was to expand the library’s collection of books. The more pressing crisis was securing reliable funding for the library’s operation. By November of 1897, the first steps had been taken to change the Reading Library from a fee-based and members-only collection to a free institution.

The board acted swiftly to press the subscription-holders to pay their fees, which they did; with this cash in hand, the trustees paid off the Library Hall mortgage. On January 8, 1898, the Reading PUBLIC Library was opened and declared “free for the use of the public.”

According to The Library That Would Not Die, “At the next meeting, July 13, 1898, Librarian Durham presented a report that illustrates why he is sometimes called the ‘Father of the Reading Public Library.’ “ He stated that from the time of his election as librarian (December 1891) he took no compensation for his services, as it was manifest that the library could not pay the salary attached to the office.”

The library became an official subsidiary of the City of Reading when the city formally accepted the deed to the library property at 100 South Fifth Street on April 4, 1899. The newly-designated status as a city department did a great deal to secure the library’s financial future.

A series of seventeen library rules had been drafted by the library board at a meeting held on October 16, 1898. In May of 1900, at another board meeting, the public’s outcry at the sixteenth regulation had to be discussed. This rule stated, “For any borrower, so desiring, and paying five cents, a book will be reserved twenty-four hours, and notice sent of such retention.” Library management ignored the complaints, and the fee for setting aside books stood firm.

In January 1901 the Reading Public Library became a member of the Federal Depository Library System, which meant that it was a depository for publications printed by the Federal government.

Librarian Durham was a thorough custodian of the library’s collection of books; he reported that in 1901 the total circulation topped 41,566, a library record. Durham passed away on March 22, 1907; and in a moving tribute, the entire library staff attended his funeral.

Not until 1908 did patrons begin requesting a separate library space for use by children. Discussion about setting up branch libraries in other parts of the city also began around the same time. By October of 1909 a small room adjoining the library (formerly the site of a flower shop) was opened as the first children’s department.

The Reading Public Library had survived multiple, massive financial setbacks, but one of its most serious problems was about to be discovered: Library Hall was structurally unsound. Window frames were in a near-crumbling state, and the inner walls began swelling with retained water. An architect advised that repairs would cost nearly $6,000. The board sent out bids and chose Thomas Seidel to make the repairs, but his estimate for the work was even higher. It totaled just over $9,000. The board of trustees would face even more critical news when city building inspector Oscar Heim made a more thorough examination.

Every single exterior wall was unsafe, according to Heim, and the foundation was extremely unstable. Reading’s Mayor William Rick issued a letter on March 10, 1910, declaring Library Hall condemned and forbidding entry to the building. This dire state of affairs led to a bold plan. Pennsylvania philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, the wealthy steel magnate from Pittsburgh, had been generous to public libraries across the country. Board members suggested that Carnegie be asked to contribute money for the necessary repairs. President Richmond Jones actually opposed the idea outright. He remained convinced the new library building was the responsibility of the city alone. It was no surprise that Mayor Rick disagreed completely, and it was his office that drew up the initial request for help from Mr. Carnegie.

In May 1910 Mr. Carnegie donated $100,000 outright to Reading’s City Council and Mayor for the express purpose of erecting a new home for the Reading Public Library. After much wrangling with the heirs of the adjoining properties in the 100 block of South Fifth Street, the board also acquired the five adjacent residences. Construction of the new building officially began on July 16, 1911. The New York-based architectural firm of Henry D. Whitfield was hired to design and construct the new library. Within several months the mounting additional costs of the construction led to the decision to petition Mr. Carnegie for additional finding. He graciously donated even more to the cause, with his total donation totaling $111,180.

At long last the Reading Public Library had a brand new home all its own. A dedication ceremony was held on May 15, 1913, and Board President Richmond Jones presided. The building officially opened for patrons on June 9, 1913. Once the Main Library was established, the board then turned its attention to making branch libraries a reality.

Three separate areas of the city became homes to branch libraries: the Northeast (at the corner of Tenth and Green Streets), the Northwest (at the corner of Douglass and Weiser Streets), and the Southeast (at the corner of Fifteenth and Perkiomen Streets) neighborhoods. Each was housed in a public school building, but the sites were not ideal. The collections were cramped and underused. The first branch in its own building was born on January 15, 1917, when a former soup kitchen was converted for branch library operations at the corner of Spring and Moss Streets. In December of 1918 the collection at the Tenth and Green Street location was removed to this location.

Two notable figures passed away in the early years of the 1920s. President of the Board Richmond L. Jones, a powerful force behind the new library building project, died on July 2, 1923. Librarian Edward A. Howell, another titan in the library’s development, died in October of 1925.

Truman R. Temple of Quincy, Massachusetts, was elected librarian and began his role on January 1, 1926. Mr. Temple was the very first Reading Public Library librarian to hold a Master’s Degree in Library Science. One of the first efforts he made was to decrease the number of library staff. His first layoff was Elizabeth Lonegan, the daughter of a well-respected local family who had been employed at the library as a circulation assistant. Miss Lonegan’s longstanding reputation for being a difficult co-worker who was often insubordinate made her an ideal first casualty.

On April 10, 1927 the Northwest Library opened on the corner of Oley and Lincoln Streets.

Librarian Alfred Decker Keator took the reins of directorship on November 1, 1928. Keator was the first librarian whose previous experience had been purely academic. He came from the University of North Dakota. Keator’s primary concern throughout his directorship was the lack of space for the growing collection. In both 1931 and 1932, his end-of-year report to the board of trustees exhorted them to consider financing an entirely new building in a different area of Reading.

The years of the Great Depression saw a surge in library use. Since so many Reading residents were thrust into economic hardship during these lean years, the free resources available at the public library were gratefully put to good use.

The Northwest Branch opened in June 1939 at its final location on the corner of Schuylkill and Windsor Streets. Kate Muhlenberg acted as the Northwest librarian when it moved to its new location. Alfred Keator resigned from his position on July 1, 1940, to assume the prestigious position of State Librarian of the Commonwealth in Harrisburg. His replacement was Richard L. Brown, who had previously served as a reference librarian at the Main Library and who at the time was employed as librarian at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

Mr. Brown’s first priority was to expand and overhaul the Children’s Department. He also spearheaded the initial concept of the Reading Public Library’s role as what would later become the district library center for all of Berks County. During the 1940s library personnel focused on promoting the library. Pamphlets addressing library rules and services were disseminated. The Reading Eagle ran a weekly column titled “Your Library in Action.” Book reviews became a component of every week’s radio broadcast on station WRAW.

The advent of World War II found Reading Public Library prepared to help the nation in its hour of need. The library was officially established as a War Information Center in 1942. This meant the library received authorized information on the war’s progress and on activities related to civilian assistance to the war effort (scrap drives for metal, rubber, and the like, among others). In the following year (1943), the library organized the Victory Book Campaign. This undertaking included collecting more than 15,000 volumes to provide reading materials for the fighting forces overseas. The provision of books to the troops had been noted as a significant morale booster during World War I, and the American Library Association was keen to launch the Victory Book Campaign to make such resources available during the second world war.

Reference Librarian George Pettengil began a detailed list of authors from Reading and all of Berks County in 1945. The first issues of The Reading Eagle newspaper in microfilm format were added to the collection in 1946.

The era of bookmobile service dawned when Phyllis Mengel and Marie Delle Palme hit the road with the library’s first portable collection. Its maiden trip occurred on July 9, 1951, and its original route covered fifty-one stops every two weeks. It should be noted the entire cost of the bookmobile purchase was covered by patron fines from overdue library materials.

Library Director Richard Brown was insistent on some form of collaboration between the Reading Public Library and the county libraries, a theme he persistently repeated throughout the 1950s to the county commissioners. However this idea never bore fruit since he retired without success in 1961. Martin H. DuRoss replaced him, and it was in 1962 a new state law went into effect which led to the provisional designation of the Reading Public Library as a District Library Center. The legislation — Act No. 188 — was described by Governor David L. Lawrence as “a new code that will strengthen library service in every community.”

Director DuRoss faced what had become an untenable situation regarding space. The library’s collections filled the shelves to bursting, but the library board could not agree to any plan which called for an entirely new building. The Muhlenberg Brothers, who owned an architectural firm, were hired to decide how to best solve the shelving shortage. They recommended that a multi-level set of steel stacks be constructed in the middle of the existing library’s main floor. The massive new central stacks expanded the library’s capacity for books and were installed throughout 1963; a memorial bequest from library benefactor A. Raymond Bard was the primary source of funds for this project. The new central stacks were opened for shelving in 1964. Despite the overwhelming chaos and clutter the erection of the stacks brought along with it, the library did not close for even one day throughout the construction.

Edmond Doherty became director in February of 1966, and in the same year there were major improvements made to the Children’s Department, which was located in the basement of the Main Library. Countywide bookmobile service first went into action on February 26, 1969.

The library’s satellite locations were given renewed attention as the 1970s dawned. The Northeast Branch at Spring and Moss Streets and the Southeast Branch at 15th Street and Perkiomen Avenue overcrowded and outdated. The library board was informed that two former elementary school buildings — one at the corner of 11th and Pike Streets, the other at 1426 Perkiomen Avenue — were to be donated to the city from the school board with the express purpose of housing two branch libraries.

The Muhlenberg-Greene Architectural Firm was commissioned in 1970 to draw up elementary plans for new buildings to be erected on both sites. The new Southeast Branch Library opened to the public on March 23, 1974; the new Northeast Branch opened shortly thereafter, on April 1, 1974. The Northwest Branch (built in 1939 at the corner of Schuylkill Avenue and Windsor Street) was given a lift in the same year, with renovations to the interior plumbing and the addition of air-conditioning.

An annual bookselling event called Book Bonanza was organized in part by the Friends of Reading and the Berks County Libraries. The Friends organization was officially constituted on October 27, 1980. Its primary goals were to heighten awareness of public libraries’ materials and services, to seek and obtain monetary aid, to encourage legislation that would benefit libraries, and to foster dialogue between libraries and the communities they served. The Friends group began publishing its newsletter Bookends in September 1982.

Budget constraints were to hit the library hard at the dawn of 1981 when $100,000 of funding was cut, which led to the closure of the Northwest Branch library. In January the building was shuttered, and public outcry against the closure led to its re-opening in May of the same year.

The first long-term plan (named the Berks’ Libraries Planning Project) put into place to evaluate countywide library services and goals was created in 1984. Devising funding strategies, developing and providing increasingly effective library service to all communities, and creating a long-term schematic for evaluating such goals, were among the principle aims of the plan. With support from Berks County Commissioners and boards of the county public libraries, the result of this plan was the establishment of the Berks County Public Library System, which began on November 10, 1986. The Reading Public Library served as the system’s nexus and was designated the District Library Center.

By 1988 the Main Library had begun to show its age. The library board decided to launch a volunteer capital campaign, which was the first time they made a direct appeal to local residents and businesses for significant financial support, specifically a goal of $800,000.

In the same year (1988) the library celebrated three noteworthy anniversaries: the 225th anniversary of the establishment of the first subscription library in Reading, the 90th birthday of its being created a free and public institution, and the 75th year of the Carnegie-endowed library building’s existence.

The kickoff to the massive capital campaign was held on February 5, 1989. Improvements to the Main Library included repairs to the roof, repainting of the interior, installation of new carpeting, renovations to the climate control system, and even the shifting of departments. The Children’s Department, which had before been assigned to the gloom of the basement, was relocated to what had been the front mezzanine of the building. A major new addition was that of an elevator. Calls for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act had prompted the library board to examine issues of access to the library’s central non-fiction stacks as well as the balconies. To this end, an elevator was installed at the south corner of the front of the library; it was completely in place by July 1989.

The capital campaign was successful and in December 1992 the renovations began in earnest. The Main Library was closed to the public, but its collections and services were relocated to remote sites. Reference service and book circulation continued despite the closure. The extensive renovations were unveiled at a celebration in June of 1993, when the public viewed the refurbished Main Library for the first time.

The antiquated wooden card catalog, which held the records for the library’s collection, was retired in 1994 when the first automated catalog system was introduced. In January 1998 the library celebrated its 100th anniversary as a free public institution; the following year the 100th anniversary of the library existing as an office of the City of Reading was marked. In conjunction with the latter, the first website for the library was launched with a URL address at www.reading.lib.pa.us. The website’s address is the same today although its content and layout have been significantly expanded.

In December 2002, Assistant Director Frank W. Kasprowicz was promoted to Director of Libraries. He had served as assistant director since March of 1988. The first decade of the 21st century was fraught with budgetary woes, as financial resources at all levels were drastically reduced. Commonwealth support was reduced severely in 2003, and the Main Library removed all materials from the New Books section in the front of the library then draped the shelves in black bunting to illustrate how huge a loss it would be. In the autumn months of 2009, rallies were held at the Main Library and all branches to arouse support from our patrons and encourage them to contact legislators to petition for an increase in aid.

In September 2010, the library was diagnosed with wide-reaching structural problems, to the tune of over $400,000. In August 2011, the City of Reading disseminated a survey to its citizens asking them to rank forty-two core city services in order of priority, with first on the list being of greatest value. Reading’s library patrons responded enthusiastically with a positive result: The Reading Public Library was listed as number nine out of the forty-two services.

Taylor Swift generously donated $68,000 worth of children’s books to the Main Library’s Children’s Department in October of 2011. The country music superstar is a native of neighboring Wyomissing borough. And the Library entered a dynamic new phase of information delivery when it unveiled its electronic book collection in January of 2012.

The sestercentennial celebration of the Reading Public Library began on January 12, 2013 with a reception held in the Main Library. Director Frank W. Kasprowicz and Library Board President Reneé L. Dietrich spoke about the enduring legacy and excellence of the library. Reference Librarian Nathaniel A. Thomas delivered a lecture highlighting the library’s 250 years of existence, and a timeline featuring images and artifacts from throughout the library’s lifetime was proudly unveiled. On this threshold of our history, as President Dietrich remarked on this day, “We share our belief in the value of people, education, ideas, and excellence. It is our duty to preserve them for the next generation.”