By: Anita Streich
In honor of National Library Week on April 10, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson stated, “Libraries sustain and enhance our national life. They are a fundamental and vibrant resource for human intellectual and cultural development. Libraries reveal great heritages of the past and provide doorways to individual attainments that can become great legacies for generations of the future.”
Beaver Dam public library service has enriched and sustained the community for 130 years throughout economic downturns and technology booms. As you come to the library to select a handful of books, CDs, or films, it may surprise you that libraries were not always funded by public dollars and many libraries often required a subscription up until the end of the 19th century.
The vision of a free public library in Beaver Dam began with a group of devoted citizens on August 30, 1884, by forming a corporation under State Law as the Beaver Dam Public Library Association. After canvassing the four wards of the city for private subscriptions, the first Beaver Dam library opened in a room in City Hall with 996 books on December 1, 1884. Ella Smith was the first librarian and held her position until she became ill in 1889. A city referendum in April of 1885 passed by the vote of citizens that the City of Beaver Dam would fund the library and was known as the Beaver Dam Free City Library. The library soon outgrew the two rooms in City Hall.
With Beaver Dam’s enthusiastic support of its newly formed library, a proposal by John J. Williams of $25,000, “to build a home for our Free City Library and equip and endow it if the city will provide a suitable lot,” gave birth to the idea of the city and private citizens working together to construct a new library in Beaver Dam. The Williams Free Library was first opened to the public with 4,500 books on September 1, 1891 with Mary Doolittle serving as head librarian. After her sister Mary’s unexpected death in 1897, Hattie Doolittle took over serving the community as head librarian for 47 years. Subsequent librarians Orilla Thompson Blackshear and Rudy Roeder continued to strive to improve and expand library service with additional collections and an extensive remodeling of the building in 1955. In the mid-1960s the public expectation and function of the library had widened from merely a storehouse of books to a resource serving the informational, educational and recreational needs of the community.
By 1979 the library shelves were full, having expanded to 52,608 volumes, and the need for additional space for AV services and computer terminals became inevitable. In January of the same year, Pat Pawl began as the new library director, and the Library Board hired an architect to survey community sites to build a new library. Through active community support, fundraising, and the Library Director and Library Board’s determination, they broke ground at the Spring Street site on April 16, 1984. The Williams Free Library Board named the new library the Beaver Dam Community Library. Board chairman Melitta Quinlan explains that the word “community” was in the title “because this was a community project and the community supported us so well.” The Beaver Dam Community Library opened on March 4, 1985 and was dedicated during National Library Week on April 14, 1985.
The Beaver Dam Community Library, under the direction of current library administrator Sue Mevis, has embraced the technology shift in libraries from integrated library systems and public internet to online reference databases and eBooks. The Beaver Dam Community Library has expanded from 996 books in 1884 to 147,580 print books, 123,634 electronic books and 64,264 audiovisual items in 2014.
The name of the library in Beaver Dam has changed over time, although the vision of a free and public library that opens its doors to lifelong learning, the exploration of new ideas and preservation of the past remains a strong tradition in our community.
The library staff and the Board of Trustees invite the community to the 30-year celebration of the Beaver Dam Community Library on Tuesday, April 14, 2015 during National Library Week. For more information about the Beaver Dam Community Library services and events, go to www.cityofbeaverdam.com/library or phone the library at (920) 219-4400.
Historical photos are courtesy of the Dodge County Historical Society and the Beaver Dam Community Library Archives. Information for this article was sourced from History of Williams Free Library (1966) and A Century of Library Service (1984).