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Today's Family Magazine

Mentor Public Library celebrates 200th anniversary

Jan 28, 2019 04:33PM

The Library as it looked in the early 1900s.

The Mentor Public Library celebrates its 200th anniversary in 2019.

That’s older than the city of Mentor, which incorporated 56 years ago.  That’s older than the Cleveland Public Library, which is a sprightly 150 years old.

It’s older than the railroad tracks that run through Mentor, the Erie Canal or Lake County itself, which formed in 1840.  In fact, when it formed in 1819, the Mentor Library Company was the first subscription library service in the Western Reserve.

Things have changed a lot in 200 years.

In 1819, the library company owned 79 books that were housed in the homes of its shareholders.  The rules were strict back then.  A dog-eared page would cost you a 6.5-cent fine.

The company was reborn as the Mentor Library Association in 1875 and soon came under the guidance of Mentor’s most famous family, the Garfields.  James R. Garfield, son of President James A. Garfield, became head of its board in 1890.

Back then, the library was funded by donations and entertainment.  (It helped that the first lady, Lucretia Garfield, donated an upright piano.) It must have worked because its collection tripled from 278 to 767 books in a year.

The volumes were housed in a room in the Mentor Village Hall. Any Mentor resident – 15 years or older – could borrow books for two weeks and renew them for another week.  Nonresidents needed to pay 25 cents a month for the same privilege.

In May 1895, Mentor Village Council levied a .5-mill tax for the library.  It assured the library $160 a year, rendering the fundraising socials no longer necessary.

But the library still didn’t have a building to call its own until 1903. That’s when Addison Goodall promised to pledge $1,500 to $2,000 toward a library building, if the board would pay the balance.

The board agreed and the library was built at the corner of what was then Center Street and Mentor Avenue.  This first library building was designed by Abram Garfield, another son of the president.  When it opened, the building housed 2,400 books.

In 1906, Frances Cleveland – the first lady of Mentor Public Library – was hired as librarian.  It’s difficult to overstate Cleveland’s importance to the library.  She held the library’s first story hours and delivered books to township schools by horse and wagon.

It was she who properly catalogued all the books and pushed for the installation of electrical lights. During a famous episode, she spent a cold winter’s day in an unheated library assembling extra book shelves.

Cleveland held her position until she died in 1944.  A meeting room in Mentor Public Library’s Main Branch is named in her honor.

In the intervening years, the library system went through a pair of name changes.  In 1927, it was redubbed the Garfield Public Library in gratitude to James R. Garfield.  By then, it was run by the Mentor Village School Board.

In 1950, the Mentor Village and Mentor Township school districts combined, as did their respective libraries.  Only then did the joined libraries receive its modern name, Mentor Public Library.

In 1959, Mentor residents passed a $200,000 bond issue to fund the library’s growth.  The Mentor Public Library, Garfield Unit, opened on Dec. 19, 1960 in a familiar location – 8215 Mentor Avenue, still the location of the library’s Main Branch.  The building has expanded since, but it began as a T-shaped, one-floor edifice with room to hold 65,000 books.

About the same time, Mentor Public Library took over the Mentor Headlands Branch (started by the Fairport Library) in 1959 and added a second branch at Salida School in Mentor-on-the-Lake in 1966. By 1971, the Salida School Library moved to a rented home next door to the Mentor-on-the-Lake firehouse and was redubbed the Lake Branch.

The main branch grew again in the late 1980s, adding another story and parking space.

The Lake Branch also received a makeover in the ensuing years.  In 1998, the building was designed to look like the lighthouses that border nearby Lake Erie.

And the library’s still growing. It added a fourth location just last year – The HUB inside of Mentor High School which features laser engravers, 3D printers, vinyl cutters and a green-screen studio.  But the same library card that allows people to borrow books and movies now provides access to The HUB’s state-of-the-art makerspace.

A library card has always been a good value.  In 1890, a quarter a month gave you access to more than 700 books.  Now, you have access to not just hundreds, not just thousands or even tens of thousands, but hundreds of thousands of books, movies, albums, video games, story times, programs and more.

In short, a Mentor Public Library card has never been worth more in its 200-year history.   That’s a reason to party.

And the library has big plans to celebrate in 2019. People can join the festivities in a couple of different ways.

The library has compiled a reading list of 200 books for its big anniversary: everything from Walt Whitman to Margaret Atwood, Judy Blume to Goosebumps.  Anyone can read along with the list.  The more books they read, the bigger prizes they’ll win.

The library is also hosting a year’s worth of donation drives for local nonprofits, amnesty days and special programs to celebrate its 200th. 

For a list of books, prizes and donation drives, visit www.mentorpl.org/200th.