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Lockport had the forerunner of a public library prior to 1847 when a legislative act established the Union School system and provided for the consolidation of the seven district school libraries.
The newly organized Board of Education appointed a committee of three to supervise the library: Isaac T. Colton, William McMaster and John Woolcott. In 1847 Henry Shaft was appointed librarian, a part-time position.
For many years the Superintendent of Schools doubled as librarian. The collection was housed in his office and an assistant was in charge when the “library” was open to the public. In 1891, after some years of existing in rented space in the downtown area, the library was given first floor space in the new Union High School on East Avenue.
In 1892 the Board of Education adopted a resolution that the Lockport Public Library should continue as a free circulating library. John A. Merritt, William Richmond and Harrison S. Chapman were chosen as trustees and a charter was obtained from the Board of Regents dated February 9, 1893. This charter incorporated them and their successors who were to be appointed by the Board of Education once each year for a term of three years.
Starting with a collection of about 4,300 books and an income of a few hundred dollars a year, the library was circulating 20,000 books annually by 1900 and 36,000 by 1910.
The library continued under the supervision of the Superintendent of Schools until 1919 when Miss Claire N. Atwater was appointed as regular full-time librarian. She was succeeded by Miss Helene Prudden in 1924.
The inadequate quarters of the library were strained during the depression years and the circulation reached 163,000 in 1934. The long-felt need for a separate building became more acute every year. Two bequests gave impetus to the Trustees’ desire to plan an adequate building. The will of Mrs. Elvira Wheeler provided a sum for construction and furnishings and Mrs. Ann M. Sawyer bequeathed the present site on East Avenue. The Trustees then arranged to qualify for aid under the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works, leaving a balance of only $18,000 to be raised by the city. The raising of these funds was the subject of much dispute and threatened legal action by the library trustees. The building was valued at $140,000 at the time of its dedication in June 1936.
Miss Prudden retired as Librarian in 1945 and was succeeded by Miss Elizabeth Hesser who remained until 1949 when Miss Helen Ludlow took over the position. In her twenty years as Library Director Miss Ludlow worked to incorporate then-modern services, to adapt the existing space to hold more books and to upgrade the quality of the collection. During her tenure and with her support, the Nioga Library System was formed. Well-respected in statewide library circles, Miss Ludlow was responsible for the library’s outstanding collection of art books and the establishment of a separate local history area.
In 1969, following Miss Ludlow’s death, Mrs. Janet Nixon took over the Directorship, serving in that position until June 1981. She initiated attempts to expand the library’s physical plant but was unable to obtain the necessary financial backing. To meet the needs of the many elderly members of the local community who could not use the library due to its lack of handicapped access, Mrs. Nixon established one of the state’s earliest programs of delivery to the homebound, to senior institutions and to nursing homes.
Mrs. Christa Caldwell succeeded Mrs. Nixon in 1981, continuing as Library Director through June 1996. Her tenure was marked by the inauguration of automated library services as part of the Nioga Library System in 1986 including on-line catalogs for the public and by the expansion of reference services to include various electronic means of providing information.
In 1992, with active citizen participation, the Library Board successfully proposed to the Board of Education the adoption of a bond issue to finance a major expansion and renovation of the existing library building. The resulting 36,000 square foot building more than doubled the usable space by adding a three-floor totally modern addition to the existing building which was remodeled and renovated. Equipped for the electronic age, spacious, attractive and comfortable, the “new” library was dedicated in February of 1994 with added collections of videos and compact discs, a public meeting room in addition to a Children’s and Youth story room and total handicapped accessibility through an elevator and a new entrance off Chestnut Street.
The cost of the addition and expansion was $3.3 million, financed by a 10-year bond issue to be repaid through the Lockport City School District tax, and resulted in a building which, with its furnishings and contents, was valued in 1994 at $12.5 million.
Mrs. Margaret (Peg) Lynch succeeded Mrs. Caldwell in 1996, continuing as Library Director until her retirement in 2006. Since 1997 the Library has had the benefit of community support through the process of an annual public vote on its budget requests. An Endowment Fund was created in 1999 under the auspices of the Niagara Area Foundation to assist the Library with future needs. As the Library has grown, so has its use by the public. The collections now include audiobooks and CDs, videos, DVDs, and music CDs. In addition to the catalog and borrower account information, online services include access to the Internet, database and magazine indexes, readers’ advisory and 24/7 online reference services, book clubs, and a website linking patrons to the Library. In 2006, the Library’s goal to be an “Open Door” to information and service to the entire community was articulated by the creation of a new logo using the icon of the building’s original, distinctive East Avenue doors. “Your Library…An Open Door” continues to represent the Library’s promise to the community it serves. [1996; updated 2008]
East Avenue Entrance
Chestnut Street entrance
“Books are like an open door to set the spirit free”
Over the years, we have often been asked to name the author of this quote that was inscribed during construction of the original building in 1935-36. Until late 2009 when Timothy Binga of the Center for Inquiry Libraries visited the library and asked that very question, we’d never been able to discover the answer. Tim was compelled to research the quote, and he found that in 1927 the American Library Association published a work called “Why We Need A Public Library: A Clip Sheet for Newspapers and Magazines.” On page 18 is a poem by Edith Kathleen Jones (or E. K. Jones), who was a librarian in Massachusetts:
Books are like an open door,
Out of which the mind can soar,
Rove the world on mighty wing,
Watch the stars and planets swing;
Books can set the spirit free
Though the body shackled be.
--E. K. Jones
E. K. Jones’ specialty was medical libraries, and, Tim says, “As her work indicates, books were a kind of therapy that would help patients go beyond their broken bodies, and in this spirit, I think this work was adapted for the inscription over the door.” We agree with Tim that this poem is most likely the source of the inscription, and we are grateful to him for helping to solve this mystery.