Our Library: Then & Now

This library is 162 years young, but it has seen a lot. A lot of people, a lot of media, and a lot of humanity. Who says libraries are boring?

If you’re like me, you grew up in this building. As a child, I played hide-and-go-seek on all floors (don’t do that). My teen self sheepishly checked out Hillary Duff CDs I didn’t want my friends to see on my playlists (thankfully, librarians never judge). As a 20-something college student, visiting the library for Wi-Fi saved me from a hefty internet bill. I am one of many who was raised in the walls of this building, so naturally, I have an interest in it.

The OG library in the Mahler and Putnam store

We started as a large case kept in the Mahler and Putnam store on Eau Claire St, back in 1860.  Now it’s the largest library in the area, even larger than any of the libraries in the IFLS system!

From a single book case, we upgraded to a space in the back of the post office in 1875. It may seem like a small victory, but it was actually the 4th official public library in the state. It only contained nonfiction titles, most of which cost under $1.  If you wanted a fiction title, you would unfortunately have to wait until 1876, as it was considered too frivolous for a city library until then. Imagine what they would think if they knew we would carry banjos and robots in the future?

We thrived in that space until our move to the Ingram site in 1894, and from there to the Carnegie building (better known now as City Hall) in 1901. We even expanded out to multiple branch locations during this decade; a feat we wish we could be accomplishing today, if only the funding allowed it.

We finally started building the current location in 1976, and we have called it home ever since. Of course, this does not include the exception of the Mall Drive temporary location during the past year! The pros of this location did not fall on deaf ears; we librarians have learned a lot about the conveniences of that building that we will be taking with us into the future.

Our new space features a more open-concept, brighter environment. This new look includes playful color schemes and stools that look like turtles (seriously though, it was definitely time for new seating/equipment). The color scheme of neutrals, blues, and greens was chosen to show pride for our riverside location, tying in with the theme of Eau Claire, the city of clear water.

When doing research for this post, I found a charming message left by Jeannie Wilcox back in 1976 that she added to a report on the new building after it was built. She remarked in a hand-written note paperclipped to the first page, “Isn’t it wonderful that this report is already out of date?” and ended her report with this message:

With such an interesting history, one cannot help wonder of the future of the Eau Claire Public Library.

As Samuel Johnson has said, “No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes, than a public library”.

Before & After…

Did You Know…

  • That a librarian once fell through the floor in the old building?
  • That the price of copies hasn’t changed since 1971?
  • That the wall behind the first-floor desk has secret staff autographs, waiting to see the light of day during the next renovation?

Staff signing the wall during a tour in March.

There’s some bonus artwork waiting for rediscovery, too.

1 reply
  1. Nancy
    Nancy says:

    Memories of the old 1902 Carnegie Library, including the children’s section accessible from what is now Employee Entrance #5 to City Hall….

    In the adult collections section, I remember the gray open metal staircases and grate-like metal aisles and shelving. The clop-clop sound of feet on the steel and the slight grinding noise of metal-on-metal. And for anyone with a fear of heights like me, it was dizzying to look between the gaps between the shelving or steps or through the grate under your feet. It was almost ship-like and very dimly lit. The reference and check-out area was a place of strict silence except for the squeak of wood flooring, the rustling of newsprint being paged through, the clatter of a book being dropped, and the “shhhhh” of a librarian correcting a noisy patron. There was a large selection of newspapers suspended from long bamboo rods kept in strict alpha order on racks. Many regular patrons came to read multiple papers each day, and woe unto you if you misplaced a newspaper that another patron wanted!

    The children’s section was in the basement. For me, descending those stairs was like entering wonderland. The wooden shelving ran parallel to the door. So it was a straight shot from the staircase to a book aisle. The checkout desk was on the left (west side) wall with its stacks of date due cards, trays and stampers. The slightly acid smell of old paper, the stiff plain color library bindings, and the beloved well-used books whose constant handling necessitated rebinding hark back to a simpler time, but no less formative. No digital. Your imagination had to supply the color, movement, sound and action.

    What an esthetic change the 1976 building was with its 1970s brown and orange décor. No more acrophobia! I remember walking into that new library on its opening day and my father saying “so MUCH wasted space!” And now to have visited the remodeled 2022 version on its re-opening day, it’s plain the library has a smaller physical collection and expanded digital offerings for this time. Seeing the white metal walkway guards reminded me of all the metal in the original 1902 Carnegie building. Plus ça change!


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