A brief history of Athens County’s public libraries

What’s in a name?

Libraries in our area have a long history, going back to 1804 with the Western Library Association in Amesville. It was affectionately known as the Coonskin Library because books were purchased with proceeds from the sale of pelts. The Coonskin Library existed until 1861.

In 1866, Albany opened a small library named after Henry Wells, its benefactor. The Wells Library maintained its name even after joining the county’s public library system in 1974.

In 1904, philanthropist Andrew Carnegie donated $30,000 to Ohio University to build a new library. The gift stipulated that the library be open to everyone, not just university students. In 1936, after the new Chubb Library opened (in 1930), the building was renamed Carnegie Hall. In 1985, the building was renamed again as Scripps Hall. It still stands, next to Ohio University’s current facility, Alden Library, which opened in 1969.

In 1935, our modern library system began life as The Public Library for the City of Nelsonville and Athens County. That soon morphed into Athens County Library Services. For many years the legal name of the library system was Nelsonville Public Library, but we are now known officially as Athens County Public Libraries.

Before 1934 very few books were available to the general public in Athens County. There was the small Wells library in Albany and Athens city residents could use Ohio University’s Chubb Library or rent books from a local bookstore. Beginning in 1934, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) maintained twenty library stations throughout the county. Since this was primarily a jobs creation program, the library staff were untrained and the collections small and usually of poor quality. However, the program did bring about public awareness of the need for libraries. As a result, the Nelsonville Rotary Club, with the advice of State Librarian Paul A.T. Noon, began to develop plans for an organized library service.

The Public Library for the City of Nelsonville and Athens County was organized on June 1, 1935 as a school district library. The Nelsonville City School Board appointed seven trustees and the use of a room in the Central School was secured. WPA staff served as librarians. Donations to purchase materials were secured from citizens, community organizations, and the Columbus Rotary Club.

In September of 1935, about a thousand books were borrowed from the State Traveling Library and in December $200 was received from the State Aid for Libraries fund. In August of 1936, the library moved into the Buckeye Building on Washington St. in Nelsonville and a trained librarian was hired. Books were bought and cataloged, and borrowers were registered, the latter in numbers beyond expectation.

Initially, the library served only residents of the county who traveled to Nelsonville to borrow books. In September of 1937, the book collection had become large enough to permit the librarian to distribute small collections to each county teacher in the small rural schools. Small loans were also made to several of the WPA stations.

Late in 1937, as the WPA library stations were winding down, the State Library proposed establishing a countywide library service. They offered $3000 of state aid to be matched by the County Budget Commission to purchase a bookmobile, provide another trained librarian, and to buy more books. The proposal was accepted, and in February 1938, a bookmobile was purchased and an assistant librarian was employed. That same year, library branches were opened in Chauncey and Glouster.

In November of 1939, the main library moved into more convenient quarters in the Mechem Building on Columbus St. in Nelsonville. The new space offered more library space and a second floor auditorium—our first meeting room. By the end of 1939, the library system had grown to three libraries and five deposit stations: Jacksonville, Kimberly, The Plains, Poston, and East Millfield. The bookmobile visited each school and community in the county on a bi-weekly basis. During the year 1939, total circulation was 204,566. For comparison, in 2009, Athens County Public Libraries (now totaling 7 branches) circulated 524,788 items.

The Athens branch was established in 1940. Until then, the library’s board felt that the citizens of Athens were being served by the university’s library. However, it realized that the county library could offer a different type of material from that currently available on campus. Bookmobile stops inside the city were not considered because such a small collection was far from adequate. The Athens branch opened on May 1, 1940 in rooms rented at 17 W. Union St.

Over the next several years, the WPA stations closed and library services were concentrated in Nelsonville, Glouster, Chauncey, and Athens. The Bookmobile continued to play a major roll in distributing library materials to the more rural parts of the county and schools until recently. In 2008, decreased funding and an aging vehicle finally ended the county’s bookmobile service.

In 1974, the Wells library, which had been established in 1866 by money contributed by Henry Wells for the Albany community, joined the county’s library system. The next branch additions came in 1990 in Coolville and in 1991 in The Plains, bringing the system to its current size of seven public libraries in Athens County.

In 2010, Athens County Public Libraries celebrated 75 years of serving Athens County.