The Richness of a Free Library

In my last history blog, I wrote about the unique bookplate found inside every Fulton Library book. The plate proudly displays images that connect our city to the Native American tribes who considered this area sacred. Researching the origins of that bookplate got me thinking about the history of our library, still one of the few places in town that doesn’t cost a penny to visit.

That’s exactly what Andrew Carnegie had in mind when he began funding the construction of libraries throughout the United States. One of the wealthiest people in our country’s history, Carnegie never forgot his humble beginnings. After emigrating from Scotland with his family in 1848, he worked his way up the ranks of the railroad business, aggressively amassing a 200 million dollar (worth 5.8 billion dollars today) fortune. Amazingly, Carnegie sold his successful enterprises and spent the rest of his life giving that wealth away. He did so most impressively by founding over 2,500 libraries in the late 1800s and early 1900s, one of them right here in Fulton.

Carnegie had a personal reason for establishing those libraries. When he arrived in America eager to learn, he found that a library’s accessibility offered him the resources necessary to educate himself and develop a successful business plan. Carnegie believed anyone should be able to do as he did, including immigrants, who needed to acquire cultural knowledge of their adopted country. Libraries could provide that information.

Those of us benefiting from our library in 2019 weren’t around when Fulton received Andrew Carnegie’s kindness. But Joyce Cook, who was Fulton Library’s director from 1987 until 2001, has researched those early years. Joyce shared it with us when she contributed to The Fulton Memoir Project in 2014. Her memoir also covered the library’s history before Mr. Carnegie’s philanthropy came our way. As Joyce explained, there already was a library in Fulton, though it was humble compared to the one Carnegie helped us build:

 “The first Fulton Public Library was in a long, narrow upstairs room over one of the stores on ‘The Dizzy Block,’ at 7 South First Street. The Library received its charter from the state government in 1895 and, by 1901, had about 4,000 books in that second floor reading room.  Those books were donated from the high school library and the library of Falley Seminary, a local private school.  Helen Emens was the librarian for many years.” 

Joyce explained that the first library board was composed of Fulton industry leaders and school administrators. After a few years, the board got word that Andrew Carnegie’s foundation was offering money for library construction. Hopes were high that patrons would soon have a brand new library until its board members learned they did not qualify for funding. Only established cities could apply for Carnegie’s support and in 1901 the area we call Fulton was still two towns separated by the Oswego River. A year later, the towns merged and one of the city of Fulton’s first major accomplishments was receiving $15,000 (over $430,000 today) by The Carnegie Foundation. Joyce described the location for the new library:

“The site was part of the old portage road, where boats off-loaded their cargo to get around the falls, then loaded it back on further down the Oswego River, north of the city.  Some of the stone was salvaged from a building onsite that housed canal workers and was used in the library’s foundation.  Marble, brick, and native stone were used for the walls and door and window surrounds.  The roof was slate. Inside were quartered-oak floors and woodwork, as is evident even today.”

By summer 1905, the city had laid the library’s cornerstone. The following spring, Mrs. Emens, still in charge of the library, oversaw the transfer of materials to the new building. A few weeks later, the first patrons walked through its doors.  They were welcomed to a spacious main floor, with a children’s section behind the main desk and a basement area used for storage and large group programs. (The upper floor—the mezzanine—was added in the early 1960s.) 

 After rereading Joyce’s memories of the library, I wanted to bring myself up to date on our city’s important resource. As a frequent visitor to the library, I know that today the children’s area takes up the entire basement (other than a small conference room) and the two main floors hold over 34,000 works of fiction, non-fiction and reference materials. The area behind the front desk is now devoted to computers. Along with newspapers and periodicals, a CD and DVD collection expand how we learn and are entertained by library materials.

 A visit to the library’s website turned up more: Under the heading “Services,” you’ll find copy and faxing information, as well as notices on new e-books. You’ll also find out that the Fulton branch is now part of a North Country Library System, which includes 65 other libraries in upstate New York. This vastly expands the number of books and other resources available to check out. We’ll never run out of good books to read!

 Elsewhere on the Library’s website you’ll learn about new classes being offered, its monthly newsletter, and links to other websites with Fulton history information. Patrons who stop in can spend hours browsing for just the right book or book-on-tape or a movie to enjoy on DVD. The newspapers and magazines are waiting to be read. All this, of course, without any cost.

Don’t you think Andrew Carnegie would be smiling down on the good use being made of his generous gift?

The Fulton Public Library’s main entrance first began welcoming us in 1906.

The Fulton Public Library’s main entrance first began welcoming us in 1906.