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December 11, 2013

New Albany Bicentennial — The city’s library

NEW ALBANY — Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series about the people and events that have shaped the 200-year history of New Albany. Read all installments by clicking on the bicentennial link under the “seasonal content” header at

Known as a place to store the past, the New Albany-Floyd County Public Library has quite a history of its own. With preparations underway to celebrate its 130th anniversary next year, library associate Melissa Wiseheart recently spoke to the Southern Indiana Genealogical Society about the buildings and librarians of yesteryear. A “living historian,” Wiseheart dressed as the library’s first librarian Olivia Butterfield and delivered an address from the 19th-century New Albany resident’s personal perspective.

Traveling back to the bygone days of New Albany, Wiseheart told the story of the earliest attempts at forming a public library. During that time, local schools and universities had their own private libraries, but they weren’t open to just anyone. As an alternative, a local book store owner named John Nunemacher began his own circulating library out of his shop for a subscription fee of $5 per a year or 50 cents a month.

In the mid-1800s, three different institutions emerged that provided books to the community. All, though, fell short of providing a true public library. One of these, the New Albany Township Library, was established after the state passed legislation in 1854 that provided funding for local township libraries. Members of the public could check out from the township library, but borrowers were required to pay a deposit of twice the value of the book — an expensive endeavor. With no reading room, Wiseheart noted “patrons had no alternative to borrowing the books.” In the 1870s, the state defunded the earlier initiative and the New Albany Township Library was rarely used.

Two other establishments, the Working Men’s Institute Library and the Young Men’s Christian Union reading room, also tried to offer greater access to reading and research materials. Still, both had their limitations. The Working’s Men Library, founded by William MacLure required a $25 per year fee for access.

“Mr. MacLure also required that all members be men who labored with their hands or earned their living by the sweat of their brow,” Wiseheart said.

While cheaper than MacLure’s library, the Young Men’s Christian Union (later known as the YMCA) asked for $2 annually. Yet, like the Working Men’s Institute Library, this organization limited admittance only to their members, who by definition were men. Eventually all three of these early institutions would be absorbed into the soon-to-be established New Albany Public Library.

According to Wiseheart, the New Albany Public Library was in the public consciousness for nearly 20 years. However, it was in 1882 that a library committee was finally formed, and subscribers were found who pledged funding for the developing project. The following year, legislation was passed that permitted school boards to organize public libraries with a hitch. These institutions must raise $1,000 in initial funds. Once this contribution had been reached, the school boards could levy a tax to support the library’s maintenance.

“Feeling certain that collecting the required sum would not be a problem, as indeed the subscribers had pledged more than $1,000, the school board unanimously voted to establish a City Public Library on May 8, 1884,” Wiseheart said.

Also decided at the meeting was the library’s location, which was to be in the Young Men’s Christian Association’s reading room. In addition, committee member Charles F. Coffin was elected as librarian, but resigned a month later most likely due to a salary dispute. George Butterfield was then named librarian, but his wife, the aforementioned Olivia Butterfield, actually ran the new institution, thus making her, at least in Wiseheart’s research, the first true “librarian”.

On July 27, 1885, the New Albany Public Library opened to the community with 720 volumes. Before long, the young librarian began cataloging and introduced a library card system that allowed an easier way of circulating the materials.

Olivia didn’t get the chance to continue her work for very long. Due to her husband’s job, she moved to California two years after the library’s opening. In 1889 and again in 1894, the public library shifted to different homes, as well. The opening of the Carnegie Library in March of 1904 provided the institution a permanent building to house their collection for more than 60 years.

“With the books now classified according to the Dewey Decimal System and stored on open shelving, the library was never more accessible to the public,” Wiseheart said.

During its stay at the building Andrew Carnegie helped fund, the library started several of its programs that continue today. In 1913, women’s groups began to meet in the library’s basement auditorium. In 1917, the organization shipped books to soldiers fighting in World War I. And in 1931, the library obtained several paintings as well, including one of Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley and landscapes by both Ferdinand Walker and famed New Albany artist George Morrison. All the paintings, other than a portrait of Seth Woodruff currently undergoing restoration, can still be found in the library halls.

Also continuing today as the Summer Reading Club, the Vacation Reading Club was started in 1943.

Soon, these programs would expand to other residents of the county. Once the library began receiving county tax revenue, the facility was opened to all Floyd County citizens. In 1963, the Indiana Room, the county’s foremost authority for genealogical research, was also established.

The following year, the school board got out of the public library business by allowing a Library Board to take control of the New Albany Public Library. At the same time, the library officially changed its name to the New Albany-Floyd County Public Library. Three years later, a branch was started at Floyd Central High School, but closed only 30 months later due to budget cutbacks.

Having outgrown the Carnegie building, the library moved to its current location at 180 W. Spring St. in 1969. Since the relocation, the organization has started other services including book sales, the taking of oral histories, movie loans and the walking books program.

Going strong into its 130th year of service, New Albany-Floyd County Public Library continues to offer the community numerous enrichment opportunities throughout the year, not to mention free access to 180,680 volumes of books. Visit its website at for more information.

— Contributing Writer Amanda Beam

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