One of Norfolk’s most important buildings will be auctioned on Wednesday, Oct. 20. Hopefully, someone with an interest in preservation will buy what was Norfolk’s first library building at 803 W. Norfolk Ave.
The brick building was constructed in 1909 with the help of Andrew Carnegie, the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, steel magnate who provided funds to communities to help them build libraries.
But Norfolk’s library existed before it had its own building. It began in the early 20th century when a local club donated a collection of books to the fire department so firemen would have something to read during their leisure hours. A few years later, the collection was given to the Women’s Club. Members added their own books to the collection, which became the “nucleus” of Norfolk’s first public library.
The Norfolk Public Library officially opened on July 7, 1906, in a room in the building on the northwest corner of Fourth Street and Norfolk Avenue.
In the first six months, the library was open 28 Saturdays and loaned an average of 130 books per day. Each family was allowed one adult and one child’s borrower’s card, and only one book could be borrowed with each card. Non-residents were charged $1 for a card.
The library’s first financial report showed $2.60 in receipts from subscribers and $9.60 in fines. Expenses included $10 wages for the librarian and $7 to rent the room. In 1908, the city council passed a measure giving the library $300 a year. The first official board also was organized that year.
Shortly after, community leaders applied for and received a $10,000 grant from Carnegie to build a library on the southwest corner of Eighth Street and Norfolk Avenue.
Carnegie funded thousands of libraries in his lifetime. One stipulation called for the city to provide a 10% match annually to help maintain the facility. Norfolk’s library was constructed between 1909 and 1910, according to a design suggested by Carnegie’s organization. The city’s expense was $3,375.15 plus the cost of the lot, which was $1,100, and the $1,000 per year in support, which was a condition of the grant. That year, the library had 1,066 books, 14 magazines and newspapers in its collection.
For a few years, Women’s Club members volunteered their time to keep the library open on Sundays in return for using the downstairs meeting room for their gatherings. The basement was made into a children’s room in 1945. The summer reading program was added in 1947.
In 1950, it was reported that the library had grown into a $10,000 annual business with an estimated valuation of around $54,000.
In 1975, the city council approved the planning for a new city library to be located on city property on North Fourth Street, where it is located today. Studies showed that the city needed around 22,000 square feet as compared to the current library, which had just 5,300 square feet. When the new building was finished, the former library became the Norfolk Arts Center. In 1998, JEO Consulting bought the building and remodeled it, and in 1999, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
At the time, Duane Upton, JEO manager, said the building demonstrates how a valued landmark can be remodeled to meet today's needs. "Throughout renovation, we made every effort to retain and complement the architectural characteristics of the building,” Upton said.
At one time, Nebraska had 69 Carnegie libraries. Some are still in use, some have been torn down or lost to fire, others have been repurposed, as is the case in Neligh where the former library is now a private home. No doubt, Norfolk’s former library has plenty to offer the right buyer.