How the Dayton Metro Library grew from ‘two well-filled bookcases’ to a gigantic main branch

Cooper Park home of the library since 1888

Dayton’s library was once no more than a collection of “two well-filled bookcases.” Today the system of 18 branches and the new downtown Main Library are places not just for books but for the community to come together.

The roots of today’s Dayton Metro Library reach back to 1805, when the Social Library Society of Dayton was granted a charter by the State of Ohio, according to library research.

Benjamin Van Cleve, one of Dayton’s first settlers and the first postmaster, kept his eye on that first set of books stacked on shelves at the post office at First and St. Clair Streets.

In following decades versions of the small library opened, closed and relocated throughout the community. In 1847 the newly formed Dayton Library Association rented two rooms on the second floor of the Steele Building on Main Street for the city’s first substantial library.

One thousand volumes were purchased and a variety of magazines including “Blackwood’s Magazine,” “Silliman’s Journal,” “American Review” and “Knickerbocker” were ordered for the community space that originally opened only on Friday afternoons.

In order to “apply for books” residents were required to produce a “Treasurer’s receipt” to be entered on the “Librarian’s Record,” according to a newspaper story in the Dayton Journal. “If children or servants are sent, they must bring a written order to deliver books to them.”

As the library’s collection expanded, it was determined in the mid-1880s a permanent home should be found.

A plot of land purchased by Daniel Cooper in 1808 and later deeded to provide a square that “should be enclosed, planted with trees and forever kept as a ‘walk’ for the ‘citizens of Dayton and its visitors’” was selected as the site for the new library.

A Gothic-style building was constructed made out of Dayton limestone with Marquette red sandstone trimmings, and was “rated as the largest and best building in the state of Ohio devoted exclusively to library purposes,” when it opened in 1888, according to the Dayton Metro Library narrative.

Inside, four librarians worked behind a black walnut desk that spanned the width of the lobby that was divided by ornate columns.

Tall windows illuminated the volumes stacked seven and eight shelves high in the eastern wing of the first floor and men perched on high stools to read newspapers bound on specially designed shelving.

The second floor of the new building was set aside for a natural history museum and opened Sept. 15, 1893. Glass cases housed Indian artifacts, taxidermy animals, skeletons and a suit of Japanese armor. Pottery, long guns and a mummy rounded out the eclectic collection.

The library has a history of innovating with the community in mind, opening a Children’s Room in 1897 and four branch libraries in school buildings in 1903. Book wagon service began in 1923, and the library provided more than 7,000 books on “long-time loans” to training camps during World War I.

That first library at Cooper Park gave way to a new contemporary building when ground was broken in 1960 for expansion and modernization.

Just days from now, the doors to the community’s new Main Library, with four times the public space of the old building, will open again in Cooper Park.

The sleek new building with soaring glass windows will house new amenities including an atrium and marketplace, outdoor children’s patio, reading areas with a downtown view made cozy by a fireplace and three floors of collections to browse.

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