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The Osterhout Free Library

71 South Franklin Street
Wilkes-Barre, PA 18701

History of the Library:

When prominent merchant and real estate magnate Isaac Smith Osterhout died in 1882, he willed a substantial portion of his estate for the establishment of a free public library. In 1887, the board of directors hired Melvil Dewey, creator of the Dewey decimal system, to act as an advisor. Dewey recommended that the board buy the First Presbyterian Church, an edifice built in 1849, and use it for approximately 10 years until permanent arrangements could be made.

As it happened, this became the permanent arrangement. The Gothic architecture of the church proved quite suitable for a library. It was decided to use the former Sunday School room as a reference section. With its large fireplace and oak woodwork, it was thought to have the ambience of a fine public library.

The library trustees hired Hannah Packard James to be the first head librarian and assigned her the task of organizing and preparing the library for its grand opening. The original library collection (approximately 10,000 volumes) consisted of books from Osterhout's personal collection, part of the Atheneum (a local subscription library), and 9,500 volumes purchased from Charles Scribner and Sons. The Osterhout Free Library finally opened its doors to the public on January 29th, 1889 and was one of the first libraries in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

Early achievements included the opening of one of the first children's departments in the country in 1904. A stack wing was added in 1908, a two-story addition in 1966 and the Ken L. Pollock Children's Wing in 1982.

In the flood caused by Hurricane Agnes in 1972, the library lost more than 69,000 books as well as all its magazines and newspapers. A massive recovery effort was launched and by 1975 the book collection had been rebuilt to 124,000 volumes.

The library recently reopened after extensive renovations. The former reference department has been converted into a pleasant reading room with volumes of fiction lining the walls. Walls have been freshly painted, new furnishings installed, and additional equipment provided. Automation has replaced the cumbersome card catalogs, and banks of computers enable patrons to access the collection more rapidly.

Videotapes, compact discs and audiocassettes have supplemented books for loan. As an information center, the library has had to enlarge its collection to provide materials in media other than print. Internet service is also available and anyone is free to surf the Net for business or pleasure.

The Osterhout Free Library has always served as a hub of information through the years. With an ever-expanding range of services, it will continue to do so in the upcoming millennium.


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