Library for Sale

Story by Roger Moore

The sale listing for 206 W. 6th Avenue reads like any other piece of property in a college town. Included in the description is “walking distance to the Oklahoma State University campus” and “located in the heart of Stillwater” along with “natural lighting.” One thing, in particular, gets your attention, however: that the property “may qualify for historic tax credits.”

It is hard to imagine the location as anything but the Stillwater Public Library, a building with much more significance and value than anyone born after 1995 in Stillwater might realize. For many locals, young and old, 206 W. 6th was a place to cool off on a hot July afternoon. Sure, it required some effort to find a book the “old-school” way with a card catalogue and some help from a friendly librarian sometimes, but, 35 years later, at least for this scribe, it brings back memories of a summertime place, a centrally located building easily reachable by the old beat-up bike. And, frankly, Julys in Stillwater can often be unbearable. A good book and some air-conditioning sounds like paradise compared to 110 degrees with some humidity.

In 1990, Stillwater voters passed a $4.98 million bond issue for the construction of a new public library at 12th and Duck Street. Part of the process included the renovation of old South High, part of the original Stillwater High School, and the construction of a new 27,500 square foot library to give the facility 50,400 square feet. The ground-breaking ceremony was November 11, 1992, almost 70 years after the first library in Stillwater opened for business.

The Stillwater Woman’s Club served as the community’s first librarians, founding Stillwater’s first library in 1922. Dues were $1 per year and, for $20 rent per month, the first library opened at the United Brethren Church. The City of Stillwater assumed financial responsibility on July 1, 1923, and hired Harriet Woodring for $25 per month to keep the facility open for three hours per day. Four years later, the City purchased a house owned by W.T. Keys at 6th and Husband for $10,500. A decade later, in April of 1937, Stillwater voters approved construction of a 12,000 square foot library for $60,000 with an additional $22,500 from a Public Works Administration Grant. 

The dedication ceremony, in October of 1938, included Oklahoma A&M President Dr. Henry G. Bennett, a man who did much to raise the profile of Oklahoma State and Stillwater, as the principal speaker. The new library had shelving for 22,000 books, a small auditorium and reading room. 

By 1944, Stillwater residents, led by a committee that included Edmon Low and Lee Ward, wanted to establish a branch library. Low, library director at Oklahoma Agricultural & Mechanical College, worked diligently with Bennett to construct the campus’ focal point, the Edmon Low Library; it opened in 1953. Low also worked with Stillwater residents and helped get monies stipulated for a branch library in the annex of Washington School on 12th Avenue. Things progressed, but Mother Nature had other plans, reminding locals of May and June of 2019. The Stillwater region experienced massive flooding in 1957 and 1959, wiping out nearly 90 percent of the books at the Washington Street location – only 308 volumes survived the ’59 deluge that saw almost 11 inches of rain from October 1 to 4; over 680 families were forced to abandon their homes, many on the south side of Stillwater. 

Is it possible that a young student, perhaps a 13-year-old in 1940, rode his bike to the library to get out of the heat or maybe catch up on the news in Europe as World War II raged? Maybe a young African-American 12-year-old found a safe haven at the library during the turbulent times of the 1950s; perhaps, with the help of some fiction or nonfiction, a life journey was initiated. The library, wherever it is located, is simply a vessel. It houses materials necessary for educational development.

Modern technology allows for various ways to enjoy a good book, a magazine article, your daily newspaper. But for those who are entering their 50s and 60s memories of the library persist. That familiar scent can sometimes be found in an old antique shop that houses old books. What is certainly lost, perhaps forever, is the comfortable silence a library used to provide. Finding a quiet corner in the Edmon Low library takes effort; thirty years ago, inside the Stillwater Public Library, it did not take long for a librarian to find you if you were disrupting the tranquility of that small space.Unfortunately, “qualifying for historic tax credits” is not as easy as one might think. Since the mid-1990s, the location at 206 W. 6th has turned into office space, most recently of the dental persuasion. The outside reminds locals of the classic architecture of days gone by, but, again, what the space inside those walls provided is immeasurable to thousands of kids – and adults – who spent hours reading and perhaps discovering something that inspired them in ways yet untapped. Younger generations sometimes joke about libraries, poke fun at the “the way things used to be.” But it is important to note, regardless of age, that libraries advocate, support, promote, and endorse education. Hopefully, while driving by the old library building, motorists, bicyclists, pedestrians, and all will appreciate what Stillwater’s original library, for 70 years, meant to many.