Finding Hidden Treasures in Indiana’s Public Libraries

By Cathy Shouse

A treasure trove awaits Hoosier travelers, hidden in unexpected places: libraries. You can check out historic buildings as well as the latest architecture, and participate in unusual activities, by exploring the many libraries across the state. Many are combining the old and the new.

The older architecture is credited to grants the libraries were awarded by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, the steel magnate. He funded 1,679 libraries in the early 1900s. Indiana built more Carnegie libraries than any other state, according to IN.gov

“A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert,” said Carnegie, whose donations totaled about $60 million. Communities could choose from a list of classic architectural styles, and had to contribute their own money as well.

A trek to the LaPorte Public Library’s main branch at 904 Indiana Avenue will turn up a Carnegie structure that has been changed more than once. The library was recently redesigned once again. In January, the design firm that handled the interior redesign, MKM Architecture + design (MKM), received a merit award from the American Institute of Architect’s Fort Wayne branch.

Kristi Chadderdon, the LaPorte Library’s public relations professional, said the library is “classical with a modern twist. We brought back some of the original brick and remade what was broken and crumbled.”

There is a makerspace, today’s term for an area meant to give library patrons an opportunity to create. Stocked with a 3-D printer, there are hands-on classes in robotics, soldering techniques and more.

“It’s a movement almost,” Chadderdon said. “It’s a collaborative workspace where people can come and teach a skill, like leatherworking, guitar making, jewelry or wood whittling. It’s an artisan movement. We have Tinker Tuesdays.” For more information: laportelibrary.org

12 September 2016 — The entrance to the newly remodeled Marion Public Library Museum on Monday. Photo/Jeff Morehead

Those interested in true crime will find extensive reference materials on the alleged serial killer Belle Gunness, an infamous Norwegian woman who lived on a farm in LaPorte for several years around 1900.

In 1902, A $50,000 Carnegie grant helped fund the Marion Public Library (MPL) at 600 S. Washington Street. After a new library was constructed next door, the Carnegie portion became the Marion Public Library Museum (MPLM), which was renovated several years ago. 

Sue Bratton, special projects coordinator for MPL, said 5,600 square feet of exhibit space covers a lot of ground. Items made by the former Marion glass factories are exhibited.

“We’ve got an excellent exhibit with audio and video components about the Gas Boom & its effect on the local economy, an exhibit about the pioneer African-American community of Weaver . . .,” Bratton said. “The Victorian parlor, dining room, kitchen, & gentleman’s bedroom depicts an upper middle class home around 1900.”

P.J. Quintero and her granddaughter, Mia, 3, look at displays in the newly remodeled Marion Public Library Museum on September 12, 2016. Photo/Jeff Morehead, Chronicle-Tribune

The Allen County Public Library (ACPL) main branch at 900 Library Plaza received a 1904 Carnegie grant. The original structure is gone and today’s sprawling building houses the largest genealogical collection in the United States. 

“If you’re a family history enthusiast, no matter where you’re at in the process, our expert genealogy librarians can help you, said Stephanny Smith, information manager at ACPL. “Even if you’re just stopping through, you might have a quick win, and get something scanned that will make you feel you’ve accomplished something.”

A few branches of the Indianapolis Public Library system are Carnegie libraries, however the Central Library downtown is not. But the structure alone at 40 E. St. Clair Street in Indianapolis is well worth a look. Plus, in 2017 the Center for Black Literature and Culture (CBLC) opened in the R.B. Annis West Reading Room. Approximately 6,000 visitors came through in the fist nine months to see about 10,000 unique items, books and more. 

Nichelle E. Hayes, leader of the CBLC, said a full wall mural of famous people, from Madam C.J. Walker to Maya Angelou and James Baldwin, is one highlight. There’s also a scavenger hunt to engage children. During the holidays, special programs are planned for Christmas and may include food, music, art and fellowship. A Kwanzaa celebration is scheduled for December 26th

“This is a place for everyone,” Hayes said. “If you want to learn in depth about Black literature and culture, this is the place.” For more information: 317-275-4100

If you believe that travel is better with excursions off of the beaten path, then consider seeking out the hidden treasures in libraries on your next trip. After all, sometimes the joy truly is found along the journey, and not simply in arriving at the destination.