The Early Years
The first nonprofit subscription library formed in Stoughton in 1882. For a fee of $2 per year, residents could borrow one of the 25 books available at the Reading Room managed by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Over the years, the WCTU and the YMCA staffed reading rooms in various places in the city, until the library found a home in the basement of City Hall in 1901 and stopped charging membership or rental fees.
The Library Board, the Stoughton Women’s Club, and other community organizations had big dreams about a roomy, freestanding public library building. The City Council at that time felt that the basement rooms would be adequate for many years, but the Library Board did not accept their generous offer to permanently use part of City Hall. Instead, the Board and community organizers turned to Andrew Carnegie for help building a library.
Beginning in 1898, pleased by the library in Pittsburgh he funded, Andrew Carnegie broadly offered grants for building construction to any community that would provide a site and agree to tax itself for support. A gift of $10,000 could finance a single-story structure over a raised basement, styled to local taste. When a town applied for a grant, a simple questionnaire was sent for completion, asking a few questions about the town name, population, site available, and taxes.
The Stoughton Library Board asked Carnegie for $15,000, but he was reluctant to increase his standard grant from $10,000. After much correspondence about specific details, Carnegie reached a compromise of $13,000.
The social scene in town boomed with one fundraising benefit after another, such as 15 cent baked bean suppers, home talent plays, concerts by local musicians and whatever else might raise a few more dollars for the proposed library and its furnishings. The city purchased the corner lot on Main Street for $4,000 and hired architects Louis Claude and Edward Starck to design the building and local contractor Fred Hill to build it.
The Carnegie Library
The new library was dedicated on March 6, 1908. Total cost of the library and furnishings was $21,000. This included woodwork, shelving, tables and chairs, all of solid oak; plus light fixtures, card catalog files, and a special “men’s room” where male members of the community could go in their work clothes to read and have a smoke in peace without offending ladies.
The library’s popularity quickly grew with one of the most popular attractions being a large selection of prose and poetry in Norwegian. Stoughton was not a wealthy community. The majority of the population was craftsmen and unskilled laborers employed at the Mandt Wagon Company, but they were solid people and must have had an insatiable appetite for knowledge since more than 300 books were drawn on one Saturday alone. Popular books in the library covered history, travel, natural history, and science. Many books were contributions from local residents, women’s groups, and church organizations. By 1910, the new library was on firm ground with more than 3,500 volumes and an annual circulation of 17,000.
In 1917, the library became a center for the community’s war efforts. Donations far exceeded quotas for the National Library Fund and hundreds of books and magazines were collected, packed, and sent to army camps. The 1920s showed a growing use of the library by community groups. In 1932 the Depression years saw a rapid rise in borrowers when people who formerly spent long hours on the job now found empty hours that could be filled with books to occupy their minds with education and pleasure instead of worry and dejection. Circulation declined in the 1940s and 1950s, probably due to the advent of television, but by 1979 circulation showed a dramatic increase.
The Library Expansion
The Carnegie building served the community well for many years; however, when space needs became severe, the Library Board initiated a referendum for the City to borrow $1 million to expand and renovate the Carnegie Library. This passed by a healthy margin in November of 1988. Once again fundraising efforts took place to finish and furnish the addition and the remodeling of the original Carnegie area. The Stoughton community donated an additional $450,000. Designed by Architect Ross Potter, today the Stoughton Public Library is a union of the old and new: preserving the past, but also making a strong statement for the future.