The CLEVELAND PUBLIC LIBRARY, one of the nation’s leading public library systems, opened its doors on 17 February 1869, under the provisions of an April 1867 act of the Ohio legislature that had been championed by Cleveland educator Rev. ANSON SMYTH. The act authorized boards of education in larger Ohio cities to establish boards of managers of public libraries and to levy property taxes for their support. Known as the Public School Library until 1883, and from that year as the Public Library of the City School District of the City of Cleveland, it was not until 1923 that the name was simplified to Cleveland Public Library. The Library remains a school district library and is governed by a seven-member Board of Trustees appointed for seven-year terms by the CLEVELAND METROPOLITAN SCHOOL DISTRICT Board of Education.

The Library’s first location was in a rented room of about 1,500 square feet on the third floor of the Northrop and Harrington Block in the city’s bustling West Superior St. commercial district, near the southwest corner of PUBLIC SQUARE. Luther Melville Oviatt was the first librarian. 

The Library's earliest years were notable for their upheaval.  In 1875, Irad L. Beardsley was appointed librarian and the Library moved twice: first to the Clark Block on West Superior St. and then to the Case Block at Rockwell (E. 3rd) and Superior Streets. In 1879, the Library moved to the second and third floors of the Board of Education Building (old CENTRAL HIGH SCHOOL) on Euclid Ave. The expenditure of school district funds for the administration of public libraries was declared illegal in 1877 by the city solicitor of Cleveland, forcing the Library to close for more than two months. A new source of funding was soon secured in the form of a levy authorized by the Ohio State legislature, a significant victory in the complex history of library funding.

Cleveland Public Library's innovative, service-oriented philosophy was established by the third and fourth librarians, WILLIAM HOWARD BRETT and LINDA ANNE EASTMAN, with the support of long-time Library Board president, lawyer, and philanthropist, JOHN GRISWOLD WHITE. Beginning with Brett in 1884, the Library worked to provide books, information, and service to the entire community. The first classroom library was established in a local school in 1887. The Library made history in 1890 when Brett inaugurated the open-shelf plan, through which patrons were allowed direct access to most of the circulating book collection. CPL was the first large metropolitan library in the nation to adopt the open-shelf plan, which soon became the standard in public libraries throughout the country.

The first neighborhood branch opened in 1892, on Pearl (W. 25th) St. near the WEST SIDE MARKET, as a part of the Library’s continuous efforts to expand its reach into the city’s neighborhoods.  Through Brett's persuasion, Andrew Carnegie donated $590,000 for the construction of fifteen branch libraries, each of which featured special children’s rooms and amenities such as club rooms. There were also library stations and deposit collections established in businesses, factories, hospitals, private homes, and even on the city’s fire boat.  Service to the blind began in 1897 with a weekly reading club at the GOODRICH settlement house, followed in 1903 by the establishment of a collection of books in Braille at the Library. In 1898, Brett hired EFFIE LOUISE POWER to develop specialized services for children, establishing her as one of the first librarians in the country whose work focused solely on children. Her career evolved into teaching and publishing, and a friendship with author LANGSTON HUGHES that led to the publication of his book Dream Keepers. At the Broadway Branch, librarian ELEANOR EDWARDS LEDBETTER pioneered services to Cleveland’s IMMIGRANT community.

Brett used each successive Main Library site occupied during his tenure as a trial ground for planning and innovation for the landmark Main Library that was eventually erected at 325 Superior Ave. From 1901 to 1913, Main Library occupied a temporary building at Rockwell Ave. and E. 3rd St. that was purpose-built for the open-shelf plan. The next site, in rented space at the KINNEY & LEVAN department store at PLAYHOUSE SQUARE, allowed for the division of the growing collection into subject departments starting in 1914. It also featured services such as a photographic dark room for people who wanted reproductions of images in reference books.

Cleveland architects WALKER AND WEEKS were selected in a 1916 national competition moderated by noted architect and Columbia University professor A.D.F. Hamlin for the design of a “permanent” Main Library, which was to conform to the architecture of the other civic buildings in Daniel Burnham's group plan for the MALL. Bond issues passed in 1912 and 1921 financed the $5 million project. Eastman had become the Library’s fourth librarian in 1918 after the tragic death of Brett, and it was under her leadership that the Main Library was constructed. The cornerstone, inside of which resides a time capsule, was laid on 23 October 1923, in a public ceremony attended by thousands of citizens.

When the landmark Main Library building opened on 6 May 1925, it was the embodiment of efficiency and innovation, employing equipment such as the teleautograph, a device that transmitted written messages throughout the building via electrical impulses. Marilla Waite Freeman, lawyer, librarian, and poet, was the first head librarian of the new Main Library and was responsible for guiding its development as a research institution. Specialized reference services were established, notably the Business Information Bureau under ROSE VORMELKER in 1926.

As the population of metropolitan Cleveland grew in the early 20th century, a need for library service in outlying communities also developed. Following the Ohio legislature’s passage in 1921 of an act authorizing the creation of county libraries, CUYAHOGA COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRARY (CCPL) became the first such library in the state. Approved by majority vote of eligible county voters in November 1922, CCPL began service in 1924 as a division of Cleveland Public Library, which provided administrative services and space in Main Library on a contract basis. This arrangement worked well until CPL trustees terminated it in 1942 under a cloud of political intrigue, and amid growing voices calling for a merger of the two systems.

During the Great Depression, the Library set all-time attendance records with intensive use of all its resources by Cleveland's unemployed population.  The Library provided a lifeline to the community not only through its services, but also as a major beneficiary of WORKS PROGRESS ADMINISTRATION (WPA) projects. Workers cleaned and repaired branches; copied music scores; and compiled indexes such as the ANNALS OF CLEVELAND. Through the Public Works of Art Project, three massive, Cleveland-themed murals were created for Main Library by artists WILLIAM SOMMER, ORA COLTMAN, and Donald Duer Bayard. Artists EDRIS ECKHARDT and Elmer Brown created ceramic sculptures based on characters in children’s literature. Towards the end of the Depression, in 1940, a surprise bequest of $450,000 from the estate of Cleveland industrialist Frederick W. Judd and his wife, Henryett Slocum Judd, enabled the Library to establish service to shut-ins, a program that served as a model for libraries across the nation and that continues today as Homebound Service.

Following Eastman’s retirement in 1938, Charles Rush was appointed CPL’s fifth librarian. After 54 years of continuous leadership, the Library entered a period of uncertainty and contentious relations between librarian and board, leading to Rush’s abrupt resignation in early 1941. One bone of contention during Rush’s tenure had been his hiring of influential University of Chicago library school professor Leon Carnovsky to undertake a thorough analysis of the Library and its operations, prompting fear of what conclusions might be drawn. Released in August 1939, the Carnovsky Report was mostly positive, with specific praise for the Library’s superb collection and its extensive community services. Among its recommendations were the creation of a personnel department, relief of overcrowding at Main Library, and the merger of CPL with the county library system.

Despite the uncertainty of the WORLD WAR II years, the Library continued, with diminished staff, to evolve services to meet the needs of the community. The Office for Adult Education was established in 1941, followed by the Film Bureau, and the Live Long and Like It Club for people over age 60. Following the sudden resignation of Rush in 1941, the trustees controversially appointed the Library’s business manager, Clarence S. Metcalf, as librarian. A lack of formal library training prompted Metcalf to petition to have his title changed from librarian to director. Serving as his assistant starting in 1945 was Lawrence Quincy Mumford, who went on to serve as director from 1950 to 1954, until President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed him Librarian of Congress.

Director Raymond Lindquist, who served from 1954 to 1968, addressed the overcrowding at Main Library through the acquisition of the adjacent PLAIN DEALER building in December 1957, following the passage of a $3 million bond issue. Opened in 1959, the annex housed the Business and Science subject departments and was connected to the Main Library by an underground corridor. The city-owned outdoor space between the two buildings, named Eastman Park in 1937 in honor of Linda Anne Eastman, was redesigned and rededicated as Eastman Reading Garden in 1960 under the leadership of board president Marjorie Jamison.

By the eve of the Library’s centennial in 1969, powerful social forces had transformed civic life: outmigration to the SUBURBS; civil unrest caused by racial inequality and opposition to the VIETNAM WAR; and growing disparity within the regional ECONOMY. In a dramatic board meeting on 17 February 1969, the trustees named Edward D’Alessandro as the ninth director of the Library, the only employee ever to work his way from page to director.  At the same meeting, a spokesman for the NAACP leveled powerful charges of discrimination against the Library. In January 1970, D’Alessandro resigned due to ill health. By the end of the year, Walter W. Curley had been appointed director and the issue of merger with the county system was again being widely discussed.  

Revenues from the state intangibles tax (a tax mostly on stocks and bonds) were no longer sufficient to support the extensive level of services that the Library was providing. Branch buildings and their collections had deteriorated and were underused. Walter W. Curley resigned as director in January 1974 and was replaced on an interim basis by assistant director Fern Long, a longtime CPL employee. Amid a climate of racial discord and political tension, the Library’s first-ever city property tax levy failed in November 1974. In that same month, ERVIN J. GAINES was appointed the eleventh director. He immediately set out to modernize the Library through a reorganization and revitalization of the entire system, including reform of the Library’s hiring practices and pay scale. Additional funding was secured through a successful city tax levy in 1975, which supported a $20 million building program to upgrade branches throughout the city. Eighteen new or remodeled facilities with attractive new book collections opened, and usage of the Library increased steadily.

Gaines and deputy director Marian Huttner oversaw the creation of a computerized online bibliographic database to replace the card catalog, switching the Library from its unique Brett-Dewey Decimal classification system to the Library of Congress (LC) system in 1975 as a cost-saving initial step in the process. Working with Data Research Associates (DRA) and OCLC, the Library completed the automation of its catalog and circulation system by 1981. The following year, this technology was made available to other local libraries through the creation of the CLEVNET consortium, of which Cleveland Heights-University Heights Public Library was the first member. As of 2019, CLEVNET consisted of forty-five library systems across twelve Northeast Ohio counties with twelve million items and approximately one million patrons.

Gaines deferred a major renovation of Main Library complex in favor of the branches, but by the late 1980s the physical deterioration of the Main Library and the older Plain Dealer building placed the collections that they housed at risk. In September 1986, Marilyn Gell Mason was named director and immediately began to plan for a complete modernization of the Main Library buildings. A comprehensive preservation program was established in 1989 to care for the Main Library collection. In 1991, a $90 million bond issue was approved by Cleveland voters for the renovation of the landmark Walker and Weeks building and the construction of a new building. In an international architectural competition, the New York firm of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates was selected to design the replacement for the Business and Science building. The former Plain Dealer structure was demolished in June of 1994. The completed LOUIS STOKES Wing, named in honor of Ohio's first African-American U.S. Congressperson, was dedicated on 12 April 1997. The landmark Main Building was then completely renovated under the direction of local architectural firm ROBERT P. MADISON INTERNATIONAL.  Eastman Reading Garden was redesigned by Olin Partnership and featured as its centerpiece a fountain installation by noted artist Maya Lin. The entire Main Library complex was rededicated on 22 May 1999.

Mason accelerated the library's technological innovations with the introduction of dial-up access to the library's online catalog in 1988, the introduction of remote-access electronic research databases, and the inauguration of an internet website in November 1995. She was a strong advocate for the Library’s role in addressing the unequal level of internet access among Cleveland’s citizens—the Digital Divide—through the continuous expansion of the number of internet-accessible computers in all library locations.

After Mason retired in June 1999, Andrew A. Venable, Jr., became director and continued the Library’s role as a technological leader. Under Venable, the Library introduced the nation’s first virtual reference service, KnowItNow24X7, in 2001, and in 2003 became the first public library in the United States to offer eBooks, in a partnership with OverDrive, Inc. The Library’s digitization program was launched in 2003 using OCLC’s CONTENTdm platform. The Digital Gallery continues to grow daily with the addition of unique content from Main Library’s world-class research collection, which is comprised of more than 10 million items on about 85 linear miles of shelving and includes such highlights as John G. White’s comprehensive collection of chess literature—the largest in the world, the CHARLES FREDERICK SCHWEINFURTH Architecture Collection, a near-complete historical collection of Cleveland theatre programs, and more than 450,000 photographs of Cleveland subjects.

Felton Thomas, Jr., became the Library’s fourteenth director in 2009. Despite declining revenues caused by the Great Recession of 2007-2009, Thomas remained committed to responding to community needs by providing relevant and innovative services, programming, and collections. He reorganized areas of Main Library, balancing the traditional role of the Library as a place for reading and research with spaces redesigned for learning and creation. TechCentral was established at Main Library in 2012, providing patrons with an evolving range of services such as 3D printing and scanning, vinyl and laser fabrication, audio and video production, and wireless internet hotspots available for checkout.

Under Thomas, the Library expanded programs to address issues relating to high poverty and unemployment. In all locations, children could get a nutritious meal when school was not in session through the federal Summer Food Service Program, as well as participate in summer reading clubs and other enriching activities. Classes in an array of computer software programs helped people looking to improve their employment skills. Free legal advice was provided through a program with the LEGAL AID SOCIETY OF CLEVELAND.

As the Library approached its 150th year, Thomas announced a plan to revitalize neighborhood branches, the third such system-wide capital project in the Library’s history, funded by a property tax levy passed in 2017. As of 2019, Cleveland Public Library served the public through  twenty-seven neighborhood branches, Main Library, Public Administration Library at CLEVELAND CITY HALL, mobile services to daycare and senior centers, and pop-up outlets at popular locations and events throughout the city, including “book boxes” at locations such as EDGEWATER PARK. It also served all eighty-eight Ohio counties through its statewide operation of the Ohio Library for the Blind and Physically Disabled and the Ohio Center for the Book.

Updated by Michael Ruffing 


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Cramer, C. H. Open Shelves and Open Minds: A History of the Cleveland Public Library (1972).

Wood, James M. One Hundred and Twenty-Five, 1869-1994: A Celebration of the Cleveland Public Library (1994).

Cleveland Public Library Annual-financial-reports (2005-)



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