By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
WEBB CITY, Mo. —
Eight years before the passage of the 19th Amendment, women took to the streets of Webb City to convince men to vote for something they couldn’t: A library.
It was 1912. The Carnegie Corp. had announced it was funding libraries across the nation, and the local Civic Improvement Association, composed of several women’s clubs, wanted in on the deal.
“When women in Webb City learned of the Carnegie grants, they decided they needed to get on the bandwagon,” said Sue Oliveira, the library’s director for the past 16 years.
It is said that Andrew Carnegie, a Scottish-American industrialist who led the enormous expansion of the American steel industry in the late 19th century, had two reasons for donating money to the founding of libraries: He believed that libraries added to the meritocratic nature of America — anyone with the desire to learn could educate themselves and be successful in America like he had been.
He also believed that immigrants like himself needed to acquire cultural knowledge of America, and libraries would enable that.
Webb City had a library, of sorts, in the very early 1900s. It was in a storefront on Main Street — address unknown — and offered patrons books on a fee basis, much like movie rentals today. The women wanted a true library, however.
“When they contacted the Carnegie Corp. about getting a grant to build the library, they were told it would pay only for the building — not the maintenance or the purchase of the property,” Oliveira said.
Voters would have to approve a tax for maintenance, and a library district, once established, would have to buy the land.
The women went door to door with a petition and got enough signatures from their husbands, brothers, uncles and sons to put the issue on the ballot for April 6, 1913.
“It passed, so the library district officially came into existence that day,” Oliveira said.
Starting in April this year and continuing each month through April 1914, the Webb City Library staff, board, patrons and Centennial Committee will be celebrating the achievement.
FROM THE RUBBLE
The 9,200-square-foot library was built by E.S. Cosby, a contracting company out of Muskogee, Okla., which used native limestone quarried from the mines surrounding Webb City.
“The exterior of the library actually is mine rubble from the rubble piles,” Oliveira said. “It was built to last.”
The architectural style of the library is called Richardsonian Romanesque, a particular style used by a firm of architects in Chicago on about 40 libraries across the U.S., according to research by Oliveira.
When complete at the end of 1914, the Webb City Library would become one of 2,509 libraries throughout the English speaking world, including the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, to be funded by Carnegie in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The official dedication was Jan. 1, 1915. In 2004, the library underwent a renovation and expansion that doubled its size.
“When the library first began it had 772 patrons and 1,771 volumes,” Oliveira said. “Now we have 3,858 current active patrons and in the neighborhood of 42,000 volumes and daily newspapers. That just shows the growth.”
Carolyn McGowan, the chairwoman of the Centennial Committee, said the library continues to play as vital a role in the Webb City community as ever.
“It’s important because of course libraries provide free books, but in recent years it has become much more than that,” she said. “We have computer labs, ebooks, a wealth of information for anyone to read without purchasing.”
The growth includes complete automation, including circulation, cataloging and climate control. The library also is in the process of going digital with its holdings, including audiobooks.
“It’s been a big part of the Webb City community and continues to be,” McGowan said. I’m extremely proud of the library and what they’ve accomplished.”
The director said the library staff, board, patrons and a Centennial Committee had good reason to kick off the anniversary celebration on April 6 and to celebrate each month for a year.
“The reason we selected that date to begin our centennial celebration is we wanted to honor these women, and that was the day of the vote,” Oliveira said. “We wanted to make sure that people understood the effort that was put into getting the library.”
And, she said, the Centennial Committee also wanted to underscore that library is not just a building.
“So many people tie the library to the building — and obviously you have to have a building — but a library is a collection of services and programs and materials. There’s a lot of things involved in a library. You can have a cardboard box and donated books and have a library.”
As part of the centennial celebration, McGowan, who runs Pinocchio Dance Studio in downtown Webb City, researched 100 years worth of music, decade by decade.
“The first decade was celebrated by barbershop quartet music, and a living history actor portrayed Andrew Carnegie,” she said. “We are trying to make each month’s event reflect the atmosphere of one of the decades of the library.”
This month, the library is up to the 1940s, and will celebrate with “In the Mood,” a Big Band-era night of entertainment and dancing at the nearby Route 66 Event Center, 21 S. Webb St.
The event will feature dance instruction with Susie Crutcher, and Bruce and Jane Benson, followed by musical performances, a dance and a resolution honoring the centennial presented by Sen. Ron Richard, R-Joplin.
Saturday’s event is free, but seating is limited to 300 patrons, and 225 had registered by Friday afternoon. Those who want to attend should call the Webb City Library by noon Saturday at 417-673-4326. For information about each subsequent monthly musical event, contact the library.