“It belongs to all. Let that be remembered. Not to a chosen few to monopolize its benefits, not to a narrow circle to frown on all the rest, but to all, to every one as equal with every other.”
Francis M. Finch
In 1864, one year prior to the founding of his university, Ezra Cornell bestowed on our community a gift—a free, public Library. That gift has become a refuge for readers, a gallery for artists, a center for civic engagement. It has introduced children to their first books and reunited adults with long-lost favorites. It offers something for all and all for some.
As we celebrate 150 years of Library service to Tompkins County, we reflect on Ezra’s vision, and create—with your help—our own for 150 more!
The Early Years
In 1863, Cornell asked Francis Miles Finch, an Ithaca native and Yale-educated lawyer, to assist him in drawing up a charter for a Library Association. Cornell purchased a lot on Tioga Street at the south side of Seneca Street -- across from the Village Hall--and formed an advisory committee of local citizens to help him. William Hodgins, an Albany architect, was chosen to prepare the plans.
In April of 1864 the New York State Legislature chartered the Cornell Public Library Association, the sixth public library chartered by the state and the first in a village. Construction on the building was completed and the library was formally “presented to the citizens of Tompkins Co. N.Y. as a free Public Library” by Ezra Cornell at the dedication ceremony on December 20, 1866. Circulation officially began on March 4, 1867. At the opening of the Library, Ezra Cornell contributed 3,000 volumes, with the stipulation that he would add 1,000 volumes each year for twelve years. Many other community members also donated books to the library. At the dedication, it was further proposed that every person present should “during the ensuing holiday week, present to the Cornell Library at least one good book as a Christmas gift.”
The building included not only the library room with a capacity for holding 30,000 volumes, but also reading rooms, a lecture room called Library Hall - able to seat 800 people, and space for community organizations like the DeWitt Guard, the Ithaca Farmer’s Club, and the Ithaca Historical Society. In order to make the library self-supporting, the building contained commercial space for a post office, the office of the First National Bank, and other businesses.
“I Would Found an Institution”
On November 21, 1866, Andrew Dickson White was elected the first president of Cornell University at a meeting held in the First National Bank, and for 20 years, Cornell’s Board of Trustees held their events there. On October 7, 1868, in Library Hall, Cornell University celebrated its first Inauguration Day.
In 1868, the first meeting of the faculty of the newly chartered university met in the library. Early classes and commencement exercises of the University took place in the Library's large lecture hall.
Unfortunately, when the Depression began in October 1929, the Library could not maintain services, and on July 15, 1932, was forced to shut down. Library service resumed in January of 1933.
By the 1950's, a rebounding economy led to increased public support for a new, modern library building. A building fund was begun shortly before the Library Association sold the original building to the First National Bank and moved to temporary quarters in the Sons of Italy Hall on W. State Street, where it celebrated its centennial in 1964.
The original Cornell Library Building demolished in July of 1960
In 1967, the County Board of Supervisors approved construction of a new $1.7 million library building. It had been agreed that the new facility was to be chartered and operated as a county library. In January 1968 the Cornell Library Association turned over its books and assets to Tompkins County. The new library at 312 N. Cayuga opened in February 1969.
Tompkins County Public Library was incorporated by the NY State Board of Regents under a provisional charter on December 15, 1967. Its absolute charter was granted on June 29, 1973.
In 1998, the Tompkins County Legislature approved a plan to move the Library to the former Woolworth Department Store, at the corner of Green and Cayuga Streets. Renovations began in the fall of 1999 and the Library opened in its new space in November of 2000.
The library celebrated 10 years at Green Street in November 2010
April 4 to April 6, 2014, Tompkins County Public Library will celebrate 150 years of service to the community and you are invited to participate. Celebrations start with the official opening of a sesquicentennial art exhibit “150 Years and Counting” at Gallery Opening Night on Friday April 4. We need the help of all the county's residents to create this exhibit. To learn more, visit Diary of a Library. For more information about events visit Celebration Events.
A more detailed history can be found at http://tcpl.org/libinfo/about-history.php