The Pages Of History

Looking back at 160 years of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County

click to enlarge Cincinnati's original public library, the gorgeous "Old Main," was completed in 1874.
Cincinnati's original public library, the gorgeous "Old Main," was completed in 1874.


f you wanted to borrow a book from a library in 18th-century America, you might run into some problems. 

Back then public libraries didn’t exist. Instead, small private libraries served those who were members — mainly upper-class citizens who could afford the annual fees. The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County (PLCH), like many public libraries, traces its roots back to these subscription-style services, but it wasn’t until 1853 that the library we know today — one supported by taxes and open to anyone who desires to use it — was authorized in the Queen City. 

“There have been so many changes at the library throughout its history,” says Kimber Fender, director of the PLCH. “Especially within the last few years. But change is what we’re about: We try to respond to the needs of the community in an inexpensive and easy-to-use way.”

And Fender is happy because 2013 has been a good year. In May, the PLCH was honored at the White House with a National Medal for Museum and Library Services, an award given to 10 outstanding public institutions each year; the American Library Association named it the busiest central library in the U.S. for the second year in a row; pictures of “Old Main,” the library’s original location before moving to its current address, have been featured at least twice on Buzzfeed, a popular entertainment website; and the Urban Libraries Council named it a 2012 Top Innovator. Now, Fender and the staff are celebrating PLCH’s 160th anniversary with an exhibit in the Main Library that shows how it has evolved throughout the years. 

“The stereoscopes and glass lanterns are fun,” Fender says, commenting on the outdated library technologies on display through Oct. 23. “The exhibit is really a testament to the library’s commitment to innovation and serving the community.”

Since its authorization in 1853, the PLCH has been a leader in library services. Among the first truly public libraries in the U.S., the original main building was located on Vine Street between Sixth and Seventh streets and featured five levels of cast-iron alcoves that could hold more than 200,000 books. To borrow a book, patrons walked up to the catalog desk and requested a specific title. Then a library page would walk up one of the spiral staircases, retrieve the volume from its alcove and sign it out. 

In the 1870s, Cincinnati became the first American city to open its library facilities on Sundays. PLCH was also an early adopter of services for the blind, and it was among the first in the nation to allow children to access books and other materials as junior patrons (reading rooms required that every child wash his or her hands before touching anything). 

By the Great Depression, countrywide demand for materials had skyrocketed. With little-to-no income, more and more people walked through library doors to search for jobs, read the news or simply escape. PLCH responded by keeping the library doors open and using delivery stations and bookmobiles, which were trucks that delivered library books to people in far-reaching, rural areas.

After World War II, plans were made for the construction of a new main library that would be able to house its growing book collection. In 1955, Old Main was demolished and PLCH moved its headquarters two blocks over to its present location at Eighth and Vine streets. “New Main” maintained the skylight ceiling in the atrium, similar to Old Main, but was bigger and allowed patrons to browse bookshelves more conveniently. 

Today, Fender and staff are looking for answers to questions like, “What items and services should libraries provide?” and “What do libraries look like?” In 2012, more than half a million cardholders downloaded 900,000 e-books and music files, making it the most used resource ever offered by the library. The PLCH’s dedication to its digital audience is obvious. But what’s never obvious, Fender says, is the next step. “We’re figuring it out as we go along,” she says, “but that’s part of what makes my job challenging and fun.”

John Fleischman, science writer and author of Free & Public, 150 Years at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, is scheduled to give a presentation at the main library’s celebration event on Saturday. “One of the challenges the library faced 10 years ago was public Internet access — how to provide it, how to regulate it and how to use it as a resource,” he says. “Today, I think its role is showing people how to use the web and providing them with reliable online services.” 

The PLCH has come a long way since introducing the Internet as a basic library service back in 1997. In the last five years, PLCH became the first library in Ohio to offer an e-book collection and multiple streaming movie and television services. It’s added hundreds of thousands of files to the online catalog, giving cardholders fingertip access to downloadable songs, movies, television series, magazines and e-books. 

Digital downloads are by far the most popular library resource to date; however, the library itself isn’t as quiet and empty as stereotypes might suggest. Among the 21,000 yearly programs held at 41 library locations, the library offers computer classes that assist adults in obtaining GEDs, creating resumes and applying for jobs. PLCH has also been recognized for its Summer Lunch Program, which provides free lunches to children at 15 branches during summer months. According to its website, the main branch still attracts thousands of visitors a year who come to use the Internet, attend classes, study, look for jobs — and borrow books. 

“It’s nice to get recognition for our work on both local and national levels,” says Fender, thinking about the past year. “But what’s really nice is the people we serve. They know they can save some money by using the library, and they know they can get the information they need.” 


OF CINCINNATI AND HAMILTON COUNTY hosts an anniversary celebration at its Main Library location downtown Saturday. More information: .

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