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November 09, 2015

History of Hamilton East Public Library: The Founding

MacClureHistory of Hamilton East Public Library: The Founding

By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

In the first real dictionary of the English language, published in 1756, Dr. Samuel Johnson defined a library as “A large collection of books, publick or private.”  The idea of the books themselves being the library, rather than the building they were placed in, is really how the word has been used throughout history.  While the ancient Library of Alexandria was a formal institution, the scrolls and other materials within its walls came from collections all over the Greek and Roman empires.   In early America, when Benjamin Franklin and his friends were creating the Library Company of Philadelphia – the nation’s first public, circulating library – they purchased books before they had even rented a room.  And Thomas Jefferson, after the Library of Congress was burned during the War of 1812, gave his personal library to the government to be the core of a new collection.  This public and private partnership is the source of many libraries in the United States.  In Hamilton County, Indiana, it has ensured the survival of one such institution for over a century and a half.  The roots of the Hamilton East Public Library run deep in the local community.

In the 1850’s, the citizens of central Hamilton County were entering a new era of self-improvement.  The county had grown steadily since its settlement and in 1850 had a population of 12,684.  Noblesville itself had a population of 664 and was incorporated as a town in 1851.  A seminary had been built to provide higher education, and most importantly, 1851 saw the completion to Noblesville of the first railroad in the county.   The new residents coming in via the railroad were the post-pioneer generation and were looking for a community that provided cultural and educational amenities.  On March 20, 1856, a new entity was founded that would be deeply intertwined with the city on those two points, through many years of boom and bust and changing styles and ideas.  The library created at that time would become a resource used by the people of Noblesville and the surrounding area from the 19th to the 21st century.

Working Man's bookplateThe impetus for the founding of the library came about because of a man who had probably never actually seen the town of Noblesville.  William Maclure was a philanthropist and one of the founders of the utopian community of New Harmony, Indiana.  When he died in 1840 he left money in his will for self-improvement societies to start libraries.  To receive one of these grants of money, a group had to have 100 books and a place to conduct business.  However, because of arguments among his heirs, it took the next sixteen years to distribute the money.   There were two library companies started in Hamilton County in 1856; one in Westfield and one in Noblesville.  The Noblesville group called itself the Hamilton County Working Men’s Association.  According to its constitution, membership was limited to those people who “earned their living by the sweat of their brow.”  Most members were actually small storekeepers.

Unfortunately, like many other Maclure grant libraries, the groups in Hamilton County began to fail during the Civil War.  Most of the Working Men’s association members were involved in the war effort.  However, two Noblesville citizens, Dr. Haymond W. Clark and James Martin, took over the library in that city and, after adding some of Clark’s personal library to it, were able to revive it and open it to the general public. The books were housed in a building on the west side of the courthouse square which was referred to as a “reading room”.

…(to be continued)