A Philadelphia Shopping Trip Helped A Governor Check Out Ramona

“This day the first stone for the foundation of the new State House was dropped in the Public Square; from the Waggens.”

So noted Zechariah Mills, State Librarian of Ohio, in his weather log for May 16, 1838, a day that was “fair and warm – appearance of rain.”

From January 1838 to June 1844, Mills diligently logged the morning, noon and nighttime temperature and weather conditions in Columbus each day, adding notes about events that interested him.  

This is just one of the rare items the State Library of Ohio has chosen to share in an online interactive exhibit and a display as it celebrates its bicentennial this year.

During the early years of Ohio’s statehood, state legislators soon discovered that they had no way to preserve sets of state laws, journals, documents and maps, let alone those from other states.  On December 2, 1816, the legislature appropriated $3,500 as a contingency fund for Ohio Governor Thomas Worthington to purchase books that would form the beginning of a state library.

While on a trip to Pennsylvania to investigate management practices for penitentiaries and other state institutions, Worthington stopped by Philadelphia bookseller Mathew Carey and Son and bought 509 books. When he returned, he placed them in a room over the state auditor’s office on High Street, in front of the west grounds of the current Statehouse.

Presenting the books to the legislature on December 1, 1817, Worthington described them as a “small but valuable collection of books which are intended as the commencement of a library for the state. In the performance of this act I was guided by what I conceived the best interest of the state, by placing with in the reach of the representatives of the people, such information as will aid them in the discharge of the important duties they are delegated to perform,” The Journal of the Senate of the State of Ohio, 15th General Assembly of the State of Ohio reported.  On December 25, Thomas Harper, the first State Librarian of Ohio, entered the books in an accession register that is also on display in the exhibition.

So began the State Library of Ohio’s commitment to serving the information needs of Ohio’s state legislators, elected officials and government employees.

At first, the time limit for materials to be checked out depended on the size of the book. To request a book, patrons filled out a form known as a call tag. For example, William McKinley, Jr., a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, 1877-91; governor of Ohio, 1892-1896; and president of the United States, 1897-1901, filled out a call tag for the State Library’s copy of Barrett’s Life of Lincoln.

State Library staff kept track of book lending in a circulation register. An entry in a circa 1885-6 register indicates that Ohio Governor Joseph B. Foraker checked out a copy of the popular 1884 book, Ramona, by Helen Hunt Jackson.

New legislation in the spring of 1896 significantly changed the library’s mission. The Garfield Library Law, named for Ohio Senator James R. Garfield, son of the late president, who proposed the legislation, opened the library to all Ohioans. As a result, the State Library started purchasing general fiction books, which became very popular. It also created the Traveling Library System.

Modeled after the New York State Library’s program, the Traveling Library System was designed to provide good literature to reading clubs, boards of education, schools, religious organizations, farmers’ associations known as granges, and citizens of small towns that did not have a library. It was also intended to strengthen small libraries and create interest in establishing new libraries in a community. Residents of the Ohio School for the Deaf built the boxes, each of which contained 25 to 30 books. For the next 77 years, Traveling Library books were delivered across the state, eventually becoming the largest traveling library program in the country.

In 1906, the State Library started working with public libraries throughout the state, supporting them on everything from securing adequate government funding to strategic planning. Today, it helps public libraries enhance their services through programs like Choose to Read Ohio, which encourages sharing books by Ohio authors, and Connecting to Collections, which initiates grants for collaborative planning partnerships. It also helps public libraries digitize materials in their collections, coordinates a summer reading program, gives digital literacy training in rural libraries, and provides statistical data on Ohio public libraries.  Additionally, the State Library provides Ohioans with access to eBooks and other digital resources. Its Talking Book Program provides free recorded books, magazines and playback equipment to blind, visually impaired, and both physically disabled and reading-disabled Ohioans.

To assist in preparing and formulating bills, a Legislative Reference and Information Department was established in 1909 to collect, classify and index books, manuscripts and other materials on current and pending legislation. As the only regional federal depository of government documents in Ohio, the State Library is also a depository for state government information.

Special Collections materials at the State Library include rare books and other unique materials, such as medieval manuscripts and modern oral history narratives. Also on display is a letter from George Washington thanking a friend for a barrel of barley seeds.

For more on the State Library of Ohio’s bicentennial, read The State Library at 200: A Celebration of Library Services to Ohio, by Cynthia G. McLaughlin, the former Deputy Director for Library Services at the State Library. The State Library will hold an open house celebration at its headquarters on August 4, 2017 at 1:00 p.m. The exhibition at the State Library’s headquarters continues through February 5, 2018. Another exhibit celebrating the State Library’s Bicentennial will be at the Ohio Statehouse in the Map Room during the month of August.

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