What is now the Rhinelander District Library began in 1897 as a subscription library maintained by the Rev. Joseph H. Chandler. The Chandler books, as well as those from a second, privately maintained reading room, formed the nucleus of the first free public library collection.
The Rhinelander Public Library opened its doors on March 2, 1898, in Room 10 of the Merchants State Bank building. Miss Inez Van Tassel was appointed to act as librarian, presiding initially over 600 volumes on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays from 2 to 5 and 7 to 9 p.m.
By 1902, library quarters had become too small. Application was made to philanthropist Andrew Carnegie for the money to build a new library. He responded with the promise of $12,500 on condition that the city must appropriate a minimum of 10 percent of this amount for annual support and provide a site.
Brown Brothers Lumber Company donated the lot at the corner of Stevens and Rives Streets and the City Council voted an annual allowance of $1,500 for operating expenses. Carnegie was then asked to increase his gift to $15,000 but refused. Once the plans were completed and the bids in, it was found that it was impossible to keep within the appropriation without materially cheapening the building. After a personal appeal by Congressman W.E. Brown, Carnegie finally agreed to the $2,500 increase.
The Rhinelander Masonic Lodge laid the library cornerstone in September 1903. Formal dedication of the city’s first public building took place in November 1904. The new building was described in the Rhinelander Herald as being “up-to-date, complete in its equipment, pleasing to the eye, and attractive in every respect.”
From the first, the Rhinelander Public Library sought to serve all ages and segments of the community. Early promotions aimed at attracting “the working man” soon dispelled the notion that its collection was reserved for the cultured elite. Through two world wars and the Great Depression, the library kept pace with the information needs of its citizens.
Library service was expanded in 1962 with the advent of Regional Reference Service, and again in 1972 when Oneida County joined the Wisconsin Valley Library Service, a ten county cooperative library system. The Rhinelander Area Joint Library District was formed in 1982 by the City of Rhinelander and Townships of Crescent, Newbold, Pelican and Pine Lake to provide more equitably funded service to the greater Rhinelander Area.
Very few changes were made to the original Carnegie building until 1984. The four oak columns surrounding the central circulation area were removed and a need for additional storage space claimed the men’s lounge and front stairway. The children’s collection was moved from the north end of the main floor to the Woman’s Club meeting room downstairs in 1935. In 1972, a storeroom was remodeled to accommodate smaller programs and meetings.
As the collection expanded, extra supports were installed in the basement to bear the added weight. Eventually Adult Department bookshelves engulfed the windows and fireplaces, rising to a height of nine feet around the outer walls. A succession of electrical, plumbing and heating changes laced the downstairs ceilings with a web of pipes and conduits.
The Friends of the Rhinelander Public Library group was organized during the summer of 1977 at the suggestion of Margaret DuBois McPhee, a former resident of Rhinelander who was appalled at the deterioration of the library building. The organization was formed for the express purpose of renovating the present structure or building a new library.
In addition to establishing a Memorial Fund, the Friends sought other ways to raise money for a better library facility. Proposals sent to large corporations were somewhat successful, but it soon became obvious that there would be no “Second Coming of Andrew Carnegie.” Focus shifted to encouraging local citizens to take a more active role in library fundraising.
In the spring of 1982 the Friends created the Pete the Penny Campaign sparked by a group of enthusiastic young mothers. During that year’s Summer Reading Program, children who brought 100 pennies to the library “for Pete” received a button promoting the need for a new library. When broken down into small moneymaking events such as bake sales and backyard carnivals contributing to the project suddenly came within reach of the average citizen. The cause achieved exceptional community visibility as businesses, service organizations, and other groups jumped on the bandwagon with special activities and promotions.
At this time, a significant contribution earmarked for meeting room furnishings was received from the Rhinelander Woman’s Club. This organization had a long association with the library going back to its second meeting in February 1898, which featured an address on “Public Libraries as Centres of the Public Good.” Following this meeting, club members immediately began raising money for library books. The Woman’s Club continued its annual support, was a guiding presence during the building projects of 1903 and 1984, and is still considered to be a major library sponsor after 100 years.
A Friends sponsored advisory referendum passed on April 5, 1983, directing the Rhinelander District Library Board to plan for a new or adequate facility to be financed with funds obtained through district property taxes.
Site selection and cost were major obstacles for construction of a new building. Existing buildings in the city were either unsuitable or unavailable. Because of public sentiment to preserve the 1903 building and keep construction costs at a reasonable level, library planners decided to pursue renovation of and addition to the existing library.
Noble Rose of the Rose/Orr Architects firm of Beloit was hired to prepare drawings and a building program statement for a $1,000,000 project. In the end, the City of Rhinelander, the four townships combined, a federal grant and the Friends of the Library Fund Drive each contributed one fourth of the cost. Construction of the new addition began May 8, 1984.
During the first phase of construction, a new two-story addition of 9,933 square feet was attached to the north end of the original building. The library closed for two weeks in January 1985 to move everything from the old library into the addition in preparation for the second phase, a complete renovation of the 1903 portion. The total area of the resulting facility was 15,195 square feet, representing a size increase of 178 percent.
The new Rhinelander District Library was dedicated on April 14, 1985. With their major objective accomplished, the Friends reorganized into The Rhinelander District Library Foundation to continue their support of library services.
Services and programs expanded as more customers began using the beautiful new library. By the early 1990’s librarians began looking into computerized checkout and card catalog systems as a necessary enhancement. In the fall of 1993, the five district municipalities promised $80,000 toward an automated system to be raised over a three-year period. A revitalized Library Foundation Board began another successful community-wide fund drive using the logo of Maxie Mouse which raised an additional $50,000 for the project.
Installation of wiring, cabling and equipment enabled the library staff to begin the monumental job of bar coding 70,000 items in the fall of 1997. The library will begin its second century of community service with a modern system of information retrieval and delivery.