By Kenneth Megliorino, Norma Maldonado and Sandra Saldaña
With the arrival of the railroad to El Paso in 1881 came more families, the first city services, the first churches and the first attempts to establish schools. By 1884, a group of extraordinary and concerned El Pasoans interested in developing the knowledge and cultural growth of the town tried to establish a library. The plan failed. The reason? Lisabeth Lovelace (in El Paso: A centennial 's chapter on the public library) says probably because "gunfighters still roamed the streets and saloons were among the most numerous businesses in the city." The first schools attracted teachers from many parts of the country.
Image caption: Financed by Andrew Carnegie, the first El Paso Public Library opened in 1904. Photo courtesy of the El Paso Public Library
One of these teachers was Mary I. Stanton of Georgia. With a Bachelor of Science degree from the Austin Female Seminary in Plainville, Georgia, Stanton began teaching the third grade at Central School in El Paso. After earning a diploma from the Commerce Department of Central Normal College in Indiana, Stanton returned to El Paso in 1886 and continued her teaching career.
Throughout her years as a teacher, Stanton had noticed a reading problem among students. To help her students, she began a reading club in the fall of 1894, using her private collection of books. She owned between 600-800 volumes and placed them in Room 127 on the fourth floor of the Sheldon office building for her high school students, all boys in those days. Students recorded their names and the date they took books from the room.
The room became so popular that adults asked for the privileges of reading Stanton's books. By June 1895, membership had been extended to all, including women. These members either contributed a periodical or paid 50-cents membership fee. Volunteers kept the room open three times a week for two hours a day. Stanton, who taught night school for children who could not attend during the day, paid the room's rent from these earnings.
When the fledgling library grew, L. M. Sheldon offered a bigger room in his building and decided to stop charging rent. Stanton became the librarian, and five other women were hired to assist her. The first library association was formed in 1896 consisting of Stanton, Mrs. Leigh Clark, Mrs. W. W. Mills, Mrs. Thomas J. Beall and Mrs. Ernest Kohlberg.
The reading room was moved from the Sheldon Building to a room on the second floor of City Hall when citizens petitioned the mayor and city council to help Stanton acquire a larger place. On December 4, 1899, the new room in the municipal building was open to the public. By 1900, the library had more than 1,500 books on the shelves and the first trained librarian, Belle F. Read, was hired. P. J. Andrews says the El Paso Public Library Association which still exists was incorporated the same year. The Board of Directors was expanded to include several men, including Dr. F. W. Gallagher, C. R. Morehead, Richard F. Burges, Felix Martinez and Alfred Courchesne.
El Paso librarian Mary Sarber writes that to this point the library had been financed entirely by donations of space, books, money and dues paid by formal members. The library board had tried on several occasions to interest Andrew Carnegie, the great philanthropist who was building public libraries throughout the country, to help them construct a new building.
Carnegie was one of a relatively small number of great industrialists of the late 19th century who genuinely rose from "rags to riches." Born in Scotland, he came to the United States in 1848 at the age of 13 and found work in a Pittsburgh telegraph office. His skill in learning to transcribe telegraphic messages brought him to the attention of a Pennsylvania Railroad official. By the 1870s, he was one of the wealthiest men in the world. By the time of his death in 1919, he had given away some $350 million.
After many attempts, the board secured a grant of $37,500 from Carnegie with the conditions that the city should furnish the library and agree to appropriate ten percent of this amount to be used for the support of the library. Mauran, Russell and Garden, architects from St. Louis, designed the library. It was a one-story structure with half a basement and was built on the block then known as Buckler Square, later renamed Carnegie Square. The new public library opened on April 25, 1904.
The most important single force in the development in the El Paso Public Library has to be the tenure of Maud Durlin Sullivan. A Wisconsin native, Maud Durlin worked as an assistant librarian before entering Brooklyn's Pratt Institute in 1905 to study library science. She returned to Wisconsin as librarian of the Oshkosh Public Library, and then came to the El Paso library in 1908. She quickly began acquiring books written in Spanish, initiating a section of over 2,000 volumes on Mexican/Latin-American history and heritage. She also placed a sign saying "Se habla español" outside the library to make Hispanics aware of services in Spanish.
She also increased the number of free government publications and developed a usable system of access. In 1912, Durlin married John K. Sullivan and resigned her position. For the next five years, she lived with her mining engineer husband in a tent house in the Mogollon Mountains of New Mexico. In 1917, the Sullivans returned to El Paso, and Maud Durlin Sullivan once again became head librarian.
Able to stretch money well, Sullivan built a collection of books, musical scores and art prints which introduced countless El Pasoans to new concepts and ideas. She brought art to El Paso through arrangements with New York galleries, hanging exhibits in the library. She early recognized the artistic talent of Tom Lea, whose first exhibit was mounted in the library when he was 17. She introduced Lea to Carl Hertzog and fostered a creative partnership, resulting in some of the finest books printed in and about the Southwest. Sullivan also arranged Jose Cisneros' first exhibition.
Sullivan learned to speak Spanish, at first in order to select books for the library, but ultimately to visit libraries in Mexico, to mentor Mexican librarians on their visits to the United States and to speak before the International Congress of Libraries and Bibliography in Spain. She served as President of the Texas Librarian Association from 1923 to 1925 and founded the association's bulletin. In 1935 the library received the Carnegie art and music collection of 1,400 prints and 127 books as a result of Sullivan's interest in art. Sullivan served as librarian until the day of her death, December 28, 1943.
By 1950, the first permanent branch building, Memorial Park, had been completed. On September 12, 1954, a new main library built in Southwestern style opened on the site of the Carnegie building at 501 North Oregon. Constructed of Cordova shell limestone quarried near Austin, Texas, the library welcomes patrons at the entrance with a unique ceiling decorated with Native American pictographs. Mary Sarber writes that the wall directly in front of the main entrance bears Tom Lea's mural "Southwest," completed in 1956. José Cisneros designed and carved three plaques gracing the end panels of shelving to the right of the mural room.
In 1957, the library's first bookmobile began operation and three more permanent branches opened: Lower Valley in 1960, Richard Burges in 1961 and Clardy Fox in 1961. Plentiful federal funds in the 1950s and 1960s helped to begin the Raza collection, to purchase two more bookmobiles and to hire a team of bilingual workers who took library programs out into the Spanish-speaking community. The Ysleta Branch opened in 1971 and the Westside Branch in 1978. A new Westside Branch opened in 1988. In 1990, a bond issue passed, providing $500,000 per year for library books and materials over ten years.
The El Paso Public Library is the longest continuously operated library in Texas. It now has 9 branches located all over the city. Andrews reminds us that from the first day it opened, the library operated in the belief that it had a responsibility to help in the education of the city.
On May 6, 2000, El Paso voters overwhelmingly passed a bond issue to provide $26.1 million for the library system, now in desperate need of more room and funds. Among other projects, the Main Library will receive $7.9 million for remodeling and refurbishing and $635,000 for automation of library services. New branches will be built on both the West and East sides, and the Lower Valley (San Jose) Branch will be reconstructed.
The United States has a tradition dating back to 1725 when the first public reading room was opened in Philadelphia. The El Paso Public Library is one of the best educational bargains in the city. The legacy of Mary Stanton, Andrew Carnegie, Maud Durlin Sullivan and others in the past 100 years will now be preserved as services are updated and expanded.