Boise’s libraries, old, current, and future, are in the news much lately. The city’s original Carnegie Public Library was recently purchased by a North Idaho tech firm called Ednetics. They plan to renovate the building and use some of it as the Post Falls company’s Boise office. Plans for the building include some unspecified public uses.
The Carnegie building served Boise’s library needs for almost 70 years. Cramped for space, the city renovated a warehouse on Capitol Boulevard in 1973. Today there are plans to build a new library on the site.
But let’s step back to a time when there was no dedicated library building in Boise.
Benjamin E. Lamkin ran a public library from his bookstore from 1863 to 1869. He gave up on it when borrowers of books more and more began keeping them indefinitely. In the following years there were many attempts to establish a library, with champions from churches to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and even the Boise fire department getting in the game with a “gentleman’s reading room.”
Andrew Carnegie, who made his fortune in steel, had been granting money for library construction for cities all across the country and, indeed, in countries worldwide beginning in 1883. As early as 1890 there were some in Boise dreaming of landing a Carnegie library for the city.
It wasn’t until 1895 that the Columbian Club succeeded in establishing a permanent, general-purpose library in a small room in city hall. In January 1896, the Idaho Statesman was lauding the club for the library, calling it “one of the most important institutions of the city.” It was praised not just for its educational merits, but also for its ability to nudge otherwise rowdy young boys into positive pursuits.
“Around the tables at all hours when the place is opened can be seen young and old taking advantage of the opportunity presented to become familiar with the writers of the land. Especially will one notice the number of young men who visit the library daily, boys who, before the library was opened, roamed the streets.”
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The reading room at city hall was free, but for $2 a year, subscribers could check books out and take them home.
The Columbian Club was never satisfied with a small room in city hall. They envisioned a library building to make the growing city proud. They dedicated themselves to raising money to that end, starting in 1896 by presenting “a laughable farce entitled ‘The Breach of Promise,’ in which 28 well-known Boiseites, mostly prominent attorneys, (would) take part.”
Their fundraiser the following year featured an instrumental quartette (sic), vocal selections, and “living pictures,” with local residents dressed in costumes posed to portray tableaus from famous paintings. They portrayed not just a handful, but 22 pictures.
Over the years the club presented various exhibitions and performances to raise money for what they hoped would one day be the Boise Public Library, culminating with an annual event beginning in 1902, the Library Ball. Billed as the “leading social function of the year,” it soon took on a new urgency. A library board of trustees had been formed and other conditions met to apply for a grant from Mr. Carnegie. A grant of $15,000, later increased to $20,000, was awarded. In 1905, the Library Ball would be held in the brand-new Carnegie Library.
Demand for library services has grown a bit since the first Boise Library was only a room in city hall. In 1903, nearly 6,000 books were checked out, a doubling of the volume from the year before.
The most recent figures available are from fiscal year 2018, when 2.7 million items circulated from Boise’s library. The annual budget in 1903 was $204.50. There were 15 annual subscribers, and 137 half-yearly and quarterly subscribers. In 2018, Boise’s library had a budget of $12.95 million with 143,000 active borrowers.
Boiseans love their library, which may explain why they added the exclamation point in 1995, making it the Boise Library! and putting those who write about it into a punctuation conundrum.
Rick Just has been writing about Idaho history since 1989 when he wrote and recorded scripts for the Idaho Centennial Commission’s daily radio program, “Idaho Snapshots.” He has a blog, “Speaking of Idaho,” and his latest book on Idaho history is “Images of America, Idaho State Parks.”