A short history of the Flagstaff-City Coconino County Public Library

by Susan Wilcox

The first public reading room in Flagstaff opened early in February, 1890, in the front room of the Methodist-Episcopal Church parsonage on Leroux Street in downtown Flagstaff. Several citizens donated books and cash, and fund raising was through membership or "subscription". Citizens of Flagstaff had produced the drama, "Esmerelda", in June, 1888, netting over $150 for the project. The fledgling library was well supplied with about 300 books, a surprising array of national daily and weekly newspapers and magazines, and a selection of games for those who were looking for relaxing entertainment. Michael J. Riordan served as the first president, and Rev. Gill, in whose house the reading room was located, served as librarian.

A year later, in March of 1891, a new library association was formed and the reading room was moved to Judge Gibson's offices on north Leroux Street (now the site of the Weatherford Hotel). By October the library had moved once again to an iron building on San Francisco Street one half block north of Santa Fe Avenue. At this time D.M. Riordan donated his personal library of over 600 volumes. That month a ball was held to benefit the library, and in December a concert of vocal and instrumental pieces was given to raise money for additional shelves and seating. This pattern of moving and fund raising continued through the library's early history.

Then, in September, 1893, after almost four years of effort and support, disaster struck. The Tourist Hotel (also known as the Del Monte) where the library was stored, burned to the ground. Not a volume survived, and it was to be seven years before the demoralized citizens would again take up the task of establishing a public library.

A new library finally opened in November, 1900, with the innovative combination of a library and lunch counter -- a system which seemed to guarantee both circulation and income. The new location was on the east side of San Francisco Street, one half block north of Santa Fe Avenue. Mr. Walter Beeson was both manager and librarian, supervising the books, newspapers, games and presumably also the soup and sandwiches. By the spring of 1901 the library had electric lights to replace the oil lamps.

The library was once more on the move in March, 1909, this time under the auspices of the W.C.T.U., temperance at this time being perhaps more profitable than hamburgers. The library remained opened at least until 1910.

Then in 1914, the first Woman's Club of Flagstaff met at Emerson School. They proposed immediately to "start" a public library for the city. The new reading room was on the second floor of the Sanderson (Pollock) Block on Aspen Avenue between Leroux and San Francisco Streets, where it remained from 1914 to 1938. The library board of the Woman's Club operated the library. To raise funds they devised a scheme of "Library Nights" in which proceeds from the local movie house one night a month were given to the library. They also convinced businessmen to take part in "Library Day", so that on one day a year a percentage of the profits from sales by participating merchants went to the purchase of books. It was a hand to mouth existence, but the library actually expanded both its space and programs. By the summer of 1915 a children's program began with a special book collection and storytelling on Thursday afternoons. The lucky participants were treated to an automobile ride at the end of the program in September. Also in September the women began cataloging the growing collection of 1185 books. At this time there was a discussion of building a public library building, but war, influenza and other international events intervened, and the library remained in the same location.

In January, 1920, the library received its first local tax support, and a board of trustees was appointed by the city council. Among their first tasks were to try to obtain a Carnegie library grant for a new building, to add a new room to its present location and to hire a professional librarian. Carnegie funds, however, were unavailable. In 1927 the library was given county status, and with it a nominal amount of additional income. The library still pursued the idea of a new building or a new location, but no action was taken until 1938 when the library moved into the Woman's Club Building which the City of Flagstaff purchased. This attractive building on Aspen Avenue between Humphreys and Sitgreaves Streets served not only as a library, but also for meeting rooms and exhibit space. In 1949 an eastern extension of services was begun with county funds. This was housed in various east side locations, and in 1966 it moved into a new building on Ellen Street. In 1981 this branch was combined with the East Flagstaff Junior High School Library to form the East Flagstaff Community Library. The first bookmobile service began in 1957, and services to the blind and physically impaired began in 1968 and were housed successively in the Guidance Center, the Downtowner Motel and the Murdock Center.

In April, 1970, the library building on Birch Avenue was condemned, staff and patrons moved out immediately, and library service was conducted on a limited basis from a trailer parked in front of the building. By November the City had approved the purchase of the Laborers' Union Hall at 11 West Cherry Street. The new library opened there on June 3, 1972. Although crowded conditions were far from ideal, still many new programs and services were undertaken and use increased tremendously. In 1975 the Technical Services Department of the library moved to old Emerson School, and in 1981 the services to the blind and physically impaired also moved there. Much negotiation and research was undertaken for a new library building, and Flagstaff voters approved a $4 million bond issue in March, 1985, for the old Emerson School site. The architectural firm of Snowden and Hopkins was selected, and on May 1987, a grand opening was held in the spacious 34,000 square foot building which features cathedral ceilings and four fireplaces.

This article is also available in the Centennial cookbook, 1890-1990, by the Flagstaff City-Coconino County Public Library, copyright 1990. Available under the call number AR 641.5 C397