Listen to this article

The Paxton Carnegie Library’s patrons might not be aware of the wealth of material easily obtained and accessible with their library card, even apart from what’s on the library’s shelves; a kind of library within the library, according to Library Director Deb Mason.

As society grows ever more interlinked and people turn to the Internet increasingly for the answers to their questions, libraries are being compelled to assess what roles they’re playing for the public, and the Paxton Carnegie Library is no exception.

A rich history

According to a history of the Paxton Carnegie Library Dave Hinton wrote and compiled for the library’s 100th anniversary celebration with research assistance from Rosemary Kurtz, Paxton’s first library was a lean-to addition on the Methodist Episcopal Church’s west side in the early 1890s; the library’s books went to the public school when it closed in 1898. A subscription library in a drugstore opened the following year but closed in 1902.

Local businessman E.B. Pitney formally applied to steel magnate millionaire and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie asking for funds to build a public library after the city council approved a property tax to support it on Feb. 2, 1903. Carnegie agreed to provide $10,000. Residents donated $2,100 to buy the site at the corner of Market and Orleans streets, and ground was broken on Oct. 12 with a dedication on June 27, 1904.

Bloomington architect Paul O. Moratz designed the building, and Paxton resident N.H. Pearson constructed it. The building’s architectural features include a rotunda, 16-foot-high ceilings, a marble fireplace and copper roof. Still there are the original tall wooden stacks and lighting, southern pine floors and semicircular oak circulation desk designed to provide the librarian with a clear view of the entire library.

The library was entered into the National Register of Historic Places in 2002.

“The atmosphere in the Paxton Carnegie Library offers an extraordinary space that is a treasure for many and varied reasons,” Mason said. “It is a landmark in this community that offers a look back into history, and at the same time is a sanctuary, a place of tranquility and a refuge from the noise and confusion of everyday life. It is a place to connect not only with the outside world via the internet, it is also a pleasant place that provides solitude as well as the opportunity to expand knowledge, or to pick a source of entertainment.”

An impressive collection for a small town

While the library began with just 2,000 books that had primarily been donated, it now boasts in addition to over 24,000 volumes more than 1,000 DVDs, audio books, large-print books, newspapers and magazines, city and county historical information, a scanner, copier and fax machine. It offers a drive-up book drop, public computers, public Internet access, a quiet meeting/study room and free Wi-Fi. The library even has a 3-D printer. As a member of the Illinois Heartland Library System, the library provides interlibrary loan service and reciprocal borrowing. Patrons can search the catalog and order materials 24/7. They can order books, magazines and movies, as well as eBooks, audio books for Kindle, Nook, iPad and other devices.

The library’s many offerings are enjoyed by 3,074 cardholders.

“Patrons come in to job search, write resumes, research history and find a connection to their past,” Mason said. “We assist in any way we can.”

The library staff assists patrons locating the books, movies and newspaper articles they need. “We are always ready to help,” Mason said.

The employees also offer help with computers, copying, scanning and faxing, in addition to help with finding historical information.

A community hub

Mason noted that libraries like the Paxton Carnegie Library offer a free source of information, community programs and learning opportunities. “We all need libraries,” she said. “They are the safe and trusted spaces in every community. There is nothing like curling up with a good book in hand. Our children have fun there, our youth feel safe to study and look up information, and our adults enjoy browsing the stacks looking for the perfect read or movie.”

The Paxton Carnegie Library offers its lawn as a place to hold the community Market to Market during the growing/harvest season. It is the starting point for an annual, hugely popular Halloween parade on Market Street. “Our programming brings in people of all ages and offers a variety of opportunities to learn and enjoy new experiences,” Mason said.

Although they are on hold at the moment because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the library typically offers Master Gardener programs, a Lego club for children once a month, a summer reading program and provides a space for knitting and sewing groups. Mason’s personal favorite is a preschool story hour on Thursday mornings.

Beyond books

The Paxton Carnegie Library provides tax forms and assists with the U.S. Census. “Many people use the library for all types of Internet inquiries,” Mason added.

The library provides a reference room and a treasure trove of historical books, articles and information materials. It also houses microfilm of the Paxton Record dating back to 1865. “Without a doubt the Internet offers plenty of options for research; however, we provide search assistance,” Mason said.

Response to a pandemic

The library was forced to lock its doors on March 15 due to the pandemic. “We kept busy in the library during this time with projects, book maintenance and planning for the future,” Mason said.

Mason had only been in her role since the end of January. “It gave me the opportunity to get to know the library really well,” she said. “It’s a great place to spend the day.”

Patrons could still utilize online offerings and take advantage of the free Wi-Fi that the library kept on. “Many vehicles would park outside and use their electronics,” Mason said.

The library then began a no-contact pick-up service and progressed to library visits by appointment and then on to being open full hours once again, following Public Health guidelines.

“We’re just happy we’re open again,” Mason said.

Patrons are also happy about it.

“They can order online, but it’s not the same,” Mason said. “Now they can pick out the things they want. It’s a unique place; people love it and they love coming in.”