Full-time staff members at the Towanda Public Library (top, from left) Roberta Hansen, Stephanie Grohl, and Katie Patton bring decades of experience to the facility as it approaches a milestone 125-year anniversary.
By Rick Hiduk
(Originally published in Living Bradford County Magazine)
The Towanda Public Library is honing in on its 125th anniversary, having been built in 1897 by Frank Welles, the son of a well-to-do family whose 1814 home still sits across Main Street. Welles only spent six years in the borough, but his love for Towanda and its people was everlasting. After marrying fellow Susquehanna Collegiate Institute classmate Anna Thomas of Wyalusing, Welles moved to Chicago, where he had a very successful career with Western Electric.
The company sent him to Europe, where he oversaw the construction of numerous factories and telephone systems. He also fell in love with classic European architecture. He returned often to Towanda and, during one of his visits to his parents, he proposed that Towanda should have a grand public library. He not only donated property he owned at the corner of Maple and Main streets, he also designed and oversaw its construction, employing a Flemish Renaissance style.
“It has never been anything else,” current library director Katie Patton said of the stately building. It wasn’t, however, the first public lender of literary works in the borough. “The Towanda Musical Society had a very small library on Main Street. When this building was under construction, they decided to join together.”
Thus, the Musical Society appointed Miss Helen Carter as the first librarian who worked in the new building in that capacity until 1899, when she was replaced by Miss Helen Rockwell. The Towanda Public Library has weathered tough financial times and undergone renovations, expansions, and advancements in technologies that helped it maintain its relevance in an evolving world.
Until 1917, state law prohibited public libraries from using any tax money, leaving the organization with substantial debt by 1920 that could not be offset by a $300 annual donation from the public school system and other contributions. The public lobbied hard against the borough council to put to referendum a 1.5-mil tax levy that year, which the voters approved.
When Patton was a young girl living in Sheshequin, she generally went with her mother to the Memorial Library in Ulster. But, when the family needed to go to Towanda, the Public Library, sitting high above Main Street always caught her eye. It never occurred to her that she would one day work there, let alone serve as its director. “I’m still amazed,” Patton remarked. “There’s days that I cross the street and look back and say, ‘Wow! I work there!’”
Patton was hired in 2007 to manage the Children’s Library and became director about six years ago. She is one of three full-time staff members that include desk clerk Stephanie Grohl and inter-library loan reference librarian Roberta Hansen. Hansen and Grohl have worked there for 30 and 20 years, respectively. There are also six part-time employees.
“I’ve been in the library system since I was 18, starting in Florida,” Grohl related. “I’m a book lover, and I love helping patrons get their books.”
“This is a great town and a great library. The kids have grown up and are bringing their kids now,” said Hansen. “And it’s a privilege to work in such a magnificent older building.”
“The fact that it was built to be a library makes us do our best to keep it historical and not change it too much,” Patton stated.
There have been changes, of course, and each one has brought more services and more patrons to the library. In 1951, a perfectly crafted annex at the back of the building created space for the first children’s room. The cost of construction was covered by Carl and Katherine VanSchaick Peterson in memory of their son, John Frank Peterson, who’d been killed in Italy during World War II.
“They did it so well that you can’t even tell from the outside that it’s an addition,” Patton remarked. Two sets of pocket doors allowed the room to be isolated from the main library when necessary during what Patton refers to as the “Shhh!” days. The room now houses books and reference materials on local history.
The next big change came in 2000 when the library acquired an old carriage house that had been built farther up Maple Street that had fallen into disrepair. Initially, after some cosmetic changes, it was used by the Friends of the Library for book sales. Library administrators and board members knew there must be a better use for the space, even if it were to be demolished to provide library patrons with much-needed parking. The decision was made to convert the carriage house and its add-on second story into a new children’s library and community room.
By the time a new design had been approved and the project was put out for bid in 2010, costs for new windows and walls and construction of an elevator shaft pushed the project more than $10,000 beyond the original budget of $150,000. Nonetheless, renovations were completed and the annex opened to the public in June of the following year.
A few years ago, a Library Services and Technology Act grant was acquired that allowed the board to update the junior literary collection and frugally invest in a computer system that serves five patrons simultaneously. As the pandemic wanes, new programming for youths has brought laughter back to the building. “Families love to come here because the kids can be kids,” Patton noted.
The upgrades in technology allowed the library to remain viable during the worst of COVID. After a mandated two-month shutdown, the staff started curbside service before slowly reopening the library. “Our card catalog is online,” Patton explained. “If you have a library card, you can register for a book loan.”
The library’s website, www.towandalibrary.org, provides more services than one might expect, including Chat With a Librarian, Learning Express, NewsBank, Success Skills, and Power Library – a direct connection to the State Library of Pennsylvania. Patrons can also download e-books and audio books. Additionally, books and other items can be ordered from other libraries in the Bradford County Library System. A driver makes a sweep of all nine libraries twice per week for deliveries and pickups.
While the internet has been a blessing to the library, it also represents a challenge. In a day when people can look up almost anything on a phone or computer, Patton cautions, “The information online is not always accurate. There are too many choices.” That helps physical libraries maintain a gold standard, especially for those doing research projects. “When students come in, we can bring the book to them and show them the answer.”
As the Towanda Public Library approaches this anniversary on solid footing, history has proven that staff and board members have to prepare for the unexpected. Ongoing maintenance of the old buildings is costly, as is updating stock. And the carriage house still needs an elevator to make the Community Room ADA-compliant.
Support is realized through donations, trusts, grants and partnerships with other agencies like the United Way. There are endless volunteer options with the library for those who prefer hands-on involvement. The nine-member Board of Trustees oversees subcommittees that help with policies, bylaws, finances, and fundraising. Patton and her helpers invite those who have not been in the Towanda Public Library in a while to stop in and see what they’ve been missing.
More than 20,000 books and recorded items await patrons at the Towanda Public Library.
Construction of the Towanda Public Library was just underway in this photo from 1897.
A keystone acknowledging Welles’ gift to the community was installed at the front right corner of the building.
The ornate door at the front of the Towanda Public Library has been welcoming readers for well over a century.