Marquette’s Historic Peter White Public Library
Following is the section from My Marquette about the history of the Peter White Public Library. Additional historic photographs of the library are included in the print version of the book:
Helen and I started up the library’s high front steps.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” asked Helen, stopping after a couple seconds to admire the building. “It looks just like a Greek Temple.”
“Yeah,” I said, “or a Southern plantation house made of stone.”
“We have bigger libraries than this downstate,” said Helen, “but I haven’t seen one so graceful.”
— The Only Thing That Lasts
Although the current impressive and beloved library building was built in 1903 and opened its doors the following year, Marquette’s first library began not long after the town’s founding.
In Iron Pioneers, several of the female characters early on form the Ladies’ Literary Society, an early book club as well as a sign of social distinction in some of its members’ eyes. Although this group was fictional, reading clubs, especially among women, were common in the nineteenth century, and such groups often were the proponents of building libraries. Marquette did have a literary society as early as 1856, and a lending library existed soon after on Baraga Avenue. This lending library was destroyed by the 1868 fire. In the 1870s the library, which belonged to the Marquette school system, was downtown in the Coles Block. At the time, Peter White also had his own personal library collection that he loaned out, so when he built the new First National Bank on Front and Spring Streets, he allowed the library to relocate there in 1878 and merge its collection with his own. Later, in need of more space, the library moved to a room in the City Hall. By 1891, the library’s collection had grown to the point of needing a new home, which it found on the Thurber Block, where Book World is currently located. Because Peter White donated this building, the library was named in his honor.
This new building was also soon found to be too small. Peter White then tried to convince Andrew Carnegie to fund a new library in Marquette—Carnegie would do so for nearby Ishpeming—but Carnegie replied that Marquette was Peter White’s city, so Peter White once again took up the challenge to play benefactor to Marquette and fundraising efforts began. John M. Longyear donated the land for the new building and Peter White and Samuel Kaufman donated most of the money.
In 1904, the new library was officially dedicated and opened on the same day as the new courthouse. The impressive limestone structure, with its large pillars and situated on top of Front Street’s hill, resembled a Greek Temple of Knowledge. Complete with a downstairs smoking room for men, the new library had three floors and seemed plenty spacious for the book collection.
But within fifty years, the collection again outgrew its space. Increased use by patrons and 70,000 volumes led to building an annex on the back of the library in 1957, which included the Children’s Room and storage for most of the adult fiction and the phonograph record collection as well as a large downstairs room for films, puppet shows, and book sales. This version of the library is the one I would know throughout my childhood.
But the people of Marquette soon wanted still more from the library. Far beyond just being a place to check out books, Peter White Public Library was becoming the cultural center of Marquette and a new library was needed to reflect this change. Residents’ affection for the original building was too great to destroy it, so instead, in the late 1990s, the annex was removed and a new addition created which would gracefully blend in with the architecture of the original building. The remodeling would result in the library building being closed for two years and its collection being housed in dormitories at Northern Michigan University where patrons could still access it.
Then in 2001, the new library was opened. The public could not have been happier. The original building was completely retained, and it includes two large reading rooms upstairs, two more reading rooms downstairs, and an art gallery. The new addition, besides containing a collection well surpassing 100,000 volumes, also houses an enormous children’s room, a café, a community room, a gift shop, and the Marquette Arts and Culture Center’s exhibits and space for its art and other cultural classes. In addition, the library’s film and music collection had ample room, and the Rachel Spear bell collection was given prominent display.
The Peter White Public Library is hands down my favorite place in Marquette. I began visiting it first with my preschool class—we would go on “field trips” there just across the street from the First Presbyterian Church to see movies and puppet shows.
After preschool, my library visits were rare because until about 1980, the library’s bookmobile would bring books to the outlying townships. The bookmobile arrived in my neighborhood of Stonegate at the Crossroads about 3:30pm every other week just as the school bus brought us home. We would quickly leave the bus and rush to the bookmobile where Ruth Lee, the driver-librarian, would patiently let us kids dig through the books while she chatted with our parents. I brought home many, many books from the bookmobile including Where the Wild Things Are and numerous of the Bible story rhyming Arch books. But my absolute favorite, which I checked out countless times, was George and Martha, about two hippopotamuses whose friendship usually results in Martha teaching George a lesson, such as just to tell her he doesn’t like split pea soup rather than hiding it in his loafers, or not to be a Peeping Tom by whacking him over the head with the bathtub. As an adult, I still find George and Martha hilarious as well as a wonderful way to teach children basic manners.
About the time I was in fourth grade, funding for the bookmobile was cut so my mom started taking my brother and me to the library. We were only allowed in the children’s room where we would get to visit with our cousin, Merrie Johnson, who worked there. Always a favorite with the kids, Merrie retired in 2005 after more than thirty years at the library; a huge retirement party was held for her in the community room.
As a child, my favorite books to check out included Andrew Lang’s colored fairy tale books and copies of the Wizard of Oz series. As I got older, I discovered the Rainbow Classics, published mostly in the 1940s and edited by May Lamberton Becker—I think I loved them mainly because they were old and they had wonderful colored illustrations, but they also infused a love of literature in me as I graduated from Andersen’s Fairy Tales to Little Men to Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. After reading one Rainbow Classic, I would scan the list on its back cover to pick out another until I had read them all, and then I sought out more classics. By the time I was fourteen and allowed into the library’s adult section, I was ready to gobble up Agatha Christie mysteries, and more classics—Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Mark Twain, and Jane Austen.
Of course, it would have been impossible not to mention the library in my novels. In Iron Pioneers, Edna Whitman is an early librarian and mourns the library’s loss in the 1868 fire. In The Only Thing That Lasts, Robert O’Neill is enthusiastic about his first visit to the library and impressed by its classic architecture. In The Queen City, Kathy McCarey is at the library when she hears Peter White has died.
As for me, today at least once a week I can be found at the library, checking out a book, CD, or video, attending a film—the annual Bollywood film night is a highlight of the winter season—or just admiring the latest art exhibit. As an author, I’m pleased that my books are in the library’s collection, and I’ve gotten to know many of the librarians over the years as I’ve participated in different library events and helped to plan the Upper Peninsula Publisher and Authors Association’s conferences that have been held there. The library staff is wonderful, enthusiastic, and ever ready to support the arts and the community.
The building and people have made Peter White Public Library the true cultural center of Marquette. Every library patron knows how lucky Marquette is to have such a wonderful library that far outshines those in most metropolitan communities, and visitors to our city never cease to rave about it.
A large bust of Peter White sits across from the circulation desk. At Christmas, he dons a festive holiday hat or Santa’s cap. Knowing Peter White’s sense of humor, I’m sure he enjoys all the festivities and the people who pass him each day. His generosity in funding the library has truly been the gift that keeps on giving to the community.
– from My Marquette, available at www.MarquetteFiction.com
Tags: Andrew Carnegie, Bollywood, City Hall, Coles Block, First National Bank, Front Street, George and Martha, iron pioneers, John M. Longyear, marquette, National Medal for Libraries and Media Services, Northern Michigan University, peter white, Peter White Public Library, Rainbow Classics, Rober O'Neill, Samuel Kaufman, the only thing that lasts, Thurber Block, Upper Peninsula Publisher and Authors AssociationYou can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.