“Books…are like TV for smart people,” actor Robert Redford declares in the film “A Walk in the Woods.”
Patrons from Union City, Indiana and Darke County, Ohio have borrowing privileges few border communities can boast. Any Darke County resident with a Greenville library card can check out books at the Union City Carnegie Library and vice versa.
This especially benefits young people on the Ohio side of the Union Cities state line, said Union City director Lawrence Sexton. The library is but a short walk or bike ride away. Sexton’s sparse, greying beard is hidden by a protective mask as he chats.
Sexton goes the extra mile literally to outfit boys and girls with library cards. He personally collects applications for cards from Darke school children and teens, then delivers the actual cards to the students. Curbside delivery of books continues during daily operating hours, and staffers take orders by phone and Internet.
The library’s director since May 2018, Sexton earned a B.S. in art education from Buffalo State College, my own alma mater. After some years of teaching, he switched after completing a master’s in library science at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.
Sexton stressed that the staff and administrators at the Greenville Library worked hard to make this reciprocal library arrangement a reality. He said their dedication impressed him. The Union City library could not have obtained support of legislatures in two states without Greenville’s efforts. “I am so grateful to them,” Sexton said.
Similar hard work in 1887 by an “unmarried ladies society” with the mysterious name of “G.G.G.” gave Union City its original library: a small room in the local school. The society hit the streets and collected donated books for its shelves.
Years later, another “Council of Women” sponsored a “mock wedding” of children ten and under wearing formal garb. It was a gimmick that increased local interest in the library. Photos of the kids made headlines in several Hoosier papers.
In 1904, Union City became one of the 2,509 worldwide libraries funded by a foundation created by Pennsylvania steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie also funded many halls for the performance of musical conferences. You may have heard the joke that New York City residents tell when asked for directions to the most famous Carnegie building?
“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” asks a visitor.
“Practice, practice, practice,” the New “Yawkah” quips.
I learned a few surprising things from director Sexton.
“Indiana has more Carnegie libraries than any other state,” Sexton said.
With accursed segregation fully in effect at the start of the twentieth century, the foundation funded libraries for black Americans in The Deep South and in Evansville, Indiana (now demolished).
Carnegie’s seed money in 1904 to build a library was modest but sufficient.
“It received a $10,000 grant,” Sexton said. An additional $850 in funds to furnish the library came from the Local Council of Women’s raffle of an automobile. Some libraries, such as the one in Washington, D.C., received grants upwards of $350,000.
Worldwide libraries were funded in far-flung places such as Fiji and Mauritius. As an immigrant who started in rags, Carnegie believed book learning could elevate the life of any immigrant.
Union City’s completed building was dedicated in 1905. Wright and Duncan of Anderson, Indiana were the architects. They chose the Classical Revival style, while many other styles grace other Carnegie buildings.
The land on which the building rests was once a city park used for baseball games. Cows grazed there now and then. A fountain once graced the park.
“Local builders did the work,” noted Sexton.
My wife Gosia and I exchanged pleased looks as Sexton then gave us a short tour. The library’s downstairs wooden staircase exactly matched our newly purchased 1900 Union City house’s staircase connecting the first floor to the second.
Upon leaving the library after a two-hour visit with director Sexton, I left two books I recently had written as a donation. If you check them out you’ll find my dedication inside them to you library patrons.
The Union City Carnegie Library will be our favorite place to hang out when the pandemic ends.
No TV for us!
“Would you say you grew up poor?”
“Oh, we grew up poor. But not impoverished.”
“What’s the difference?”
“The library.” — Pete Hamill
Hank Nuwer is newly moved to Union City, Indiana — about one block from Darke County. He retired July 1, 2020 from the Franklin College Pulliam School of Journalism after 18 years. He is the author of the historical novel Sons of the Dawn: A Basque Odyssey, which makes use of his experiences as a young reporter trailing a large band of sheep with Basque herders from Spain. A longtime magazine freelance writer, he shares his reflections on the people and places he finds in Darke County. His wife, Gosia, a native of Warsaw, Poland, is a freelance photographer and longtime accountant.