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Foundation of Our Public Library

By Chuck Clegg - | May 5, 2021

New Martinsville Library - Left to right Logan Hassig, Judy Nichols, Sharon Dougherty, Debra Mason, Patricia Ankrom, and Grace Williams

Last week’s column told about the history of the towns library buildings. Structures that grew from 1946 up to the present day.

The first were existing buildings constructed years before they housed their first book. That changed in 1977 when the new building was constructed that we still have today.

But the buildings themselves are far from the whole story of our public library. In fact, the most interesting part of the story is the people who are the foundation.

Without a great many dedicated people, there might not be a library story to tell.

Seventy-five years ago the Women’s Civic League approached the city council asking for their support to establish a town library.

That support was given and on May 6, 1946 the Women’s Civic League under the leadership of Ethel Rothlisberger began the process of organizing the library.

Five individuals were asked to be part of a board of directors to manage the library. Election of officers helped to give organization to the board.

The first president was T.W Heiskill, treasurer was Ethel Rothlisberger and secretary was Mrs. Earl Wolf. C.D. Snodgrass and Mrs. Bert Herbert rounded out the first board of directors.

The board gave support to the library, but the day to day organization of the library back then as today is the responsibility of its director. The first was Edna Thomas. She served that position from 1946 through 1948. Next was Theo Kiger. She served in the position for 27 years from 1948 to 1975. Daisy Sliter in 1950 also became a long serving librarian from 1950 to 1975. In 1975, Al Tweedy took on the position and held it until 1979. In 1984 through 1986, Diane Thomas and Marilyn Horacek became the new librarians. From 1986 until 2008 Babs Stewart held the position. From 2008 until 2020 Janet Witten Conn filled the position. And in March 2021, long time staff member Debbie Mason became Library Director.

I asked Debbie Mason, the current Director, for an estimation of how many people have worked in the library in the last 75 years. She estimates between 100 and 120. Debbie explained those who come to work at the library tend to stay much like she did. Thirty-one years ago she was researching genealogical information when Babs Stewart asked if she would like to help shelve books a few hours a week. She agreed and remains to this day. Debbie, “It is a good job.”

During her time at the library, Debbie has worked for two directors, Barbara Stewart and Janet Witten Conn. The library has gone from index cards to computerized list of books using barcoding. Today, a patron looking for a book can not only find a book in our library, but they can search 108 other libraries through the West Virginia Library Network. Also, not only can you search all of West Virginia Libraries but also through World Cat. The library also offers ebooks as well as audiobooks via Overdrive and Libby.

In addition to the library staff and board of directors, the library had the support of the community. Local industries offered financial support throughout the years. The Women’s Civic League was instrumental in the beginning and continued their support for many years. Another group, Friends of the Library, also were an important group that supported the library. Unfortunately, both organizations are no longer active.

In 1976, Mayor Gil Frazee and David Chadwick broke ground for the library we have today. But as those shovels of dirt were turned, news for financing the project took on a major problem. Between the time money was appropriated, inflation increased the cost of the building. At this point, a call went out for additional support to fill the cost gap. That request was met by many of the community’s citizens. The building fund drive was successful. In the middle of the construction of the project, winter came to the valley. That winter, 1976-1977 the temperatures dropped below zero and the river froze solid. But with perseverance and support from the community, the building moved towards the August completion date.

During my research for this column, I discovered it took a great many people to create and maintain the library. But there are two names that stand out when it comes to creating our present day library. David Chadwick and Ronald R. Hassig. There were many others, but these two men took on the task of looking towards the future and leading the way.

Ronald R. Hassig passed that legacy onto his son, Logan. I asked Logan what he remembered about his involvement with the library. ‘I grew up one block from the New Martinsville Public Library. My siblings and I would attend story hour and enjoy the use of the library. My mother would volunteer as a substitute librarian when the regular librarians were unavailable. My family were veracious readers. My family has always believed in the education and social benefits of a public library.’

‘My father, Ronald R. Hassig joined the library board in 1967 and continued to serve on the board until his death in 1985. I joined the Board of Trustees of the library in 1980 and have served continuously to this day. I have been President of the Board of Trustees of the library since April 1987.’

‘A campaign organized and driven by Dave Chadwick, Ph.D., chemist with Mobay. Ronald R. Hassig, local attorney and others twisted enough arms to raise sufficient funds to construct the library at its current location on Washington Avenue. However, it was the Women’s Civic League of New Martinsville and the city council for the City of New Martinsville that provided the efforts that created the original library on May 6, 1946.’

‘The function of the library continues to evolve without losing site of its original purpose of providing literature of all varieties to the general public. Now the library provides computer access, genealogical research, magazine’s circulation, meeting facilities and many other functions to the general public. The computer access for the public is routinely used for resume creation, job application, GED programs, as well as broadband access for students and adults. As the role of the public library continues to evolve, they will continue to be relevant and persuade sustenance to the communities they serve.’

‘John Grisham, the bestselling author from Mississippi, moved frequently when he was a child. He and his family judged the value of the town by the number of books the public library let them take out at one time.’

In our ever increasing fast pace lives, we receive information from electronic devices. Classic novels and the latest best seller can be read on a glowing screen. But our library offers something that no battery operated device can, the touch and feel of a real book. The New Martinsville Library has preserved that simple joy within its walls. What will the future bring when it comes to the printed word? I am unsure. But if within our community people like those who for 75 years have worked to keep our public library operating, those in the future will know that simple joy, as they look back Through the Lens.