For 160 years, the Oswego Public Library has sat on a hill overlooking the Oswego Canal, the Oswego River, and Lake Ontario. It was chartered in 1853, constructed in 1855/56, and opened its doors in the Spring of 1857. It is one of the finest Norman Revival or “Castellated” buildings still standing and, with its look of a medieval castle together with its hilltop location, it is an outstanding landmark for the city. The Oswego Public Library has the distinction of being the oldest public library still in its original building in the United States.
The fire of 1853 destroyed a part of the East Side from the Oswego River to East Fourth Street in the area North of Bridge Street. Gerrit Smith wrote, 12 days after the fire, to eight of the leading citizens of the city asking them to be Trustees for the endeavor and he promised to fund it with $25,000 for the building and books. Considered the richest man in the state, he was also a social reformer, three time U.S. Presidential candidate and ardent Abolitionist. He made two requirements for the new library:
- locate the library on the East side of the Oswego River
- shut out no person on account of their race, complexion, or condition
The men chosen agreed to Smith’s offer and, with few exceptions, served until they died. At least three of the Trustees agreed with the benefactor’s views on slavery and were active Abolitionists. From the opening of its doors to the present, the Oswego Public Library has had African-American patrons including prominent members of the Underground Railroad and the local community. Originally, many of the African-American patrons were children whose parents had been slaves.
In the early years, operating money came from the City of Oswego, and the Oswego School System. The Trustees were responsible for the building, and when repairs were needed, they dug into their own pockets. The end result was that the building needed repairs that were rarely made. In the 1930’s, the walls began to separate from the floors, and it was necessary to install bracing in the attic area; in the 1960’s a parapet fell, and more work was necessary.
During the 1920’s, the Oswego School District increased its aid by agreeing to buy books and pay the staff. This arrangement lasted until 1999 when the voters agreed to establish an independent library district with taxing powers.
For more on Gerrit Smith click here.
Opening Announcement for our Castle on the Hill
The New Public Library in Oswego – The Ladies Provided For. – The new Gerrit Smith Library in this city, is now open to the public. For some weeks past, Chester Hull, Esq., the Librarian, with assistance from the Trustees and others, has been engaged in classifying, numbering and arranging the books, and this work is now consummated, and all things are ready for the accommodation of the public. The library contains about 8,000 volumes, embracing an extensive variety and a large number of standard works. One feature in the arrangements, which will meet with universal favor, is the provision made for the accommodation of the Ladies. An exclusive apartment has been provided for them, so that they may go there and enjoy a pleasant literary feast, without intrusion from the other sex. This apartment is fitted up quite luxuriously with sofas, &c., to render it attractive to those for whom it is intended. The library is, therefore, fairly opened and has become a living fixed institution among us, and in time, doubtless, it will rank among the finest institutions of the kind in the country.
– Oswego Palladium, Tuesday Morning, July 14, 1857