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.