Harmon’s Histories: All hail Missoula’s public libraries, old, older and still-to-come

I found myself reading a book called “Over the Teacups,” the other afternoon.

It’s a delightful little read, penned in 1890 by Oliver Wendell Holmes at age 80. He described the writing project as a source of personal encouragement and inspiration which “cheated the least promising season of life” of its expected dreariness and depression.

As the title suggests, the story centers on a group of real or imagined characters gathering regularly over tea to discuss, well – everything, from growing old to medicine, religion, poetry, sex – even the question of “whether oatmeal is preferable to pie as an American national food.”

How I came to be reading that book involves a couple of chapters in Missoula history.

In January 1878, a group of Missoulians, determined that their town should “abound in cultured men and women rather than hoodlums,” joined the Reverend Cook in circulating subscription papers for a public library and reading room.

With pledges of $40 per month, they met to create by-laws and all those things necessary to make their organization official.

The local newspaper applauded their effort but cautioned that, more important than money, they needed “the hearty cooperation and attendance of the people” who shared their “conviction that a reading room and a public library is of the highest advantage to the welfare of the town.”

It declared that parents would have a duty to acquaint themselves with the contents of the library collection and “see that their children become active members.”

Within a month, a space was found, tables were set up with periodicals and efforts began to add “standard works to the shelves, as fast as the liberality of the people” allowed.

Fast forward to the 1890s.

The library, while boasting nearly 450 volumes of “well-assorted literature,” was still subscription-based and required a membership to actually check out a book and take it home.

So in 1893, a mill levy was proposed and handily agreed to by local residents. But the city dads failed to follow up, and as the Missoulian wrote a year later, “the public library soon disappeared from the view of the public entirely, and now constitutes a portion of the furnishings of Professor Hamilton’s office, in the Higgins block.”

Finally, on April 5, 1894, the city council passed ordinance No. 55 establishing the new, free public library. Mayor McLaughlin appointed a board of directors who acted quickly, passing by-laws and asking everyone who might have a checked out book from the old library to return it so all books could be “renumbered and cataloged” for the new library.

But the highest priority – with $1,000 or more of taxpayer money available – was to purchase new books, and that leads us to page 18 of the 1894 ledger of purchases by the Missoula Free Public Library.

“Over the Teacups”is one of the titles contained in the order placed in July with the Charles Scribner’s Sons of New York publishing house which totaled $146.49.

On Nov. 19, 1894, the new free public library, boasting 1,200 volumes, opened in the Higgins block in downtown Missoula.

Open from 2 to 5 p.m. and again from 7 to 9 p.m. each weekday, anyone could get a library card – as long as the card was signed by “some responsible person” who agreed to observe all library rules.

Today, Missoula’s free public library (once again, backed by citizens determined that their town should “abound in cultured men and women rather than hoodlums”) is set for an Aug. 1 groundbreaking on a new $30-plus million structure just east of its current location.

I hope they have space for a copy of “Over the Teacups.”

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.