Osterhout Free Library still essential after 125 years

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First Posted: 2/4/2014

So, is it “AWsterhowt” or “Oosterhowt?”

It’s a pronunciation that has yet to be agreed upon by locals, but there is one thing that everyone in the area can concur on: The Osterhout Library in Wilkes-Barre is a local gem and important part of the area’s culture – especially considering it’s been around for 125 years.

A week ago today, the library celebrated its 125th Birthday with a ceremony at 10 a.m. – to the minute and the day the organization first opened.

The red brick building is an architectural site for sore eyes, with long windows and spires – which makes sense, as the building was a church before being turned into a home for literature.

In 1882, businessman Isaac Osterhout bequeathed $325,000 in property for the purpose of founding a public library in the city. On Jan. 29, 1889, the doors to the library finally opened on the site of a former First Presbyterian Church.

“It’s been said that libraries are the highest form of democracy, and Isaac Osterhout understood that,” said Richard Miller, executive director of the library, in a speech the day of the celebration. “He left us a free library, which means it’s free to all.”

There have been many changes to the building over the years, including a large addition to the rear in the 1920s and a modern children’s library in the 1980s. The Osterhout was inundated with the waters of the Susquehanna in both 1936 and 1972, but it has always been able to bounce back.

The Osterhout has always been there for those who need it, be it for a place to pick up the latest best-seller or the destination for local history books and research services.

Elaine Stefanko has seen many changes over the years and watched the library grow with the evolving society. The 28-year employee thinks the library has stood the test of time for a very solid reason: it’s a safe haven.

“It’s a safe place where you can ask any type of question and you aren’t going to be ridiculed or made fun of. You might be at a low point in your life and need to come get a book on how to deal with it, and no one is going to tell other people what you were looking for or what you were doing here.”

Stefanko also sees the value in a spot where people of every age are welcome.

“We have the children’s section, of course, and now we have a huge teen following. They come in every Wednesday night for Teen Night. Sometimes they do crafts, sometimes it’s just watching a movie. We also have a senior area, and the neat thing about that is that it sometimes turns into an inter-generational area. We’ll have a jigsaw puzzle out on the table and you might see an older person sitting with a teenager, working on it together.”

The biggest change to come during Stefanko’s tenure there is, of course, the Internet.

“Oh, that changed my job completely,” she said. “Things like the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature that I would use every day maybe 15 years ago. If you told me that in 10 years I wasn’t even going to have that book in our collection, I would have said you were crazy, but it’s true; now you can get it all online.”

Though the Internet is a large resource for information of all types, people still venture into the Osterhout to find what they’re looking for.

“One of the reasons we are still here is, I think, more than anything, the fact that people need us,” Miller said. “We’re blessed with a great staff and volunteers and donors, but if people don’t need us, then we wouldn’t be here. We’ve always been in the business of providing information and connecting people through that.”