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Library History

by Nelda Schlesinger

New Athens Public Library was established as a village library on April 16, 1963 in a regular village election.  On the ballot was the proposal to establish a tax support base and the election of a six member library board of directors whose responsibility it would be to set up and operate the library for the Village of New Athens, Illinois.

Prior to 1963, library service to the community of New Athens was sporadic and tentative – in the 1930s a WPA project placed some books (mostly fiction) in the second floor room of the Village Hall and made them available to local readers.  Later on in the 1950s a bookmobile visited New Athens periodically.  It was stocked with books from Illinois State Library (again mostly fiction and how-to books) and patrons went on board as it parked in the Village Park, made their selections, and checked out books.  Very early in the 1960s a Regional Library based in Carbondale, funded by a program of Illinois State Library to promote interest in establishing tax supported local libraries, placed a collection of books of all types in New Athens.  The room, shelving and personnel were donated by the Village.  The American Legion building gave the use of a room, shelves were constructed by volunteers and Dixie Lee Warren and Marie Roth were librarians in charge of checking out the patrons selections from the 500 books which were to become the property of the Village if the community had acted upon the incentive and voted to establish a tax supported library in the interim of a two year trial period.  New Athens did not avail itself of that free starter collection, but the idea took root and in 1963 a petition was circulated by two college students (Robert Rohr and Gerald Meehan), pharmacist Ron Karber, and a local housewife (Nelda Schlesinger).  There was a groundswell of support from educators, church groups and an organization called the Readers’ Guild held a benefit card party to fund the struggling library in the first two years between the election and the realization of tax support money.

The members of the first library board were Ronald Karber – president, Dr. Bernard Strassman – vice president, Donald Dudeck – treasurer, Nelda Schlesinger (Mrs. Allen) – secretary, Rev. Fr. Joseph Legrand and Gerald Meehan.  Meehan declined to take the oath of office and was excused from serving on the board by reason of his age (under 21).  Martha Wirth (Mrs. George) was elected by the remaining board members to fill the vacancy.  The six member board arranged to rent a store room at 115 N. Van Buren Street from the owner, Albert Wilson.  Donations of books, shelving, furnishings, paint and materials for renovating the room came pouring in and most of all the willing help of good people anxious to have a library.  Not overnight, but 23 months after the election to establish a library, New Athens Public Library opened its door to an eager public on March 16, 1965.  Nelda Schlesinger was hired as librarian on September 10, 1964 and Doris Schneider was hired as assistant librarian in April, 1965.  The state of Illinois was expanding library service at this same time by developing library systems.  New legislation (August 1965) made funds available for libraries large and small to unite as systems.  Books, materials and equipment would be shared among participating libraries.  This was a perfect growth and expansion environment for the new library in New Athens, and Martha Wirth, who was board president for New Athens Library in 1965, became a key figure in the establishment of Kaskaskia Library System, headquarters at Smithton, Illinois which served the libraries of the four counties of St. Clair, Washington, Clinton and Monroe.  The first bylaws for Kaskaskia Library System were drawn up by Martha Wirth, Nelda Schlesinger and Kenneth Kelly (Waterloo) in the first little library room at 115 N. Van Buren.  The building which contained the library room as well as other rental properties was sold to Louise and Curt Lindauer.  In 1968, the larger corner room area became available and the Lindauers offered to renovate and remodel the building extensively to suit the purposes of the library.  The library board was looking for larger quarters and the generous offer of the Lindauers stands as a hallmark gift to the New Athens Library and to the whole community.  A ten year lease was signed and later extended to include the first small room the library occupied.  Community involvement increased and continued as story hours, art classes, summer reading programs, genealogy classes, yoga exercise classes, bike hikes, displays of collections, hobbies and crafts, the expressed and perceived needs and interests of the community became the theme of library service in New Athens.

In 1977, the effort to create a township library to serve the large township area was placed on the ballot and approved by the voters.  The village library board was dissolved in favor of the township and the transfer from a village to a township library was accomplished.  As the 10 year lease for renting the library quarters approached the time to renegotiate the lease or consider other options, the State Bank of New Athens was building and relocating their business so the former bank building (directly across Chester on Van Buren Street) was for sale.  A loan and terms for purchase of the building as well as remodeling and roof repair were agreed upon April 14, 1978 and in September 1978 the library moved into its own building.  These were two major steps in the growth of the library – from Village to Township Library and to owning a building.

March 4, 1987 the Library Board voted unanimously to pass a resolution to convert from a Township to a District Library.  The name of the library was changed to New Athens District Library.