April 14th marks the start of National Library Week. Our county is home to the Chemung CountyLibrary District (CCLD), a public library funded by county taxpayers. The District has 5 branches: Big Flats, Horseheads, Van Etten, West Elmira and the Central Branch in downtown Elmira. The District was established in 2006, but the history of libraries in our county goes back much farther.The earliest area libraries were semi-private collections maintained by various societies, clubs and church groups including the Elmira Mechanics Society and the Park Church. Books were available to members and their families who generally paid some sort of annual subscription fee for the purchase of new material and the upkeep of existing collections. May schools also had a small collection of reference work and children’s books and magazines for use by the students.
The County’s first free public library was the Steele Memorial Library Association, founded in 1894 by Esther Steele in memory of her late husband. Her own personal collection of over 5,000 works formed the core of the library’s holdings, but it grew rapidly as funds were raised. The library’s first home when it opened to the public in 1899 was in the upper 2 floors of the Steele Memorial Building at the corner of Lake and East Market Streets. The funds for the library came from the rents on the offices on the lower floors.
|1st Steele Memorial Library
|1st Steele Memorial Library interior
In 1923, the library opened in its new building at the corner of Lake and Church Streets. The building was constructed using funds from the Carnegie Library Corporation. From 1883 to 1929, wealthy industrialist Andrew Carnegie funded the construction of 1,689 libraries in the United States with hundreds more across the world. The new Steele Memorial Library building had been in the works in since 1917, but its construction was delayed due to America entering World War I.
|2nd Steele Memorial Library
Beginning in 1925, the Steele began lending to people outside the city for a $.10 borrowing fee. People in rural communities could pick up books at the central branch or at any one of the 16 deposit stations throughout the county. By the mid-1960s, these deposit stations had been consolidated into larger branch libraries on the Southside and in Big Flats, West Elmira and the Heights. All of the branches were newly constructed buildings which offered the branches more space and a unified look. In 2003, the Southside and Elmira Heights branches were closed due to funding issues.
The Steele Memorial Library building suffered extensive damage in the flood of 1972 and was beginning to outgrow the space. In the fall of 1979, it moved to its third and current location at the corner of Clemens Center Parkway and Church Street.
|3rd Steele Memorial Library
The Chemung County Library District which was formed in 2006 was created by the merger of the Steele Memorial Library and its branches and the Horseheads Free Library. The Horseheads Free Library was founded in 1944 by members of the Horseheads Women’s Club. Over the years, it was housed in Brown’s Drug Store (1944-49), the Fire Station Annex (1949-61), the Marine Midland Bank (1961-62) and the Village Hall (1962-67) before moving into its own, specially constructed, building located at 405 South Main Street in Horseheads where it remains today.