Readers often say they enjoy reading books because it’s an opportunity to be transported to another time and place, to meet people and enjoy special places they otherwise couldn’t access in their daily lives. If a book can accomplish this, imagine a library so special that a walk through the doors is also like being transported to a whole new world.
Such a place does exist and it is situated in the quaint village of Lithopolis on the line of Franklin and Fairfield counties. The Wagnalls Memorial Library is an imposing building that resembles a castle and that serves so many roles that there are almost too many to mention. If the community is looking for a place to hold an event, to learn, to play, to be enriched, to appreciate history or to engage with others, The Wagnalls is the place to be.
Library Director Tami Morehart speaks of the library, the town and its people with such enthusiasm and love that it’s hard to separate the library from the community as she tells their stories. That’s because library employees are involved in community projects while community organizations and residents are involved in the library.
Morehart’s own life story is closely entwined with that of the library. She began coming to the library and to story time as a child. She met her husband and celebrated their wedding reception here and has worked here off and on since she first started shelving books in 1974. She said that serving as Library Director for the last few years has been a dream come true as she’s had opportunity to give life to projects and to help shape the library’s future while keeping an eye on its intriguing past.
The library’s story begins in the early twentieth century with a gift of humungous proportion. Mabel Wagnalls Jones had the library built as a gift to the town to honor her parents, Adam and Anna Willis Wagnalls, who each were born in log cabins in Lithopolis. Her father was the co-founder of publishing giant Funk & Wagnalls and her mother had always dreamed of doing something special for the village and wanted to provide opportunities that were not available to her as a child.
Mabel was an author and concert pianist who lived most of her life in New York City but who had a fondness for her parents’ birthplace and grew up visiting her grandmother who still lived in the town. She believed that this gift to the town would fulfill her mother’s wish.
The Tudor-Gothic library was designed by Columbus architect Ray Sims and most of the workmen were from Lithopolis. Most of the stone was quarried from a site just behind the library and the construction was said to be a true labor of love for those involved.
The original library is considered a work of art in itself, featuring a formal entrance hall, a tower, auditorium with stage and banquet hall. The upper walls have a sculpted grapevine with bunches of grapes to signify plenty. Owls keep sentinel over the room, perched on shields depicting religion, industry, education and patriotism – values held dear by the Wagnalls family. The owls hold their own meaning, representing some baby owls found in a tree that had been cut down during the quarrying of the stone.
The center window contains stained glass inserts that tell more of the Wagnalls’ story. The State of Ohio Seal, a printing press, a log cabin, the lamp of learning and the Seal of the United States are all depicted in this window. The room was furnished with handmade tables and chairs.
The library is also filled with countless paintings and memorabilia. Mabel’s favorite Steinway grand piano is on display along with the Loving Cup that was giving to her by the village at the library’s 1925 dedication. Two original Norman Rockwell paintings are on permanent display as well as paintings that were used as covers for Funk & Wagnalls’ magazine The Literary Digest.
Outside, the grounds and gardens feature rock sculptures made from rocks collected from all over North America, a martin house, and winding paths lined with flowers and shrubs. The gardens are maintained by the Fairfield County Master Gardeners.
Since the library was dedicated in 1925, it has been expanded three more times – in 1961, 1983 and 1992 – each time to help the library better serve the growing needs of the community. Now it boasts an impressive children’s library with a locally designed and constructed train station and corral for the kids to enjoy.
Administrative offices, a computer lab, a reading room and patrons’ services desk were added on over time as well. While additions and improvements have been made over their 93 year history, efforts have been made to remain true to the integrity of the original building and to create spaces that feel as though they have always been there.
The library continues to grow and adapt to the needs of a changing community and society. For example, they recently completed a Creative Play Space where children are encouraged to put down electronic devices and use their imagination to play with the numerous toys provided. Made possible by a South Central Power grant, this room has been popular with kids and adults. Morehart said that some things are constants in this room, like a play kitchen, dollhouse and a Lego area for older kids. However, she said that some toys will be periodically cycled in and out. “This week we have dinosaurs out, next week it could be something different,” she said. “We want kids to be able to play here, to use their imaginations. There are no computers in here or electronic devices. It’s all creative play.”
The library also continues to add programming and events to keep the community engaged. Yoga classes, board game night, book clubs for adults and teens, cooking classes for adults and kids and a writing club are regular events. They recently hosted a class on phone photography and are offering a summer course to teach kids basic coding. Other interesting programs include a Harry Potter Reading Club and a weekly event where kids can practice their reading skills by reading to a registered therapy dog.
They host an annual Yule Ball in February, will host Santa during a Christmas Open House on Saturday, December 8 and will host a Great Gatsby themed fundraiser on October 6. Their theater group will put on a production of The Adams Family this fall.
“We want to be a destination place for people, for families, not just for books but for connecting with others, for learning, for community,” she said. “When someone is looking for a place to meet or something to do or some kind of resource they might need, we want them to think of us first,” Morehart explained.
The community does use the library and they also often pitch in to help with projects and fundraising. With a small library staff and just two part time maintenance workers, there is an endless list of projects at the 93 year old facility. There is also a Friends of the Library group that raises money to support the library through used books sales and other events. “We are always looking for volunteer groups to help us out,” she said.
She said there are many ways for the public to support the library. They can start by simply using the library or taking part in programs. Volunteerism is another great way to help and supporting fundraisers is another. In fact, there are many ways to contribute financially through private or corporate donations or through projects like Legacy Brick sponsorships.
The library also welcomes visitors who simply wish to tour the facility. They offer a walking tour brochure and groups can call ahead to schedule a guided tour with Mabel, as portrayed by Carol Gaal.
Library hours are:
Monday – Thursday: 10:30 a.m. to
Saturday: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Friday and Sunday: Closed
A new website contains a massive amount of information on events, library history, giving opportunities and other topics of interest. Visit www.wagnalls.org or call 614.837.4765 for information and to find out how your group can volunteer. Click here to follow them on Facebook.
“I think it’s important that we’re here. We want people to feel that it is safe and warm and welcoming here. Our staff is wonderful and they work so hard to be helpful. It’s the kind of place where we know your name and what you read and that you weren’t feeling well last week or that you got a new pet,” Morehart said. “We also are aware that we have to adapt and that we can’t become set in our ways. That’s why we are constantly thinking of ways to bring people in and to bring them together. It’s a living library because we never want to stop growing and changing and being what the community needs us to be.”
Morehart, who grew up in this library, said she has just one regret. “I remember this being such a special place to come to as a kid and it still is, as an adult but I wish I could see it for the first time as an adult and to know what that’s like to experience that wonder and awe! ” Morehart said.
While you may not be able to have that experience, we can tell you what it’s like. It’s like walking into a storybook. It’s magic.