Between 1886 and 1919, Andrew Carnegie gave forty million dollars to build 1679 public libraries. Thirty-three of these were in Missouri. Carnegie's terms stipulated that the town must furnish a suitable site and pledge an annual maintenance cost of 10% of the initial endowment. Carnegie libraries were built in Monroe City, Marceline, and Brookfield at about the same time as the Shelbina Library. Kirksville, Macon, and Hannibal declined, or could not work out the details of, the grant.
In April of 1916 a petition drive gathered enough signatures to call for a levy vote, and on May 23, 1916 a one and a quarter mill tax was passed. After considerable negotiation, the Burlington railroad agreed to sell a plot of land adjacent to the railway to the city, for $1,000. The money was quickly raised through private donations.
The cornerstone of the library building was laid in 1917. Architect was Ben Elliot of Mexico and contractor was Roy Sterrett. The city contributed $500 for shelving and wiring. The library opened its doors September 16, 1918 with a book collection comprised of all 752 volumes of the I.I.O.O.F.F. Club's library, 135 scintillating volumes of mining history and law books donated by W.O.L. Jewett, miscellaneous donations from other citizens, and $450 worth of books purchased by the book committee of the Library Board--all totaling 1724 volumes. On opening day 19 books were loaned.
One of the first decisions of the library board was to extend borrowing privileges to anyone, city or county. That policy continues.
The library was governed then, as now, by a nine-member board, each serving a maximum of three 3-year terms. The first board president was Mr. T.F. Bates. The first librarian was Miss Dixie Dean, who was paid $25 a month. The annual report for the first year of operation showed a circulation of 4697 books loaned to 431 registered borrowers. The first few years were difficult and the library was sometimes closed for weeks at a time due to coal shortages and the Spanish influenza epidemic.
In June, 1921 Miss Dean gave notice and moved to California. She recommended as her replacement a young girl who had helped some in the library and who had just graduated from high school. Miss Gladys Powers agreed to take the job (the board asked her parents' permission first), and went to the University of Missouri at Columbia to complete a 12-week course in Library Science. The library closed for the summer, awaiting her return. The new librarian worked out rather well, staying with the job for 67 years.
The Depression saw a large increase in circulation as people turned to the library for free entertainment. By 1936 Miss Gladys needed some help and Miss Elizabeth Powers, Gladys' sister, began volunteering. The board eventually found the means to hire her, and the Powers sisters became a beloved institution and symbolized the library in the hearts of their patrons. Many people had a regular library day--on livestock sale day, on their weekly shopping day, after Catechism class or church group--and enjoyed their visit with the Powers sisters as much as the choosing of their weekly reading material.
The library basement was used as Red Cross headquarters until shortly after World War II. It had also been used by the WPA during the thirties, and later became the City Office.
The library has had some major book contributors over the years: W.O.L Jewett endowed a book fund that provided books until 1932. Native-son journalist Frederic J. Haskin donated 100 books of his choosing every year until his death in 1944. George and Genevieve Scheer of Chapel Hill, N.C. donated thousands of books over the years until Mr. Scheer died in 1995.
During the 1960's and 70's, the library was becoming very crowded. In 1976, as a Bicentennial Project, the 49er's Home Ec Club began a fund drive to build an addition to the building. By 1988 they had raised over $350,000 with a very substantial contribution by Dr. Howard Ragsdale putting the drive over the top. The new addition was built that year with architect Harry Saunders and contractors Martin Construction of Hannibal. The Ragsdale wing was dedicated in January of 1989 and more than doubled usable floor space. Miss Gladys, her dream having come true, announced her retirement to coincide with the dedication. Linda Kropf was hired as the new Library Director.
The lower level of the addition, initially unfinished, was finished in February 1992 by Million Construction of Shelbina, after more community donations were received. A 1,000 square foot meeting room with kitchen and restroom facilities was installed.
Miss Gladys died in 1994 and astonished the community by leaving over $300,000 to be used as an endowment to fund library operations--an amazing example of frugality and generosity from a loyal worker who was making $500 a month at the time of her retirement.
In April of 1998, the library opened its new children's room. The children's library, remodeled from the basement space of the original library, was conceived by board member Norma McWilliams, and is a cheerful, colorful space remodeled by Simpson Construction of Shelbina. Unfortunately, Mrs. McWilliams died before the completion of the children's library and the room was named in her honor at its dedication.