Austin Memorial Library celebrates 65th anniversary

Cleveland City Secretary Angela Smith, City Manager Kelly McDonald and Claire Barker celebrate the 65th anniversary of Austin Memorial Library on Oct. 14.

By Vanesa Brashier,

On the eve of one of the biggest renovations in its history, Austin Memorial Library’s staff, along with the City of Cleveland, held a 65th anniversary celebration on Oct. 14 of the library’s founding in 1954.

The library is named in honor of Charles O. and Bessie Sims Austin. Mr. Austin was the first state banking examiner in Cleveland and had controlling interest of Farmers State Bank. Bessie and Charles married in 1939 after the death of his first wife, Evadney.

The Austins had no offspring, so after Charles’ death and in his honor, Bessie donated land and buildings at 220 S. Bonham Ave. to the city for a new library.

“This building was turned over to the city as the biggest portion of her estate. Books and other things were purchased for the library. She died in 1966 and the current building wasn’t built until 1973,” said Mary Merrill Cohn, head librarian.

Bruce Martin and Mary Merrill Cohn discussed the history of the library during the library’s 65th anniversary celebration on Oct. 14.

The Austins’ benevolence also extended to two local churches in Cleveland. Charles, a Methodist, donated the property where First United Methodist Church is today. Bessie, a Catholic, donated land and gave $10,000 out of her estate to St. Mary’s Catholic Church. Charles also served on the first Cleveland City Council and donated land to the city for the first municipal water well. He also served as county judge, according to Cohn.

In the library’s history, there have been three buildings, including the one currently in use on S. Bonham Ave., which was dedicated and opened on April 8, 1973.

“The library was on the north side and a civic center with an auditorium and stage was on the south side. The civic center had a dance studio, a piano studio, craft room and meeting room. In the very center of the building, where the entrance is today, there was a planetarium with a dome-shaped roof,” Cohn said.

A library expansion caused the civic center and planetarium to close in 2007.

“We still have some of the artifacts here at the library, but the majority are at the Cleveland Historical Museum today,” she said.

Cohn, who originally joined the library in 1984 and became head librarian in 1995, has seen the library go through a few transformations as reading habits and demands have changed.

“I remember in 1984 the library had a rotary collection with the Houston Area Library System for VHS tapes. There were 30 tapes on hand at the library. Those have now gone by the wayside, but now we have Blu-Rays and DVDs,” she said. “At first, when we started offering VHS, people were like, ‘Oh, I can’t believe the city would desecrate the library that way.’ Nowadays, people will come into the library just to check out a movie.”

The library also boasts more than 40,000 book titles in its collection, along with a vast amount of downloadable books.

“The summer reading program has changed over the years, too. It used to be a board game where you would read a certain number of books and move your figure through a maze. Now we try to bring in different forms of entertainment. A lot of kids don’t get to see a play, magic show, dog circus or petting zoo. We try to bring in activities that will expose those children to new things. We bring the outside world to Cleveland,” Cohn said. “That’s the same thing a book does for a person. You can open a book and travel for miles and across universes.”

Austin Memorial Library also is an accredited Family Place Library, helping promote literacy and development among children through age 6.

Today, the library is showing signs of wear and will soon undergo a $248,000 transformation that will include new shelving, furniture and carpeting.

“We know there are a lot of people who use the library and we want to keep moving forward with the technology and the things that are needed, so patrons will want to come here and their children will want to be here for years to come,” said Cleveland City Manager Kelly McDonald, one of the dignitaries at the anniversary celebration.

Mayor Otis Cohn, husband of the head librarian, is pleased that the library renovation will not require the City to borrow funds.

“With the growth of Cleveland and the unprecedented growth of sales taxes in Cleveland, all departments will be able to do the projects they need to do the most without the City going out for debt,” the mayor said. “It’s just unheard of in Cleveland’s history. We are able to do things without going into debt and now the library is going to undergo a modernization.

“The library opened in 1973 and a lot of the furniture and fixtures are still in use today. They have soldiered on a long time past their life expectancy,” he said. “We are going to get out of the early 70s and come up to today’s standards.”

Austin Memorial Library’s hours are Monday through Wednesday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Thursday and Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. For more information, call 281-592-3920.

Here’s a look back at photos of the 1973 grand opening of Austin Memorial Library. Photos were taken by the late Moon Young.

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