LIMA — The Young Men’s Lyceum of Lima had rented rooms in the public square, “fitted them up in good style” and met there every Thursday night “for literary exercises.”
On Feb. 22, 1877, the Allen County Democrat declared this a good idea. “How much better is it for our young men to spend their evenings at such a place for the development and improvement of their mind, than at the many places of public resort in our city,” the newspaper wrote, although, it added, “there should be attached to it” a public library.
“It is surprising that a city like this, having six or seven thousand inhabitants, is without a library. There is a good library attached to the St. Roses’ Catholic Church, but that is exclusively for the use of persons connected with that church. Let us have a public library, or at least public to all who will contribute of their means for its establishment,” the Democrat wrote.
Medora Freeman, who would become the public library’s first librarian, was 3 months old in February 1877. Lima, the city of 7,000 inhabitants, which, the Democrat calculated in 1877, made it a candidate for a public library, would have more than 21,000 inhabitants by the time it finally got one in September 1901.
Attempts, and failures, to establish a public library in Lima dated to the mid-1850s, when the first effort was deemed premature and abandoned. In 1878, the much-praised Young Men’s Lyceum, which had established a subscription library in its Public Square rooms, attempted to make it free for all Lima citizens by means of a legislated tax. That idea, Helen Carnes noted in the 1976 history of Allen County, did not sit well with Lima’s residents, apparently unwilling to “contribute of their means” for it. Carnes wrote that “the act created a furor among Lima people who felt they were already heavily taxed with the building of a new school and with many road improvements.”
“It was the third attempt, following the turn of the century, which took root, gradually grew and then flourished with stepped-up momentum,” the News wrote in December 1960, the year the Lima Public Library settled into its current quarters at 650 W. Market St. “The successful movement, backed by Lima’s art, music and literary clubs, got under way Sept. 21, 1901, when the public library opened its doors in the Black Block, now the site of Gregg’s Department Store on North Main. Medora Freeman was the first full-time librarian.”
Freeman was a fitting first. The daughter of a prominent family which had been in Lima since the 1840s, she was born on Nov. 4, 1876, to Cyrus and Anna Meily Freeman. Her aunt, Olivia Meily, who married Lima politician and railroad entrepreneur Calvin Brice, was involved in the early attempts to open a public library in Lima as was Freeman’s uncle, I.S. Motter.
Freeman was graduated in 1895 from the Lima High School, where she was a member of the True Blues, one of first clubs for girls at the high school. Following graduation, she taught in the city’s public schools and did the things privileged young people did in Lima during the late 19th century — going for carriage rides, attending parties and spending summer days away from the city in the nearby country homes of wealthy Lima residents.
On July 22, 1899, the News reported that Freeman was among a “contingent of young people” that would “rusticate at Baxter’s farm 2 ½ miles (out) on the Allentown road the coming week. … The City Transfer Co. has the hauling of the provisions and with the addition of fresh country butter, eggs and milk and the cool breezes of Fairfield Farm will no doubt regain their health.”
In July 1901, Freeman was chosen from a field of five candidates to head Lima’s first public library at 214 N. Main St. “After a careful review and grading of papers submitted by the five young ladies who took the examination upon which was based the selection of a city librarian, the choice fell to Miss Medora Freeman and the appointment will be tendered her,” the .“The questions covered thoroughly ancient and modern history, biography and literature and to have passed anything like a successful examination meant that the applicants had to have minds well stored with past and current events. All of the young ladies did remarkably well, but the careful grading of manuscripts gave Miss Freeman the highest average.”
Freeman immediately began the task of cataloging books. According to the 1960 article in the News, “The first volume to be cataloged by Miss Freeman, the first librarian, was the official roster of troops from Ohio who fought in the Civil War.”
Writing in the 1906 county history, Freeman reported that “at the end of the first year there were 2,678 volumes in the library and the circulation for the year was 31,423 volumes. At the year’s close 1,952 borrowers were registered; these being limited to Lima residents although there have been many requests from county residents for library privileges.”
On Oct. 14, 1903, the Times-Democrat judged that Freeman had “capably and satisfactorily filled the position of librarian …” She would continue to do so until 1908, with the library growing every year under her care.
In 1908, using grants from steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie supplemented with money from the Federation of Women’s Clubs, the city and funds raised through subscriptions, a new library was built at Market and McDonel streets. It was replaced by the current library in 1960.
Freeman, who stepped down and was replaced by Grace Chapman in 1908, returned to teaching and operated a book store at 116 W. High St.
On July 30, 1915, the reported Freeman had been chosen as librarian of the public library in Middletown. “For several years Miss Freeman was librarian here following the inauguration of the institution, when it was occupying rooms in the Black Block. Later, when the new building was erected, Miss Freeman resigned to take charge of the Book Shop. She has made a special study along the line of library work and is very efficient and capable in all library matters,” the News wrote.
Freeman married Austin Smith, of Middletown, in October 1919. He died in December 1922.
In her later years, Freeman lived in New York City with relatives but frequently returned to Lima to visit friends and family. She died in New York City on May 5, 1934. The Lima Public Library was closed May 21, 1934, when her remains were returned to Lima for a committal service at Woodlawn Cemetery.
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.