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Helena was just 4 years old when some enterprising citizens pushed wheelbarrows door to door collecting books to start Helena’s first library.

They gathered some 2,500 volumes, many of them from one of the library’s founders, Cornelius Hedges.

The first Helena library opened its doors as a subscription library in the Whitlatch Building in 1868 at the corner of Jackson and Broadway, making it one of the first libraries in Montana, said Montana Historical Society historian Ellen Baumler.

Now 150 years later, the library celebrates its birthday with a special year of festivities, starting with a Love Your Library event on Valentine’s Day.

And it’s been quite a library love story since 1868 -- complete with trials and hardships along the way -- from fires to freezing to earthquakes.

“I think it’s just a huge milestone for any organization, but for a library to be so well used and needed to last 150 years ... is amazing,” said Lewis & Clark Library Director John Finn.

During that time it was on the move through a parade of buildings in the downtown area as it kept outgrowing its space.

By 1874 the library resided on South Main Street above Wall Street, where it went up in flames Jan. 9, 1874, during one of Helena’s catastrophic fires, according to MHS historian Ellen Baumler.

The fire destroyed all of the collection and records of the library’s early history, as well as the law office of Wilbur Fisk Sanders, who was another library founder, and the early historical society collection. All were housed in the same building.

But Helenans, being book lovers and a resilient lot, didn’t give up.

In 1886 the citizens passed a municipal levy of one-half mill by a resounding vote of 538 to 16 to establish a free Helena library, according to Baumler. After the levy, the library lived for several years in the Murphy Block at the corner of Last Chance Gulch and Sixth.

It moved in 1892 into an elegant new home in the annex of the city auditorium on Seventh Avenue.

This architectural gem once stood at Seventh and Warren, east of the current Seventh Avenue Gym.

Photos of the library reading room show it was graced with tall ceilings, large windows and chandeliers.

“At the library can now be found the latest files of every newspaper in the state,” proclaimed an 1894 article in the Chronicle.

Story Time

Kids enjoy a story told to them in this undated photo from inside the library.

The July 1894 Independent noted the library carried 700 volumes for young people. And it seems that year they loved reading “Black Beauty,” a novel by the British author Anna Sewell, which was in huge demand.

A December 1894 news article explores the idea of keeping the library open longer hours so men who didn’t want to return to their rooming houses wouldn’t loiter in the downtown.

By February 1895, library hours were extended on weekdays to be 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. and 1 to 6 p.m. on Sundays.

“The public library though it is poorly heated during extreme cold weather is crowded by people day and night,” reports another February 1895 article. “It grows in popularity every year.”

This was despite the discomforts. The “stoves are not equal to the task” of keeping the library heated during the recent cold weather, states yet another article.

“In 1895 ... 90 periodicals were published in Montana,” said Baumler, “and all of them were available at the public library.”

By March 9, 1895, the library already needed more room: “Sometimes people go away disappointed for lack of room to sit down,” states an Independent article.

Despite the crowding, the library stayed at that site for nearly four more decades.

In 1933 the Unitarian Church donated its building on Park Avenue -- now the site of Grandstreet Theatre -- as a new home.

The library moved in later that year, which likely saved it.

The move was “very fortuitous,” said Baumler, “because the earthquake happened in (October) 1935 and the public auditorium was destroyed.”

The library resided at what was its fifth home for four decades before it again outgrew its space, and county citizens passed a $1.8 million bond in November 1974 to construct its current building at 120 S. Last Chance Gulch.

The 1976 opening of the current library

A scene from the Lewis and Clark Library when it opened its current building in 1976.

In the mid-’70s, the Lewis & Clark Libraries added the Augusta and Lincoln branch libraries, with the East Helena Branch added in 2001.

The current library was built with technology in mind, said Finn.

The library was always “a technology pioneer,” he said, “and was the first library in the state to have an electronic card catalog.

“If not the first, we were among the first to offer public internet access.”

The Library Today

A scene from the Lewis and Clark Library in January 2018.

Attendance and library use continues to be strong, he said, particularly during such economic hard times as the recession.

Last year’s library attendance was 303,459, with circulation at 450,416.

And the library has some exciting ideas it's unveiling.

In response to patrons’ requests, the library will begin planning for a branch library in the Helena Valley.

It’s also offering new materials for checkout such as ukulele kits, mobile hotspots and laptops, and CPR training kits complete with 12 practice “dummies.”

It also offers Edventure passes that allow free entrance for a day to ExplorationWorks, Montana Historical Society and the Original Governor’s Mansion.

There are also plans to remodel the Main Branch Library bathrooms and to revamp parts of the library to better use the space.

“Overall, people are very satisfied with library services,” Finn said, based on the library’s annual survey.

And this opinion seems to follow much in the spirit of earlier Helenans.

“Helenans have always loved the library and rallied when they needed to,” said public information officer Patricia Spencer.


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