Marietta and Washington County have had a long heritage of public library service. Around 1796, the private library of Colonel Israel Putnam became the nucleus of what is considered to be the first public library in the Northwest Territory. Records show that shares in the Putnam Family Library were sold as early as 1796. This predates the organization of the more famous “Coonskin Library” in Amesville by six years. The Putnam Family Library later became known as the Belpre Farmer’s Library.
In an oration delivered at Marietta on April 7, 1789 in commemoration of the settlement formed by the Ohio Company, Solomon Drown, Esq. remarked, “the institution of a public library would be of great benefit to the community, not only by affording rational amusement, and meliorating the disposition, but by giving those who have not a liberal education an opportunity of gaining that knowledge which would qualify them for usefulness.” The establishment of a public library in Marietta was to wait, however, until forty years later when on July 3, 1829 a meeting was held at the home of Colonel John Mills for the purpose of taking into consideration the best method of establishing a circulating library in Marietta. Many early Marietta citizens were in attendance: John Cotton, John Mills, A. T. Nye, Douglas Putnam, David Putnam, Jr.; D. P. Bosworth, Samuel Shipman, Dr. Jonas Moore, Dr. S. B. Hildreth, Arius Nye. On July 17, a constitution was adopted and the Marietta Library Association was organized. The association was funded by the issuance of shares of stock at five dollars each. During the first year of operation membership grew and the collection expanded through purchases and donations.
In February 1830, an Act of Incorporation was obtained from the General Assembly of the State of Ohio and the name was changed to Marietta Library.
The first library building was erected on Front Street on the present site of the Masonic Temple Building. It was a two-story building; the upper floor was outfitted with a speaker’s platform and seats while the lower floor was reserved for the library and offices. A lyceum, an association for discussion by lectures, was formed in 1831. It continued operation for ten years and was replaced by a similar organization that sponsored lectures by college faculty. The Library Hall, as it became known, was the site of many meetings over the years, including the Anti-Slavery Society in 1835 and the Marietta City Council which met in the hall until 1870 when the new City Hall was completed.
Daniel Buell and Mary C. Nye served as the first librarians of the Marietta Library. Some of the early librarians received a small compensation for their services; others donated their time.
During the Civil War, the library began to decline. The daily newspapers were of primary interest during this period and most read them and little else. The advent of cheap literature available at newsstands also contributed to a decline in library use, particularly among the young. The generous founders of the library died, and income dwindled. According to the Journal of A. T. Nye, 2nd, one of the early supporters of the library movement, the Marietta Library closed by order of the shareholders January 30, 1883. The books were shortly thereafter placed in a private attorney’s office and later in storage.
In 1889, Library Hall was leased to the Woman’s Centennial Association which used the hall continuously for an assembly room until the library building was sold to the Masonic Building Company in 1907.
On November 16, 1897, the Marietta Library was reorganized as the Marietta Library Association. Nothing definite was done until March 6, 1901 when a Code of Regulations was adopted and a Board of Trustees appointed. The trustees collected $2,700.00 to purchase books. A new library opened May 1, 1901 in the office of the superintendent of public schools in the St. Clair Building, 216 Putnam Street. In June, Miss Willia D. Cotton was selected as permanent librarian, and shortly thereafter the library was moved to the new high school building at 403 Scammel Street, currently the Ely Chapman Educational Center. The Marietta Public Library prospered in the high school building, receiving books from the old Library Association in 1907. Both collections comprised a fine collection, particularly rich in history and biography.
In 1912, the Marietta City Board of Education informed the Public Library that it would have to move to a different location because of cramped quarters at the old high school. The Library trustees purchased an option on property at Fourth and Putnam Streets in the fall of 1912, but the lot was covered by 8 feet of water during the great flood of 1913, and the Library trustees were forced to look elsewhere. The site finally chosen was the “elevated square” called Capitolium near Fifth and Washington Streets. The City of Marietta in a resolution gave the property to the Marietta Library Association on May 20, 1915 for the purpose of constructing a free public library. The property had been set aside by the Ohio Land Company in January of 1796 for “public walks or public buildings.” Andrew Carnegie pledged $30,000.00 for library construction, the city provided the lot and monies for operation, and public donations yielded $4,000.00. George Walter Hovey was the architect of the new library and Levi Cowell, contractor. Construction began during the summer of 1916 with the building being completed in 1918. Today, the 615 Fifth Street location serves as the main library for the Washington County Public Library System.
Capitolium, the name of the mound on which the library sits, is a Temple Mound, 8 ft. high, 50 ft. long and 20 ft. wide. In excavating, no bones were found to indicate that it had been used for a burial place. The mound had three ramps up to the surface. The south side facing the present playground is a recess or hollow 50 ft. long and 20 ft. wide. Capitolium was part of the earthworks systems including Quadranaou at Sacra Via.
Miss Willia Cotton served as librarian for 37 years under which the library grew and prospered.