In 1871, the Jefferson City Tribune editorialized about the need for a circulating library in the capital city. Less than two months later, a Jefferson City Library Association was established and a subscription library was established but was short-lived. Several attempts at creating a Jefferson City library followed, but still the capital city remained without a library for most of the last two decades of the nineteenth century.
Then in 1898, a new Jefferson City Library Association was formed, which led to the opening of another subscription library in the basement of the courthouse on March 1, 1898. A subscription fee of three dollars per year or 25 cents per month was charged. The organization hired Miss Adalaide J. Thompson as its librarian, and over the next three years, the library acquired approximately 1,700 books through a combination of purchases and donations.
Although the subscription library served some of the readers in the Jefferson City area, many people wanted to see a free public library established. In the fall of 1899, Rev. John Fenton Hendy, the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Jefferson City, and Mr. Arthur M. Hough, a local attorney, began to discuss the idea of asking famous philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, for a donation that would allow Jefferson City to build a public library. A letter was drafted to Carnegie signed by many prominent citizens from the area.
Months passed before Carnegie responded in 1900. Carnegie offered to donate $25,000 to the City of Jefferson under two conditions. First of all, Carnegie wanted the city to purchase a suitable site for the library. Secondly, he wanted the city council to maintain the library with their own funds. This disappointed Hendy and Hough, as they feared the city council would not commit to the maintenance of the library. The two traveled to New York in an attempt to change Carnegie’s mind, but to no avail. Henry and Hough went to the city council and it was decided that a tax be proposed with the money raised to be used for the library maintenance fund. On June 19, 1900, Jefferson City residents went to the polls to vote on this proposition. The tax was approved overwhelmingly by a vote of 839-42.
Two weeks later, the city council voted to set aside $3,000 for annual library maintenance and began the search for a suitable site. Local property owners offered 15 different sites for the library. A site was finally chosen at the southeast corner of Madison and McCarty streets. However, the owners of the land wanted $6,000 which led to a cheaper site being selected on Adams Street. The property was owned by Dr. Enole and Thomas Roach, who were willing to sell the property for $4,350. Eventually, the selling price was lowered to $3,600. The money was quickly raised and the land was purchased. Meanwhile, on August 4, 1900, Carnegie wrote to give approval to the library board’s plan and authorized the construction to begin.
The board of directors solicited plans for the building and bids for construction of the library were sought soon after. Henry J. Wallau was awarded the construction contract after submitting the lowest bid of $21,500. Wallau agreed to complete the building by February 1, 1902. However, there were multiple delays in the construction of the new library, including a shortage of available Cole County limestone, a severe winter in 1900 and a bricklayers strike in the fall of 1901 also slowed construction. As a consequence, the completion of the building was delayed by more than ten months.
The Carnegie Free Public Library of Jefferson City was formally dedicated on December 23, 1902. Local businessman Huge Stephens delivered the keynote address at the gathering and music for the dedication was provided by a chorale group known as the St. Cecilia Club and by the Jefferson City Orchestra. Library board president Arthur M. Hough presented the building to Mayor A. C. Shoup, and the library became part of the city’s cultural and educational landscape. The Carnegie Library became a county library in 1947.
After almost a century of service, the original Carnegie Library was replaced by the Thomas Jefferson Library building. The building was set to be torn down, but after public outcry the demolition was canceled. The Carnegie Building now serves as the Cole County Assessor’s office, which is open Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.