History of the Vaughn Public Library

The Beginning

“A literary and social center of the city where people from all walks of life may find mental food.” ~ Emeline Vaughn

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It was a boom time along the Chequamegon Bay when Samuel and Emeline Vaughn considered a library to be a perfect gift for a growing city.  People were attracted by opportunities to improve their financial footings through lumber, mining, shipping on the Great Lakes and all the supporting industries that follow.  While a community may have churches and banks, inns and saloons, even a railroad; it is not really civilized until a public library is among its assets. The Vaughns were not the first or only ones in Ashland to recognize this.

The Middle

Formed in 1872, Ashland’s first Library Association’s objective was “mutual intercourse and improvement through the collection of a library, the establishment of a reading room or by any other means as may be deemed advantageous.” By 1876, the weekly cultural and civic programs were soon expanded to include a reading room in the city clerk’s office with a growing collection of books – the first Ashland public library was born. 

Not long after the town library association was established, Emeline Vaughn completed her late husband’s dream of granting a library building to Ashland’s residents. The Vaughn Library was dedicated in November 1888 with 3,500 volumes. It was an innovative model of sustainable funding with retail space on the first floor providing rent revenue for the library which occupied the 2nd and 3rd floors.  Emeline Vaughn’s vision for the library is timeless, “a literary and social center of the city where people from all walks of life may find mental food.”

It is amazing the Vaughn building still operates as it did 130 years ago.  If fact, this building is the oldest in Wisconsin that was built as a library and is still operating as a library. There have been some modest and some major renovations over the years, always with the goal of sustaining and improving library service to the community. 

Going Forward

So what might the next 130 years of service look like? An article in the April 1962 Ashland Daily Press, “A report from the Vaughn Library” by Sigrid Holter speculates about the library of the future. “Will it be automated to the extent that no books will be visible to the patron? Will we merely press a button and then pick our information or book from a slot?”  To me, this calls to mind a giant library vending machine, kind of a red box for books.

Mr. Holter was not too far off with many of our titles waiting in the cloud for your download request. Give me your smart phone and I’ll give you a book. So, yes, the Vaughn has kept pace with technological change, offering digital content and public access to technology through computing. But I think the one constant in library service that Emeline and the founders of the first library association also understood is the library as community space. Those of us with the privilege of developing library service for coming generations know that to be successful, a library must be the unique place where residents find a third space; not home, not work but a place that is theirs.

If information and literacy are the cornerstones of library service, technology and community connections are infrastructure. What does that mean?  There will always be books, magazines, movies and computers – those technologies are pretty well established as useful and in demand.  There will always be librarians because who is a better navigator of the constantly changing information world?

But, technology as infrastructure will mean more responsive physical space and network space where the intention is not only to share and present content, but to create it as well. Community connections as infrastructure will mean a facility that welcomes collaboration, active learning in multiple literacies for all ages, as well as small quiet places for quiet work.

It is a security to know the history of the Vaughn Library. Emeline’s intention of creating a library that is a social and literary center that serves all who grace her doors is a strong foundation to build library service on for the next 130 years.