East Branch Library – Intertwined in the History of our Community

East Branch Library – Intertwined in the History of our Community

by Cynthia Sommer

A branch library has served the Eastside Milwaukee community for more than 100 years. The East Library has grown from a single room to a beautiful space and has always added to the knowledge and enjoyment of its patrons. The written comments shared by neighbors at the closing of the North Avenue East library on June 22, 2013 revealed that the various East Branch Libraries were more than a series of buildings.

The library was and is intertwined with the daily lives of our neighbors, and their shared comments tell the story. Several three- generations families expressed “fond memories of my parents bringing me to get a handful of books. Later, I brought my kids too.” One neighbor indicated “her first trip out of her house after she was born was to this library” and her regular visits to the library have continued to be a family tradition. As young patrons, they remember “eagerly hustling through the door of the library to get to the shelves of their favorite authors” and that “writing your name carefully on the form to get your first library card” was very exciting – a “Right of Passage” with real responsibilities!

Patrons experienced many happy hours “going to faraway places through the books” and “filling the long winters with awe and laughter”.  The East Library was “small enough to sit and be, large enough to explore the world” and has carried a patron “through several decades and phases of life”. And of course, there were the pleasant times of just “sitting by the window and day dreaming” or even the romantic meeting of “my future husband as our eyes met across the library”.

It is easy to forget the role of the library in first introducing neighbors to computers, the internet, CD’s, and DVD’s. The community room also insured that diverse events of the neighborhood had a meeting place for voting, sponsoring training classes of election workers, book clubs, large community meetings fighting the expansion of the expressway through the parks and much more.

As the population of Milwaukee grew in the 1900s and moved north along the lake, the need to have a branch library to serve the citizenry was evident. The first “East Branch” was opened on Feb 8, 1909 in a single room offered by Plymouth Congregational Church on Wells and Van Buren. The library was then moved on Oct 11, 1912 to a storefront building located in the North Avenue shopping district at 2022 E. North Avenue (one block east of the new library). The 1912 lease for the 1800 sq. ft. two story building was $105/month for space, heat, and some janitorial service. Neighbors have memories of a “large room surrounded by shelves of books…beautiful wood floors that squeaked and the screen door that slammed behind you.”   This facility became a busy place with a circulation in 1932 of over 250,000 books at a rate of 30 books/hour of service. The library had an extensive fiction collection for the time that grew in 1960 to 2,966 books and an equivalent non-fiction book circulation (3,162). The community was served for 56 years at this storefront site before the much needed and much larger East Library branch was opened with great fanfare on Nov 3, 1968 at 1910 E. North Avenue. The new branch included books from the old storefront and the collection from the former Charles Allis Children’s Library that was closed at 1628 E. Royall Place.

The “New East Branch“Library provided 15,000 sq. ft. to house a collection of 60,000 books. The architectural firm of Darby, Bogner and Associates designed the “modern” facility that included air-conditioning and parking. The Herman Miller furniture, now considered icons of industrial design, graced the interior of the library with its steel, walnut and molded plastic modernistic style. Stained glass panels (which were designed by Conrad Schmitt Studios and have been saved and installed in the new library), a community room, large windows, open spaces with different activity areas made for an exciting and functional new library. But the advent of desktop computers, copy machines, videos and other technologies required adaptations, growth and different requirements.

After 45 years of use (1968-2013) and with a recognized need and creative financing, a “New, ‘New’ East Branch Library” was planned.   However, the library proposal was for construction on the same site as the current building and thus one more move to a “Temporary East Branch“ Library at 2430 N. Murray was required. A former pizza joint and Laundromat were creatively transformed into a cozy (2,970 square feet) bookstore-like temporary library that housed a more limited selection of books for 17 months but still managed to provide the essentials of reference, periodicals, newspapers, books, interlibrary loan, a children’s activity center and a kiosk of laptop computers. The patron activity exceeded the size of the building since the staff has been busy since its opening in July 2013 with checking out 152,152 items and 10,461 laptop computers.

The move to and celebration of the fifth East Branch Library (2320 N. Cramer St.) substantiates the importance of the library to the life of the neighborhood and the lives of its residents. May an exciting history of the East Branch Library continue along with the neighborhood as we use, enjoy and support our local library for many more years.