When prominent merchant and real estate magnate Isaac Smith Osterhout died in 1882, he willed a substantial portion of his estate for the establishment of a free public library. In 1887, the board of directors hired Melvil Dewey, creator of the Dewey decimal system, to act as an advisor. Dewey recommended that the board buy the First Presbyterian Church, an edifice built in 1849, and use it for approximately 10 years until permanent arrangements could be made.  As it happened, this became the permanent arrangement. The Gothic architecture of the church proved quite suitable for a library. It was decided to use the former Sunday School room as a reference section. With its large fireplace and oak woodwork, it was thought to have the ambience of a fine public library.

The library trustees hired Hannah Packard James to be the first head librarian and assigned her the task of organizing and preparing the library for its grand opening. The original library collection (approximately 10,000 volumes) consisted of books from Osterhout’s personal collection, part of the Atheneum (a local subscription library), and 9,500 volumes purchased from Charles Scribner and Sons. The Osterhout Free Library finally opened its doors to the public on January 29th, 1889 and was one of the first libraries in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

Early achievements included the opening of one of the first children’s departments in the country in 1904. A stack wing was added in 1908, a two-story addition in 1966 and the Ken L. Pollock Children’s Wing in 1982.

In the flood caused by Hurricane Agnes in 1972, the library lost more than 69,000 books as well as all its magazines and newspapers. A massive recovery effort was launched and by 1975 the book collection had been rebuilt to 124,000 volumes.

The library closed briefly for extensive interior renovations in 1999, switching to a new computerized checkout system and the now-familiar yellow library cards. The reference department was converted into a pleasant reading room with volumes of fiction lining the walls. Walls were re-painted, new furnishings installed, and additional equipment provided. The card catalogs were replaced by computer catalogs.

DVDs, videocassettes, compact discs and audiocassettes have supplemented books for loan. As an information center, the library has had to enlarge its collection to provide materials in media other than print. Internet service is also available and anyone is free to surf the Internet for business or pleasure.

The Library again underwent extensive renovation, this time on the outside of the building. Throughout 2008 and 2009, work progressed on the roof, the masonry, the windows, and the landscaping. The beautiful results can be seen today. With an ever-expanding range of services, the Osterhout Free Library served as a hub of information from the day its doors opened, through the 20th century, and continues to do so in the new millennium.

125th Anniversary Booklet: Printed copies of the History of the Osterhout Free Library are available for FREE at all Osterhout locations. Click here to view or download the digital version.


North Branch

In 1922, it was decided by the Board of Directors, that an extension of the library was needed to accommodate people a distance from the Franklin Street building. After much planning and anticipation, the North Branch library was opened at 676 North Washington Street. Miss Julia Stockett was the first North Branch supervisor. On April 9th, 11th & 13th, registrations were taken and on April 16, 1923 circulation of books began. The room was overcrowded from the first day, and already plans were in the works for a larger library.

After a location on North Main Street, plans to move into the Parsons section of the city were formulated. This would be an even larger place. The first collection had 1,584 volumes. Each time the North Branch was moved, it was into larger quarters. Today the North Branch collection boasts over 15,000 items in its inventory. The opening of this branch has more than met the many needs that certainly exist in the outlying sections of the city.

Following a fire at its George St. location, the North Branch spent a couple years in temporary quarters on N. Washington St. until a suitable location could be found. The library opened the doors in October 2010 at what should be its permanent home on Oliver St. in a building, like the central library, which was formerly a church.

South Branch

In 1924 the South Branch Library opened for registration Jan. 29th, the 31st and Feb. 2nd, at Stanton and Airy Streets.  The 29th marked the thirty-fifth anniversary of the opening of the Main Library.   The work was greatly facilitated by the aid of Mr. George W. Houck, the Supervising Principal of the schools in that section of the city.  The children were sent to the Branch by grades and at a certain time.  They had blanks provided them by the schools giving the desired information for registration.  This was systematically arranged and proved to be of great assistance.  The children came in such numbers that even with the work so well planned only a partial group could be admitted at one time.  On Feb. 5th the Branch opened for circulation and the borrowers numbered 646 on that date.  Needless to say that nearly all this number were children.  At the end of the year there were 111 adult borrowers and 1,063 juvenile. The total circulation was 30,192.  There were 6,535 adult books circulated and 23,656 juvenile. The per cent of fiction was 72.6. The Branch opened with 1,534 books;  460 in the adult department and 1,074 in the juvenile.

After undergoing a complete interior renovation, the South Branch grandly reopened early in 2010 with a bright new look and a fresh new layout. Located a stone’s throw from Dodson Elementary School, the library attracts many afterschool visitors as well as serving as a nearby branch for South Wilkes-Barre residents.

Plains Branch

The Plains Township branch was begun in 1968 when the Township Commissioners approached the Osterhout Free Library about the establishment of a branch in their community. In March of 1968, a grant awarded under the Library Services and Construction Act, Title I allowed the Osterhout to begin work on the branch. On November 4th, 1968, the Plains Township Branch was opened to the public with Ms. Margaret Jenkins as the first branch supervisor. The original collection was housed in a room in the Municipal Offices on 126 North Main Street which was built specifically for that purpose. It remains there to this day, conveniently located “at the top of the hill” to serve residents of Plains and nearby communities.