“I am filled with horror at the idea of you not having any reading.”

Lavinia Goodell to Maria Frost, March 10, 1867

The Goodell family was very well read, and their letters frequently mentioned their current literary selections. When Lavinia’s sister Maria Frost and her family moved from New York state to Janesville, Wisconsin in the late 1860s, Maria found herself missing many of the amenities of life in the east, especially the lack of a public library. Lavinia was horrified that Janesville had no library and offered her sister some suggestions:

Lavinia Goodell’s letter to Maria Frost, March 10, 1867

I am filled with horror at the idea of you not having any reading in Wisconsin, and have been forming plans for the amelioration of your condition. Intellectual starvation is quite as painful as physical, tho’ it doesn’t excite the sympathies of the world so much and must not be allowed in this enlightened country, in the full blaze and glory of the Nineteenth Century. Here I am surfeited with more reading than I get time to enjoy. I have recently joined the new Brooklyn Library Association,… It only costs $8.00 per year, besides $1.00 initiation fee to be a member and enjoy all the privileges of the library. Now I have been thinking that as Janesville is a growing and enterprising city it is not at all improbable that it contains such a library as this. You could join it – or Willie could join it for you – and take out books….

If it does not cost more than $5.00 per year to be a member of such a library, I will pay for you…. You must make inquiries the first thing when you go to Janesville, and find out about it. If there is no such library there – which I can hardly think – then I will see what is the next best thing to be done. One thing is certain; my poor sister shall not starve for intellectual aliment, while I am living on the fat of the land.

Maria was correct. Janesville had no library. Lavinia sent her sister magazines and books whenever possible. When Lavinia moved to Janesville in 1871, there was still no library.  In 1874, the recently formed Ladies Temperance Union began plans to raise money for a free reading room. Lavinia wrote to her sister, “We are trying to get up a … free reading room, but I don’t know how we shall succeed. People here are very indifferent on the subject.” The February 27, 1874 issue of the Janesville Gazette carried this announcement:

In early 1875, the LTU did open a reading room on West Milwaukee Street. (The site of the reading room in Mitchell’s block is one of the stops on the Lavinia Goodell walking tour.) Lavinia frequently “manned” the reading room, in addition to carrying on her law practice. The February 24, 1875 Janesville Gazette had a lengthy article complimenting the LTU members’ efforts:

We think those who have not visited the room would be surprised at the number and variety of periodicals already accumulated. On their tables may be found The Atlantic, Old and New, Popular Science Monthly, Galaxy, Harper, Scribners, Ladies’ Repository, Christian Union, Harper’s Weekly, Scientific American, Chicago and Milwaukee dailies.

At the last meeting of the board, one hundred dollars was appropriated for the purchase of new books, and it was decided as soon as the necessary arrangements could be made to open a circulating library in connection with the reading room, by which persons desiring to take their books home can have the privilege by the payment of a small sum per day.

The ladies in charge would be very glad to receive calls from all, both ladies and gentlemen, who have any interest in the enterprise and show them what they are trying to do.

Room open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Sources consulted: Lavinia Goodell’s letters to Maria Frost (March 10, 1867; March 16, 1874); Janesville Gazette (February 27, 1874; February 24, 1875).

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