bronze dedication seal on entry floor

History of the Library

In 1840 many citizens of Hannibal, Missouri felt a need for a public library.  Judge John Marshall Clemens (Mark Twain's father), Zachariah Draper, Dr. Hugh Meredith, and Sam Cross took on the responsibility of this task.  They organized the Hannibal Library Institute. On March 19, 1845 this library was chartered by the General Assembly of Missouri.  The books were kept in Dr. Meredith's office in a building at the corner of Main and Bird Streets.  This was not a free library.  Users paid a membership fee that entitled them access to the 425 books.  However, by 1870 the Hannibal Library Institute ceased to function.

In 1870 the Mercantile Library Association was formed.  This one was located at 110 N 4th Street over L.B. Seaton's store.  A person could purchase 2 or more shares at $20 each for lifetime library privileges. Or a person could pay $3 a year or $1 a quarter.  By October 1871 the library had 1500 volumes.  In 1876 the Mercantile Library ceased.  Its books were sold or distributed among members.

The Hannibal Library Association was organized in October 1881.  The library rooms were located on the 2nd floor of the Opera House (later known as the Park Theater) at 5th and Center Streets.

In April 1885 the Missouri General Assembly passed a bill providing that any city, upon an affirmative vote of its citizenry, could set apart a one mill tax per dollar of assessed value for the endowment and support of a FREE public library.  Robert Elliot, a native of England, who had moved to Hannibal as a young man and become a successful businessman, was instrumental in the formation of the Hannibal Library Association.  He now took on the cause of the free public library.  Because of his devotion and hours of work, he is considered to be the founder of the free public library in Hannibal.  He spoke to groups and wrote a persuasive circular to be distributed to the citizens. In the May 1889 city election the tax levy and the organization of a free public library was approved.  Hannibal had the 1st free public library in the State of Missouri!  It opened in December 1889 on the 2nd floor of the Park Theater.  It contained 3820 books, 3181 had been donated by the Hannibal Library Association.  A year and a half later it moved to the former First Christian Church building at 5th and Church.  By 1900 the library had accumulated 7000 volumes.

In 1901 Helen Kercheval Garth and her daughter Anna H. Goodlett donated $25,000 to the City for the erection and furnishing of a library building as a memorial to their husband and father, John H. Garth.  Helen was a native of Hannibal and had been a childhood and lifelong friend of Mark Twain. John Garth, a native of Virginia, had come to Hannibal with his parents.  After attending the University of Missouri, he returned to Hannibal to join his father and brother in the tobacco business.  Later he went into banking and became the president of the Farmers and Merchants Bank.  He died in 1899.

The site of the new building would be on the old site at 5th and Church.  A parade and ceremony celebrated the laying of the cornerstone on May 16, 1901. The Garth Memorial Library opened February 15, 1902.  Miss Lizzie Lingle, the librarian received $25 a month.  Her assistant, Miss Lizzie Hunt received $15 a month.

In 1987 an addition was added to the building that doubled the library's usable space.  Today there are over 16,000 patrons and over 83,000 items. 

Information from:

Hannibal, Too: Historic Sketches of Hannibal and Its Neighbors      by J. Hurley  & Roberta Hagood

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