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History of Fairbanks Libraries

History Of Fairbanks Public Libraries

Fairbanks was founded by speculators in 1904, and prospectors discovered gold soon thereafter. While the new town enjoyed a number of bars and bawdy houses, the prospectors didn’t discover many books there. News of this reached the Pennsylvania newspapers and captured the attention of George C. Thomas, a prominent Philadelphia banker, philanthropist and book collector.

Mr. Thomas’ abiding interest was in the missionary efforts of the Episcopal Church. He read about St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Fairbanks, whose main structure doubled as sanctuary and reading room in an effort to provide less sinful recreation for the local miners. Missionary pioneer Hudson Stuck described the church at the time: “Every day in the week and every night in the week, almost all night as well as all day, it was in use as a reading room ... there were few hours of the twenty-four that men might not be found availing themselves of the only place of common resort in town that was not a liquor shop.”

The reading room contained some 1,500 books and magazines, 1,000 of which were donated by Archdeacon Stuck, and reading materials were also provided to inmates in the log jail as well as miners on their way to their distant claims. George C. Thomas read about the crowded little reading room and the miners desperate for wholesome recreation and decided to donate funds to build a separate library and to fund it with $1,000 annually for three years.

The more spacious George C. Thomas Library, a log building that included a basement, opened to the public August 4, 1909, shortly after Mr. Thomas’ demise. The library’s property and building remained in St. Matthew Church’s ownership until 1942, when it was turned over to the City of Fairbanks. The library’s fortunes ebbed and flowed in the intervening years, with charity dances and other fund-raisers employed to keep the doors open.

Tragedy struck in 1949 when a fire destroyed one-third of the library’s collection. Once again the community pulled together to restore the library. Demand for library services in Interior Alaska has always been strong, and the library’s collection grew over time and its hours were gradually extended.

The Fairbanks North Star Borough was created in 1964, and four years later the City of Fairbanks surrendered its library powers and gave the Thomas Memorial Library to the Borough. A Friends of the Library group formed in 1965 to promote the construction of a larger modern library, but their plans were delayed by the cataclysmic flood of 1967, which flooded the entire downtown, including the old library and destroyed over 2,000 books.

A Council of Library Supporters organized in 1971 to support the library and its effort to build a new facility. A year later the Borough received a federal grant to build a branch library in North Pole, and it opened in 1974. That same year voters approved $4.9 million bond issue to construct a new main library on the old Weeks Field airport runway.

The new Noel Wien Library (named for the famed bush pilot and founder of Wien Airlines, the forerunner of Alaska Airlines) opened in 1977. This library serves as regional library for the entire northern portion of the state, providing library services to villages and bush residents throughout the State. The library’s public areas were expanded by approximately 20,000 square feet in 1997 with the help of a bond issue, local donations, and general fund contributions. In 2005 local architects and Outside space utilization consultants were hired to work with community focus groups to determine the future needs of Noel Wien Library, but the project was shelved.

Helen Bentley formed a family trust in 1977 that named the borough’s public libraries as a 15% beneficiary, along with the Fairbanks Memorial Hospital Foundation, UAF, Swedish Memorial Hospital, Seattle Public Library, and UC Berkley. A 1990 borough ordinance refined how the proceeds from the trust could be utilized: for capital expenses, and special collections and equipment. The trust’s revenue was mainly derived from selling Bentley farm land in north Fairbanks where many box stores are located. Once the land was sold, the trusts were dissolved, but not before the borough received approximately $23 million for its libraries.

The North Pole community has always sought a strong public library presence. Despite the limitations of its site, the branch library was enlarged in 1981 and again in 1994 to reach its current 4500 square foot size. Nevertheless, the facility’s small dimensions have seriously limited the numbers of patrons able to attend programs, as well as the size of its collection. So a search for a new site began in 2005, and an 8.9 acre site next to the North Pole High School was purchased in 2006.

In January 2011, a grant from the Rasmuson Foundation underwrote the FNSB Library’s participation in the Foraker Groups Pre-Development Program to create a “business plan” for constructing a new North Pole Branch Library facility with the help of interested North Pole community representatives. By the following June, design features has been agreed upon, architectural renderings were complete, outside cost estimates for the project were compiled, and a strong business plan was published. After an arduous application process in fall 2011, the North Pole Project was ranked first by the state among the potential library projects competing for legislative funding.

Also in June, 2011, Governor Parnell vetoed a $6 million legislative grant for renovating Noel Wien Library. That October the Borough Assembly approved funding for both the matching funds needed for the North Pole Branch Library project ($6.8 million) and to replace the Noel Wien Library roof ($2.4 million), almost entirely committing the Special Library Revenue Fund (composed of Bentley Trust revenue).

Brief History Of Noel Wien Library

Noel Wien Library was constructed by the Fairbanks North Star Borough in 1977, the same year that pioneer aviator Noel Wien died. The Library is built on Fairbanks’ original landing strip, Weeks Field, and is bordered by Weeks Field Park.

Before becoming an important center of early aviation in Alaska, Weeks Field was originally a baseball park whose outfield became a popular landing place for local pilots. Noel Wien made a number of historic flights that took off or landed there, including the first flight over the Arctic Circle, the first round-trip flight between Alaska and Asia, the first flight from Fairbanks to Seattle.

Noel Wien Library replaced George Thompson Memorial Library, the original public library that was built and stocked with books in 1909 from a donation from Mr. Thompson, a Philadelphia philanthropist. The Library was enlarged significantly in 1998 utilizing a bequest from a local trust.

Noel Wien Library is a regional library and serves as the main public library in Interior Alaska.