Century-old island library houses so much more than books
The Rosenberg Library is perhaps one of the most majestic and interesting buildings in Galveston. It houses thousands of books, magazines, DVDs and newspapers. But behind those thick masonry walls are hidden treasures: artifacts, artwork, historical documents and soon-to-be-uncovered original architectural details.
The 114-year-old library, 2310 Sealy St., is unusual in that it was set up with an endowment bequeathed by the will of Henry Rosenberg, an immigrant from Switzerland. Today, it’s funded with money from the city and county, along with donations from foundations and people.
Rosenberg, born in 1824 in Bilten, Switzerland, moved to Galveston when he was 19 years old. He had a limited education, but after his first job as a clerk, he advanced and ultimately became one of the city’s richest benefactors. He made his fortune in banking, real estate and transportation, but gave generously back to the community with donations to the Galveston Orphan’s Home, Grace Episcopal Church, Leticia Rosenberg Women’s Home, which was named for his first wife, and a $400,000 fund for the first free library in Texas. He died in 1893.
Although Rosenberg didn’t have offspring, his wish was that there be a place in Galveston for children to learn and read.
In the past century, this house of books has become a storehouse for thousands of pieces of original art, racks and racks of period clothing from the turn of the 19th century and a repository for maps, documents, photos and other historical papers relating to the history of Galveston and Texas.
“It was a gift that kept on giving for over a hundred years,” said John Augelli, executive director of the library since 2002. “But most people have no idea what is here. They come in and wear a path to check out books, but don’t know what exists in this building.”
Augelli was referring to the history center and special collections dating back to the Spanish colonial period. Most of the items are out of sight from the public, kept stored away in secure, climate-controlled vaults that are fireproof, waterproof and the optimal environment for preservation. Library goers, however, can request to see many of the items.
The library keeps age-old maps — some dating back to the 1700s — in horizontal drawers, away from light. The maps are handled carefully with gloved hands. The archives include 100,000 photos, 2,000 maps and official records from the city’s beginning. The library routinely puts items on display in cabinets on the fourth floor, as well as in exhibits and art shows.
“It is hard to choose what to display; there is so much to choose from,” said Lauren Martino, special collections manager. “It is almost mind boggling what is here.”
Martino cautiously held a pair of 1836 dueling pistols that once belonged to Sam Houston. They are beautifully designed with intricate details and were a gift to the former Texas politician. A descendant of Houston’s wife donated the antique firearms to the library.
Rosenberg Library has digitalized many documents and photos and made them available on the library’s website for the public to see. Less than 1 percent of the archive is on display at any time, Augelli said.
Seven meeting rooms are available at the library for nonprofit organizations to use, and computers, a gaming center, printers — including a 3D printer and large format color printer — are available for patrons of the library. Computer classes, hundreds of children’s and young adult programs, family events and exhibits are free and popular with the community. And the reference desk fields more than 30,000 questions a year — in person, via phone or email.
“We are here for this community,” Augelli said.
The original entry to the building, facing 23rd Street, is a grand entrance. The hallway’s original marble floors and pair of reading rooms are reminiscent of a long-gone era. Near extinct longleaf pine covers the floors in two rooms, showcasing golden oak walls with plaques and photos of early benefactors. Massive decorative fireplaces, which the library no longer uses, are the focal point of each room. It is quiet in these areas, and visitors are welcome to sit and relax.
The building is about to see a major renovation — its seventh. Beginning in November, crews will rip out the upper floor’s ceilings to expose original architectural cornices and designs hidden behind Sheetrock walls for decades. A huge leaded-glass skylight, to match an existing one, will be reconstructed near where it was originally. All the galleries will be redone and free-standing cases will exhibit works of art or artifacts. Rosenberg Library will display rare books, along with fragile samples of volumes that pre-date Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press from 1455, said Eleanor Barton, curator of the museum division.
The project is expected to take several months, and Augelli hopes it will be completed by the second half of 2019.
Donations from foundations and people will pay for the multimillion-dollar renovation to restore the historical architecture, upgrade museum space and make it more accessible to the public.
“This will be a medium-sized renovation, but it will make a difference to the public because there will be so much more for them to see,” Augelli said.
Friends of the Library Annual Book Sale
Since 1940, the Rosenberg Friends of the Library has been more than good friends to the island institution. The all-volunteer organization’s book sales bring in thousands of dollars to the library for acquisitions of additional items. This year’s annual sale will be Oct. 4-6 in the main foyer of the library, Trish McDaniel, president of the organization, said.
Since 2001, the group has raised more than $700,000 to buy new circulating materials. All of the books on sale have been donated or de-accessed from the library. Volunteers also sell books online — more than 500 last year — and through a little bookshop inside the library building.
Sometimes, people have donated old or rare books that are treasures on their own: one book, a 17th-century navigation book, recently sold for $6,000. And each child who participates in the library’s summer reading club gets a coupon for a book at the sale.