Soldotna public library's history shared, preserved

Posted: Friday, May 23, 2008

One advantage to having a relatively short history such as that of Alaska is many of those who made the history are still around.

The same holds true for Alaska cities such as Soldotna and its comparatively new public library.

On Monday, a couple of the Joyce K. Carver Memorial Library's pioneers were on hand to give a living history of the founding of the institution, salting their tales with a dash of humorous anecdotes they recalled from the early days on the central Kenai Peninsula.

Katherine Parker, Dolly Farnsworth, Mabel Smith and Louise Johnston were instrumental, along with Joyce Carver, in establishing Soldotna's first library and helping it grow as the city itself grew in population. Smith's daughter-in-law, Betty Smith, and Parker addressed about 40 library patrons on the history.

Reading from note cards she prepared, Parker said, "One day -- March 12, 1962 -- Dick Hall called us together to talk about establishing a library." She said Carver was elected the first president of the library board.

"We had no library ... we had no school library," Parker said.

However, a space had been set aside for a library in the downstairs area of the Soldotna clinic of Drs. Paul Isaak and Elmer Gaede.

Betty Smith said, when the library was in the basement of the clinic, the sewer backed up every year during break up.

"We were right under the clinic treatment room, and we were not sure what was in that water," Smith said. "We poured gallons of Clorox into it so we couldn't catch anything."

Parker said the library initially opened with a collection of state laws Johnston managed to acquire while in Juneau, and many books donated from private collections in Soldotna. The library was staffed by volunteers.

The Soldotna school, she said, opened in 1960 and grew to having 12 classrooms with 400 students by 1963.

"With the classrooms filling up, there was no hope of getting a library in the school," Parker said.

By July 1963, Parker said, the library had 2,103 books, one-fourth being children's books.

"The group in the library were admirable ... they just wanted to keep the library going," she said. "These people were all working for nothing, but the satisfaction they were getting."

Parker said in 1967, when Soldotna became a first-class city, the chamber of commerce was looking into building a library memorializing Joyce Carver.

In 1972, the first part of the building was built, Parker said. The site was donated by Isaak and Gaede and Burton Carver. Ernie Wellman was the first librarian -- the first paid employee, Parker said.

Betty Smith, who served on the state library board from 1968 to 1972, described Joyce Carver as "the heart of the library."

Speaking about her mother-in-law, Mabel, Betty Smith said she came to the Kenai Peninsula to work for the "Cheechako News."

"Besides her long hours on the paper, she worked long hours with many formal groups," she said. "She helped with the library whenever she could.

"She was a wonderful mother-in-law. She was always on my side in family arguments," Smith said with a laugh.

Recalling her own time spent volunteering in the library, Smith said the town's seventh- and eighth-graders always came in trying to find some privacy in the back of the room, and tried to check out adult books.

"There was one that had a provocative title, but really had nothing in it," she recalled. "I said, 'Let 'em check it out.' They were so disappointed," she said.

The conversations of Parker and Smith were videotaped to preserve a part of Soldotna's history.

Present day assistant librarian Terry Burdick said plans are now in the works to expand the Soldotna library, and she said she hopes it won't be too long.

Library Board Chair Dick Hahn said the board is in the conceptual design phase now, and hopes to have options available for public input by fall.

He said his guess is the library will be expanded by about 4,000 square-feet, approximately 50 percent larger than the current 8,000 square-foot building.

Completion is targeted for 2010 or 2011, Hahn said.

Phil Hermanek can be reached at

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