Jefferson County Public Library

‘Fountain of Culture’ book
highlights library’s history

Author Fife uses her love of history to research library

(October 2019) – Just 10 years after the city of Madison, Ind., was established, a few of its civic leaders had the foresight to establish a library. The library was one of the first libraries in the entire Northwest Territory. That single event highlights the power of a few individuals taking action – action that continues to benefit everyone in Jefferson County and the surrounding area over the past 200 years.

Photo by Sharyn Whitman

Eric Newman visits with Camille Fife during her book signing at the Jeffferson County Public Library.

Camille Fife spent the last year researching library history and in some cases “myth-busting” some commonly held beliefs about the library as part of the Jefferson County Public Library Bicentennial Celebration. The results of her efforts have recently been published in her book, “Fountain of Culture.”
A celebration and book-signing event was held Aug. 9 at the library in Madison. Attendees received a free copy of the illustrated paperback book. Fife greeted guests, shared anecdotes and signed copies for the guests. 
As Fife tells it, “In the spring of 1818 a sturdy band of entrepreneurs organized, by subscription, the Madison Library Society. Such libraries allowed stockholders to borrow books. Twenty-five young men paid the shareholder fee of $5 per year to get it under way. (Although the stockholders were all men, they could permit ladies to read their books).” The organizational meeting took place at Henry Ristine’s tavern, located at the southeast corner of Main and Mulberry streets.
The leader of the movement was Alexander A. Meek, Madison’s first resident lawyer. Some of the other notables included James F.D. Lanier, wealthy businessman and banker; Jeremiah Sullivan, a judge in Indiana’s Supreme Court and later judge for Jefferson County Criminal Court; and Dr. Robert Cravens, who married Sarah Grover Paul, the daughter of Madison’s founder, Col. John Paul. Fife noted, “It is clear that the first Madison Library involved an amazing cadre of men who would go on to take leadership roles in the city, county, state and nation.”
The book details the continuing evolution of the library and the fascinating stories of the individuals who provided the necessary leadership.
One of the myths was that Madison Library was the very first library in the Northwest Territory. The library in Madison was founded in 1818 as a private library. Fife learned that in 1806, a library was founded in Vincennes, Ind. That library later became part of Vincennes University.
However, it is regarded as an academic library and not a public library. The library in Madison evolved from that small private library to a free, public library in 1888. M.C. Garber, Madison Courier publisher, secured $300 from the Madison City Council to establish the public library. That library had a new name, “The Madison Public Library.”
In 1929, the library moved to its current location at 420 W. Main St., which was the former home of Mrs. E.E. Powell. The current facility constructed on that site used the core of the original home. The “new” library was dedicated in April 1968.
“The Fountain of Culture,” reflects Fife’s passion and enthusiasm for history. Interesting library facts she uncovered  include that, originally, librarians were men; Melvil Dewey (father of the Dewey Decimal System) insisted that women be included in the first school of library training in 1884; the Madison Library hired its first woman librarian in 1885; and Miss Margaret Dixon, Head Librarian from 1943-1974, made the Madison Library a welcoming, safe place for black children during the segregation years.
Fife acknowledges the assistance and support of many individuals to complete the research for the book. However, she also spent hours in research and compilation. “It took much more time than I anticipated,” Fife said. She continues to serve the library as the part-time coordinator for the Local History and Genealogy Department.

“Camille is amazing. She has done so much for preservation in Madison,” said Ann Inman, Programming Coordinator at the Jefferson County Public Library. Both Fife and her late husband, Thomas W. Salmon, used their own names professionally. In memory and honor of Salmon, Fife authored this book using her full name – Camille Fife-Salmon. The book is available for $15, either at the Jefferson County Library or the Village Lights Bookstore, both in Madison.

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