Early Shelby County settlers valued books and struggled to provide a public library. The 1816 Constitution of Indiana designated 10% of the proceeds of the sale of town lots to be set aside for the use of a public library, but it was not until the end of the century that Shelbyville had a permanent public library.
As early as 1822, Shelby County records show that $13.12 had been reserved for the Library Fund, and records of 1825 indicate that seven Library Trustees were elected. Rules for the use of this early library stated that it was open to residents of the county who paid 25 cents a year.
One volume could be kept for two months at a time. Librarians appear to have been whomever could provide a free room and bookshelf for the library. There were 257 volumes in the collection by 1833 but the Trustees were having trouble accessing the money due to the library fund. There were so many problems collecting overdue book fines that a list of delinquents was given to a Constable for collection.
By the middle of the century, by-laws were written, including instructions that the library was to be in a dry room above the ground floor, that access was to be convenient for the public, and that the books were to be kept in good order and safe from mold and moths! The books became neglected again and in 1853 they were moved to the Masonic and Odd Fellows Lodge Hall for the use of their members and in trust for the county.
In 1855, a group called the Shelby County Working Men's Institute of Indiana in Shelbyville was formed. They took charge of the library, and with a $500 donation from the William Maclure Estate, purchased 750 more books. However, by 1860, the books had again been stored in boxes. Soon after, a Jeffersonian Literary Society was organized and by 1862 the collection consisted of 800 volumes.
That fall when the Seminary opened, it was advertised that two literary societies were connected with the school and that there was a library of 1000 volumes. However, the Seminary burned in 1865, and Shelbyville and Shelby County had no public library again until the end of the century. The first High School was built in 1896 and it had room for a library. Books and money for books were donated, a small city tax was levied, and the library openend the next year with 1000 volumes.
In 1901, a request was sent to Andrew Carnegie for funds to build a permanent separate library. A total of $20,000 was granted, a lot on Broadway Street opposite the High School was purchased, and the library was built. It opened in 1903 and soon grew to over 10,000 volumes. Until 1963, the library was under the control of the Central School Board. In April of that year, control of the library was placed with seven individuals chosen to oversee the expenditure of the public money. That newly created independent board became the Trustees of the Shelbyville Public Library.
A $150,000 three-floor addition to the library was completed in 1966 providing a ground-level entrance and a large children's room. An elevator was also installed for the convenience of patrons. Before 1967, county residents living outside of Shelbyville had to purchase library cards yearly to use the library. In 1967, three years of free library service for the county came from a demonstration project grant. A new bookmobile was received in January 1968 to provide service to rural communities and county schools where libraries had not yet been developed. This project was the first step toward county-wide service.
The County Contractual Library District was formed in May of 1970 and in January 1975, the library became officially the Shelbyville-Shelby County Public Library. Residents of the entire county could now enjoy free use of the public library without having to purchase a library card on a yearly basis. Recordings and microfilmed newspapers were added in 1966, an art print collection was started in 1968, and the Local History Room was opened in 1973.
The Friends of the Library along with a group of volunteers was organized in 1975. The library purchased adjacent property in 1985 as the start of a much needed expansion project. Dedication of a $2,500,000 addition and renovation was held in 1995. The new facility, designed to house a collection of 112,000 volumes, includes public meeting and multi-purpose rooms; reading areas; on-line catalogs; computers for both staff and patrons with Internet service, reference sources on CD-ROM, and word processing; handicapped accessible restrooms; private office areas; ample storage space; kitchen facilities; expanded areas for genealogy and reference; photocopiers; FAX service; laminator; projector; microfilm reader/printers; over 92,000 volumes; 2,000 videocassettes; 3,000 audio materials; and 200 magazine titles as well as programs for children and adults and service at twelve stops by the Bookmobile.
There have been seven librarians since 1897: Miss Ida Lewis from 1897-1918, Miss Bertha Bowlby from 1919-1959, Miss Ethel Thralls from 1955-1965, Miss Harriett Craven from 1966-1977, Miss Margaret Hamilton from 1978-1988, Anne M. Short from 1989-1997, Cynthia Faunce from 1998-2002. Janet Wallace is the current library director.