Free public library service in Mishawaka and Penn Township was a grassroots movement. Development was slowed due to the disastrous Mishawaka fire of 1872. The fire destroyed most of the business area of the town, including a small library purchased with funds from the estate of William Maclure of New Harmony, Indiana. It also destroyed a small township library that was organized in the 1860’s.
In 1873, a library was started by a society of women who paid membership dues to support the institution. The library, known as the “Ladies Library,” was dissolved in 1900 due to lack of membership. Its books were donated to the Methodist Episcopal Annex Library (First United Methodist Church) and the Lounge of the Mishawaka Woolen Manufacturing Company, later known as Uniroyal.
For seven years, the city remained without public library services. Then in 1906, positive action for library service came when the Mishawaka School Board levy assessed a two-cent fee to be used for library purposes. On September 13, 1907, a library opened on the second floor of City Hall. The library remained a responsibility of the School Board until 1932 when an independent library with its own board was established. It presently operates under provisions of the Public Library Law of 1947.
The 28 sq. ft. room at City Hall comprised the city’s library until the Women’s Club, the Men’s Civic League, and available funds from the Carnegie Foundation spurred the impetus for a library building. These groups, combined with a gift of the property on the corner of Hill and First Streets from Mr. and Mrs. Fred G. Eberhart, made the Carnegie Library building possible. It opened on May 5, 1916.
During the 1930s, heavy use necessitated expansion of the Carnegie Library. With Works Progress Administration funds and a local bond issue, the building was remodeled in 1938 to allow the Children’s Division to move to the lower level with its own First Street entrance.
A North Side Branch served from 1950 through 1968 in a storefront building at 117 East Mishawaka Avenue. An Osceola Branch in a small store building was opened in 1943 on Lincoln Way West. It moved to the former Moran home at 206 Beech Road in 1955, where it served Penn Township patrons until it closed in October 1986. A collection of books loaned to classrooms and libraries in 26 public and parochial schools created additional service to the community. This collection remained in use until 1969 when reading and media centers were opened in all schools in the Mishawaka and Penn Township school systems.
By 1961, the Library recognized the need for additional space and established a Library Improvement Reserve Fund. With that fund as a base — plus a bond issue, the Library Board and the City Administration agreed on the present site of the current Mishawaka location at 209 Lincoln Way East. Construction began, and the original portion of the Mishawaka Library opened on July 26, 1969. In closing the Carnegie Library, employees pushed loaded book carts down Lincoln Way to the new building.
A bookmobile named the Wheel-borrow started in 1974, serving five areas once a week. All stops were inside the city limits. Due to lack of usage, this service was discontinued in July 1977.
During this time, the Mishawaka Public Library Board and the Penn Township Trustees began the process of turning the Library into a joint Mishawaka and Penn Township Public Library. This became a reality in November 1978, with the Library becoming known as the Mishawaka-Penn Public Library.
The Osceola Library remained the only branch until 1984. In 1980, the Library Board had a feasibility study conducted to determine the need for a new branch. In 1982, Cole Associates of South Bend was selected to be the Library’s architect, and a site was purchased at 602 Bittersweet Road. The planning was enlarged to include a major renovation of the downtown Library, and a $3 million bond issue was sold.
On March 24, 1983, ground was broken for the renovation of the downtown Library with Ira Mast & Son as general contractor. An addition of 9,525 sq. ft. was built at Mishawaka, and the entire interior was renovated. On March 31, 1983, ground was broken for the new 19,000 sq. ft. Bittersweet Library with Rome Builders as general contractors. On April 15, 1984, rededication ceremonies were held in the downtown Library. In December 1984, the new Bittersweet Branch Library was opened with dedication following on January 6, 1985. Because the Bittersweet Branch was built to serve the eastern part of the township, the Osceola Branch was closed in October 1986.
In 1994, plans began for the Library to grow again. The Paul F. Jernegan building was purchased for $85,000. As plans were made for a new police station, a deal was made with the city for the Library to purchase the old station, which was also the former Post Office, for $10. These additions would give the Library the entire “200 block” of Lincoln Way East.
With a $6.335 million bond, an expansion plan was approved in March 1996 to create a 62,000 sq. ft. building incorporating the police station. A groundbreaking ceremony took place on Thursday, May 22, 1997, and demolition of the Jernegan building, along with unused portions of the Post Office/Police Station, began.
The Library closed for the week of September 12, 1998, to move all the materials from the old section of the building into the new during the old section’s renovation. The new local history and genealogy section, named the Heritage Center, was opened in January 1999. During April 18 – 24, 1999, the Library held a Grand Opening Week.
In January 2001, the Mishawaka-Penn Public Library was approached by Harris Township with a request to develop a plan to provide library services. On February 28, 2001, the Harris Township Advisory Board accepted the Library’s plan, and Harris residents, for the first time, were eligible to receive Library cards without paying a non-resident fee. The Troyer Group of Mishawaka was selected to be the project architect, and plans were immediately begun for a branch library in Harris Township. Land was purchased on Elm Road, just north of the Harris Township Fire Station. The Harris Branch is 24,400-square-feet and cost approximately $5 million dollars. The Harris Branch opened in August 2004.
The system is now called the Mishawaka-Penn-Harris Public Library.