This local history museum is located the former Monroe Carnegie Library. Constructed in 1917, the building has been listed on the National Register of Historical places since 1978. The museum has called this building home since 1980, a move that allowed for a significant expansion of the museum's holdings. Monroe County History Center currently boasts 8,000 square feet for their many galleries and exhibits, a genealogy and local history library, museum store, and education room. On the corners of the property stand two historical markers for the “Colored School” - or Center School - which opened its doors to African American children from 1874 to 1915 during the era of segregation. The second marker commemorates the building's role as Bloomington’s public library from the building's construction in 1918 to the creation of a new central library in 1970.
Prior to the construction of the current building, this site was home to a public school for African American children. Before the Civil War, children of African American descent were usually excluded from the public schools of the state. In 1869, the state of Indiana passed a law to mandate “the education of colored children and left the issue of integration or racial segregation up to local school districts. This location was home to the city's Center School which practiced segregation. White children were allowed to attend classes on the first floor while black children received their lessons in an upstairs room. Because of population growth, a new school building was constructed. School leaders decided that the white children would attend the new school and Center School became known as the “Colored School” with a grand total of 54 African-American students attending in the year 1881. Schools in central and southern Indiana continued to operate segregated schools in a number of communities in the early 1900s even as most Midwestern communities ended the practice.
By 1915, the school property was sold to make room for the new public library that would take its place. By that time, the school’s numbers had risen to 93. These students and their 3 members of faculty would eventually transfer to the Benjamin Banneker School that opened on December 7, 1915. The historical marker on the corner of the museum property offers a short history of Center School and was installed in 2005 by the Indiana Historical Bureau, Bloomington Black Business & Professional Association, and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bloomington.
The community was one of the first to have books available for use by local residents, as the county courthouse acquired a collection of books in the 1820s and allowed resident to borrow from this collection. According to the National Register of Historic Places nomination form, the decision to create a formal public library in 1917 was the culmination of a long and tenacious struggle to bring literature and learning to Bloomington. That “tenacious struggle” began well before the 1915 purchase of the Center School location, and was spearheaded by local women's civic societies such as the Sorosis and the Nineteenth Century clubs.
In 1897 the Sorosis Club first attempted to gain an Andrew Carnegie grant, but because the ballot put forward that discussed accepting his offer at the local referendum also contained questions about funding a new courthouse and sewer system, the measure was quickly defeated. Another offer by Carnegie for $20,000 was placed on the table in 1915, but needs for better health facilities had won public support and overshadowed the quest for a library. It wasn’t until 1917, after the purchase of their new plot of land, that everything finally began to fall into place. Carnegie Corporation gave them a grant of $31,000 and by 1918, architect Wilson Boyden Parker had brought their vision to life.
When the library opened its doors in 1918, it had a collection of nearly 2,000 volumes and served over 400 city patrons. It was still primarily a town rather than a county library. County residents had to pay a fee to borrow books unless their townships contributed toward the library’s maintenance. In 1929, the policy changed, and the library began serving a county-wide clientele.1
The Carnegie Library would continue to serve the public until a new and more modern facility was opened on Kirkwood Avenue in 1970. It was then purchased by nonprofit organization, The Old Library Inc. (TOLI) who renovated the building and, by 1980, had leased it to other nonprofit organizations such as the Bloomington Area Arts Council, the Monroe County Historical Society.
TOLI eventually sold the building to its current owners, the Monroe County Historical Society, in 1994. They have since expanded upon the original building where they now exhibit both permanent and rotating galleries aimed at educating the public and preserving history for the generations to come.