Rosenberg Library Honors its First Librarian

 Rosenberg Library Honors its First Librarian
Oil portrait of Frank Chauncey Patten, the first librarian of the Rosenberg Library by Ernest Martin Hennings.

Today young people often take to the road for adventure. Whether it’s a trip through Europe, across America or through some South American jungle, such travels often represent a coming-of-age in which a person can “find themselves.” Imagine taking such a journey in the late 1800s, long before the existence of an interstate highway system or cell phones.

One 24-year-old man did just this. His name was Frank, and in 1879 he decided to leave his home in Wisconsin and travel 1,200 miles to Texas. During his life, he had become quite handy, especially in carpentry. He hit the road with some tools and started walking (the primary means of travel for the entire trip). He made his way by offering his labor in exchange for meals and lodging. Eventually he ended up in Brazoria County. In addition to being a very handy person, Frank also possessed a keen intellect and an infectious love of learning. Upon his arrival, he built himself a home from driftwood, and founded a school for African American children at Live Oak Point. Eventually the funding for the school ran dry, so he went back home and then on to college. His legacy on the Gulf Coast, however, was just beginning.

The young man described above is Frank Chauncey Patten, the first librarian at the Rosenberg Library. Although largely forgotten, his diligent work left an impact on the island that can still be seen today. Born in Rochester, New York on June 15, 1855 to Horace and Olive Maria Patten, the family moved numerous times, eventually settling near Shields, Wisconsin. After high school he attended college at the State Normal School at Oshkosh, Wisconsin in 1874 and then taught public school intermittently until 1881. After his trip to Texas, he returned to Wisconsin to continue his studies at Ripon College and then went on to graduate first in his class of the Columbia College School of Library Economy.

After completing his degree at Columbia, Patten worked in Helena, Montana as a public librarian for seven years, and then moved on to the Lenox Library in New York City. On July 24, 1903 the Rosenberg Library Association in Galveston appointed him to supervise the completion of the library, and when it opened June 22 the next year, he was the first librarian (the equivalent to an executive director in modern times). Patten sought to make the rooms “attractive and somewhat homelike, avoiding both the uninviting formality of many public buildings and the domestic aspect of a room in a home.” In January 1905, he oversaw the completion of the Colored Branch of the Rosenberg Library which was for use by Galveston’s African-American residents.

Patten’s impact on the library cannot be overstated. He implemented benefactor Henry Rosenberg’s vision for a library that would serve as a center of intellectual growth for the island. He hired a dedicated children’s librarian, and made sure there was a designated area for kids to enjoy. He developed a vast reference collection for the library that included pamphlets, maps, charts, photographs, pictures, prints, and historic manuscripts. Patten also implemented a popular public lectures series which brought in a variety of respected speakers with expertise in a wide range of subjects including literature, history, and science. Later accounts depicted Patten as especially concerned with the condition of the library’s books, meticulously mending and cleaning pages and charging for scuffs, tears, rips or any other damage done to the collection.

Frank Patten was a man of many talents. In addition to carpentry, he knew Latin and German, wrote poetry, and in 1918 he helped publish a compilation biography of Henry Rosenberg and the history of the library entitled Henry Rosenberg, 1824 – 1893.

Although Patten never married, he maintained a very busy social life. He was a member of Trinity Episcopal Church, the American Historical Association, the Texas Library Association, The Texas Historical Society of Galveston, the Sons of the American Revolution, the Masonic Order, and the Odd Fellows. The library was the center of Frank Patten’s world when he died in 1934 and left most of his estate to it. The year after his death the Dallas Journal reported that Patten had secretly paid four staff members’ salaries from his own pocket for many years – his successor estimated this donation to be worth $38,000 (or over $600,000 in today’s dollars).

This April, the Rosenberg Library displayed a number of items donated or owned by Frank Patten as the Treasure of the Month. The first is a ceremonial Knights Templar sword. The Templar is a Christian order associated with Freemasonry. Its ornate steel blade is damascened with gold and scenes of Crusaders along with Patten’s name. The cross guard is made of gilded metal featuring leaves and scrolls in raised design, and a medallion with a star. The ivory grip features a cross on one side and initials “FCP” on the reverse. Also on display is Patten’s 1914 32nd Degree Scottish Rite certificate, a retractable pen/pencil rubber stamp with Patten’s name, an ornate brass match safe, and one of Patten’s pocket watches.

Past Treasures