An Oral History of the Pontiac Branch Library: The Warsaw Street Years (1981-2004)

An Oral History of the Pontiac Branch Library: The Warsaw Street Years (1981-2004)

Starring Former Branch Manager Condra Ridley & Former Branch Assistant Manager Tyrone Cato

In the Beginning

Condra Ridley, Former Pontiac Branch Manager: The Pontiac Library opened on Oct 17, 1922 and was originally located across the street from Whitney Young. Pontiac was probably one of the first branches created.

It was in a rented corner at 1023 East Pontiac. In 1926, the branch was named for Indian Chief Pontiac, not for the street. For a period of time, it was made into a reading room; [patrons] weren’t allowed to check out books. Tyrone Cato, Former Pontiac Branch Assistant Manager: When it [first] moved to 3304 Warsaw Street, it was still a reading room. Condra Ridley: The building was an old Macedonian meeting hall [for the church]. (It’s now Mount Calvary Church.) It’s nestled in the neighborhood. All the other branches were on a corner; we were right there.

A Staff of Two + Summer Help

Condra Ridley: I came into the Pontiac Branch Library in 1981 as a branch assistant. Randal Gillen was the manager at the branch. He had said that if we make this library appealing to children [through community outreach], then we’ll start a movement…it proved itself to be true. I applied to be manager when he left in 1983. Tyrone Cato: I started working at the Pontiac Branch Library Late 1983. I was working at the Shawnee Branch. That was actually my first [ever] full-time job, [then] at the downtown library. [After a reorganization], I applied for the branch assistant position at Pontiac.

During the summers, we would have part-time employees. Condra Ridley: That’s how Melanie and Tyrone began their relationship, at the branch. They’re now married.

The Programming

Condra Ridley: We had a large youth patronage. It really kind of worked to our advantage. The young people [came in] and brought their families. We catered to the needs of the people in the area, and [those were] predominately African-Americans. Tyrone Cato: People would come in looking for stuff related to black history. Condra Ridley: We started to recognize African-American cultural celebrations…we were the first library to do a Kwanza celebration, the first to probably to do a Juneteenth celebration.

Tyrone Cato: Pontiac did a lot of stuff, courtesy of Condra’s innovations and genius. Condra Ridley: We did Dance with a Book…Take a Book to the Beach where we laid out blankets in parking lot, put little shells out. Somebody came with a sprinkler and pretended like we were at the beach.

In 1986, we had an adult literacy program that was funded by the Department of Education. It was a new thing for the library to have. Any adults who had not learned to read or who wanted to improve reading skills would be matched up with a tutor who had been through our training course. Our program could take a student from no reading [skills] to a sixth grade level.

Tyrone Cato: We had the Indianapolis chapter of the Black Panthers meet at the library. I’m sure there were people in the parking lot, monitoring, taking down license plates numbers. (Laughs.) My wife’s sister, who is deceased now, was a member of the Black Panthers. Condra Ridley: We had a gentleman named Harold Gaulden speak; he was actually one of the Tuskegee airman ground crew members. Tyrone Cato: There was also another guy who was a Tuskegee pilot; he wrote a couple of books. He came up with a couple of programs, he did a book signing. We had a couple of Hebrew rabbis come from New York; they donated some books to our branch. Condra Ridley: 300 rare books.

The Low Numbers

Tyrone Cato: Interestingly enough, there were still people who would walk pass the library for years and even didn’t realize the library was there. Condra Ridley: We designed our own outreach for schools, after [coming back] from a storytelling festival in 1986, to increase our numbers…we always had the lowest circulation out of the whole system. Tyrone Cato: That’s why it was important to do a lot of the programing that was unique to Pontiac, that other branches weren’t doing. Condra Ridley: These families are from the South so they don’t have a library habit; they’re not going to the library. By making library fun, we created library habit. Tyrone Cato: They talked about closing it. It wouldn’t have gone over very well because it was like the only branch to serve a predominately black community. We had strong support.

Our circulation did increase; we had very staunch supporters who would check out books to increase our circulation and would have downtown books sent to Pontiac so they can check them out there and help our stats. Condra Ridley: Meeting room in our basement that people like churches would utilize. Al Jennings started his ministry out of there.

Move to Creighton

The building at 1023 East Pontiac had started degrading. In July 2004, the branch moved into their new digs at 2215 South Hanna Street.

Tyrone Cato: In the Fall of ’94, I got fired. I wasn’t embezzling funds or anything like that. (Laughs). Actually, it was what they referred to as a policy violation, actually technically. I was there for like 12 years. Condra Ridley: I moved down to a main position at the downtown library as an outreach person and youth services specialist. I traveled around the community and the surrounding areas, did book-related programs. I would see our kids [now grown] come to the library with their own children. Tyrone Cato: Whenever I get a chance to talk to kids I ask them if they have a library card. I miss the library. It was a good job, being around kids and books every day. Condra is one of the most incredible people I know.Phresh Laundry’s work can be found at A longer piece with more interviews will be included on our website.

Artwork By Theoplis Smith III

I run Scrambled Egg(s) Design and Productions, based out of Northeast Indiana. In addition to producing in-house company projects, I also create advertising materials for companies and organizations, with an emphasis on interactivity.