On February 1, 1943, Clara Wendel became Orange County Library System’s second library director. Clara was 39 years old when she was selected for the position, and OCLS – still the Albertson Public Library at the time – was celebrating its 20th anniversary.
Originally from Illinois, Clara’s family relocated to Gotha, FL in her childhood. Her work in the Central Florida area was extensive even before her arrival at the library. An alum of Rollins College, Florida State University (then the Florida State College for Women) and the University of Michigan, Clara earned her master’s in library science at the University of Chicago. Throughout her career, she oversaw several significant changes to the library system, including the establishment of the Friends of the Library in 1949 and branch expansions in the 1950s. It was under Clara’s direction that the original bookmobile was launched with support from the Sorosis of Orlando Woman’s Club, one of many local organizations in which Clara held membership.
Clara began advocating for a larger library building as early as 1948, writing to the Orlando Sentinel that “Orlando is growing and the library is very eager to grow with it.” And grow it did. Clara’s tenure saw staff expand from 10 to over 120 at her retirement, and the number of volumes in the library’s collection grew from 83,047 in 1943 to 318,183 in 1969.
But that incredible growth had its cost: space – something the 11,000-square-foot Albertson Public Library lacked. In 1958, Clara presented a 31-item list on the “Points of Inadequacy” of the library’s facilities, highlighting not only the severe shortage of space for materials and programs, but also electrical problems, a leaky roof and a lack of air conditioning – all serious issues for a building in Central Florida. Those issues were reiterated in a report by the Junior Chamber of Commerce’s library committee, which concluded, “there is needed badly and as soon as possible a completely new modern library building several times the size of the present one.” Funds for the new library building were allocated in 1962, and architect John M. Johansen was hired in 1963. A member of the “Harvard Five” – a notable group of modernist architects – Johansen’s work includes other iconic designs like the Robert H. Goddard Library at Massachusetts’ Clark University and the US Embassy building in Dublin, Ireland. Johansen’s design for the new library building incorporated the Brutalist style, a divisive architectural mode that emphasizes structural elements and showcases the textures and aesthetics of its materials. Johansen’s plans were formally accepted by the Library Board and the City Commission in 1964, and construction began.
The new Orlando Public Library opened in 1966, thanks in large part to the efforts of Clara and her team. An Orlando Sentinel article from August 1966 declared the library staff’s motto was “books are our business” and encouraged Orange County residents to “be proud” of their new library. With three stories and 55,000 square feet, there was much to be proud of. In addition to more space for both research and leisure reading materials, the new building allowed for the specialization of library departments, like the Business, Science and Technology Department, the Local History and Genealogy Department and the Young Adult Department. Library patrons could now listen to recordings and radio broadcasts at a six-station listening center in Audio-Visual Services. Orlando’s new library even boasted a Fine Arts Department with framed art reproductions for checkout – all in glorious air conditioning. Changing the name from Albertson Public Library to Orlando Public Library also gave Orange County residents a sense of pride.
In 1968, Orlando Public Library hosted a celebration of Clara’s silver anniversary, where staff and city officials honored her. Two years later, on November 1, 1970, Clara retired after 27 years of service to Orange County, though, as the Orlando Sentinel would point out, she refused to go “out of circulation.” She would continue to serve on various local councils, associations and clubs, and was a guest at the grand opening of the expanded and renovated Orlando Public Library in 1986.
A tribute by the Friends of the Library written at her passing in 1995 recalls Clara’s dedication to the library and the community, describing her as “an accomplished and refined woman who cared about her community and used her considerable talents to make a difference in the quality of life for her fellow Orlandoans.”