This History of Public Library Service in Durham, 1897-1997 by Jessica Harland-Jacobs

A New Era

In the midst of the library's troubles between 1906 and 1910, there was a hint of renewed interest in and commitment to the library when its advocates opted for a modern, business approach to running the library.

At the same time that the white population was breathing new life into its library, members of Durham's African American community decided to found a library for blacks. This event also reflected developments in the wider community, in this case the prosperity of Hayti and accomplishments of African Americans whose reach would extend well beyond Durham. Both the black and the white libraries experienced explosive growth and offered innovative services during the second two decades of the twentieth century.

Stanford L. Warren Library
Stanford L. Warren Library, circa 1917.

In May 1908, the Durham Public Library boosters held a rally at Durham High School to rejuvenate the Library Association. Dr. Mims addressed the gathering. Stating that the library was an integral part of the public school system, reaching through its printed volumes all of the families of Durham and going straight to the hearts and minds of men, he urged the community to support its struggling library. The Board announced its plans to remodel the interior, increase the book supply, and paint the exterior. One hundred of those in attendance agreed to pledge $3 annually to the library, and the newspaper proudly proclaimed that the Durham Library association, after years of varying fortune and somewhat indifferent support, made a ten strike last night when it underwent a complete rehabilitation and landed itself squarely upon a business basis.[25] Although some of the same people took the lead in supporting the library, their approach was different. The evening's central theme was to start running the library like a business, in short, to modernize. According to historian Sydney Nathans, the words they used to describe the mission of the library reflected the dominant values of the newborn twentieth century. [26]

The first step in modernizing the library was to hire a professional librarian, an action which no other library in the state had taken. Lillian Baker Griggs arrived in Durham at the end of June 1911. Griggs was a graduate of the Library School of Carnegie Library in Atlanta, which she had attended in order to support herself and her son after her husband's death in 1908. On her first day as librarian, Griggs met with the trustees and Board of Lady Managers. The atmosphere at the meeting was tense--Griggs was nervous about her first job, and the Board did not know what to expect of a professional librarian. Griggs later recalled the encounter: Finally, after a good deal of discussion and fencing, Mr. T. B. Fuller made the motion that the library be turned over to Mrs. Griggs and that all we ask for is results. To my very genuine relief the motion carried and I was free to go ahead.[27]

From the beginning, Griggs felt that increased efficiency rather than large circulation was the primary object of a public library. To this end, her first step was to inventory and classify the collection. In eleven days, she organized a book collection that had suffered from inattention and poor management for ten years. The next step was cataloging the collection's 3500 volumes. Putting the library on a firm business basis, she also started using a budget as well as compiling statistical reports to submit to the North Carolina Library Commission. In order to build the inadequate book collection, she returned to the system used by the early Board of Lady Managers--the rent shelf--to make popular fiction available to those who could not afford to purchase it themselves. In her first annual report to the Board of Trustees and the City of Durham, Griggs revealed three aspects of her long-term stance regarding the business of running a library: her willingness to provide adult fiction, her commitment to children's services, and her advocacy of increasing the library's annual appropriation, which had been raised to $1500 the year she arrived.

By 1912, Griggs, an enthusiastic and strong-willed individual, had proven herself and the Board approved of her techniques. Not one to be content with the status quo, however, Griggs soon determined that the Durham Public Library could serve a wider segment of the population and decided to expand the library's outreach. First, she started making books available to those Durham residents who lived at a distance from and were unlikely to visit the library, namely mill workers. She sent books to the community house of the Welfare Club in the mill district of West Durham. Within eighteen months, over three hundred books a month circulated from this station. She also arranged with the personnel department of the Durham Hosiery Mills, operated by Carr, to provide books for mill employees in East Durham.[28]

At these and other centers of library outreach, Griggs began weekly story hours for children, a practice which seems logical for a library now, but was novel at the time. Griggs was a firm advocate of children's using the library. She recognized that children made good library patrons and encouraged them by coordinating her children's holdings with the assignments of English teachers and furnishing the debate teams with materials. Although she willingly provided popular fiction for adults, Griggs sought to exert more control over the literary consumption of children. She believed that the library played a role in training future generations, and that only certain kinds of books--instructive ones--were useful for this purpose. Thus, she hoped that the library, by providing children with good literature, would reduce the taste for Alger and his kind. [29]

Finally, and most significantly, Griggs started a program of county extension. A firm believer that a library should reach all the areas of a county, she loaned books to rural residents even though the collection was formally restricted to the city population. [30] Griggs reached the rural population in a number of ways. Attuned to her surroundings, she realized that the all-day job of attending harvested tobacco left plenty of opportunity for reading. Consequently, she lent books to county boys who had to spend their nights in curing sheds. Griggs made rural residents aware of library services by displaying posters and exhibits at county fairs.[31] Cooperating with county teachers, she also began sending books in bags resembling mail sacks to schools throughout the county, but she was hampered in her efforts by limited funds. In 1914, having gained the support of the trustees, she succeeded in securing an annual appropriation Of $400 from the county for her work on behalf of county residents. Apparently the county commissioners had responded so positively to her work and her presentation, which had moved Griggs' herself to tears, that she regretted not having asked for additional money.

Children's Room 1926
Durham Public Library, Children's Room circa 1926

By going out of her way to provide library services to workers, children, and rural communities, Griggs had acted on her belief that the library's mission was not confined to its four walls. But what about Durham's substantial African American population? Durham's black community was thriving in the first decade of the twentieth century; it had increased by 200 percent in the decade after 1900.[32] A corresponding increase in property holding resulted, and several black entrepreneurs achieved striking success, as evidenced by the Durham's prosperous black Wall Street, Parrish Street.

But this was also a time of systematic exclusion of African Americans from opportunities and institutions available to the white population. The legislature revoked voting and civil rights which had been gained in the aftermath of the Civil War. Like all other libraries and community institutions in the South at this time, the Durham Public Library was open only to whites. Public meant the white public. If it had not been for the efforts of one community-minded individual, Durham's black citizens would have had, like every other African American community in the state except Charlotte's, no access to library facilities.

While the white library had reached the point in 1913 where it could hire a professional librarian and run the library through annual appropriations from the city (and shortly thereafter the county), the black community had to depend on its own resources to fulfill the library needs of its population. To a greater extent than the Durham Public Library, the African American library owed its existence to the vision and commitment of one individual--Dr. Aaron McDuffie Moore. Of course Moore would not have been able to achieve his goal without substantial community support, and the founding of both libraries resulted from a combination of individual effort and community involvement.

Moore was a graduate of the Leonard Medical School of Shaw University and came to Durham as the city's first black physician in 1888. He set up a thriving medical practice in his home, which was located next to White Rock Baptist Church at the corner of Pettigrew and Coleman Streets. Using his screened-in back porch as an operating room, Moore offered medical services--from pulling teeth to repairing wounds--to Durham's burgeoning black population. Early on, Moore befriended John Merrick, personal barber to Washington Duke and owner of several barbershops.

John Merrick
John Merrick, circa 1910.

Born into slavery in 1859, Merrick started out in the barbershop business as a bootblack. He worked his way up to the position of a barber at W. G. Otey's in Raleigh, where Durham's leading men went to have their hair cut. In 1880, having been persuaded by Carr, Duke and others to provide barber services in Durham, Merrick entered into a partnership with John Wright and opened a shop on Main Street. Within two years, his good investments enabled him to buy out Wright, and Merrick was on his way to becoming one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Durham and eventually owner of three white and two black barbershops. Out of the long-term association between Moore and Merrick would emerge three of Durham's most central African American institutions: North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, Lincoln Hospital, and the Durham Colored Library.

The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company was the cornerstone of Durham's African American business district, and its success fostered the growth of community institutions such as the library. In 1898 Merrick, Moore, and five other black businessmen established the North Carolina Mutual and Provident Association based on the success of the Royal Knights of King David, a fraternal benefit society to which they had purchased the rights and which had provided health and life insurance to the African American community. A year later most of the investors had lost confidence when it became apparent that the association would not be as popular as fraternal aid societies and started losing money. Moore and Merrick proceeded to buy the shares of their co-investors and reorganized the company with Merrick in charge of the finances, Moore as medical assessor, and Charles C. Spaulding, Moore's nephew, as chief salesman. This combination proved successful. North Carolina Mutual, ;a company with a service and a soul, went onto become one of the largest and most profitable black-owned businesses in the nation.

Both Moore and Merrick had diverse business interests and shared their expansive energy and resources with the wider community. One such joint enterprise was Lincoln Hospital, the founding of which revealed a trend: Durham's black entrepreneurs would receive some assistance from their white counterparts but by and large they sought to establish separate institutions funded and run by their own community.[33] Lincoln Hospital had its origins in Washington Duke's suggestion that he help build an annex for African Americans on Watts Hospital as a memorial to the black mammy who took care of the Duke family. The two men informed Duke that they preferred to have their own institution. As a result Lincoln Hospital was built in 1901 with Duke contributing a substantial amount but with African Americans in charge.

Moore was a great lover of books and a lifelong scholar; he would go into his study at night after dinner, insist upon quiet, and immerse himself in books. Wishing to share his passion with his community, Moore once remarked: If only my people had something to read![34 He was especially concerned that Durham's African American children did not have access to good, wholesome reading matter.[35] In 1913, Moore borrowed the Baraca Room in the basement of White Rock Baptist Church, where he taught Sunday School, to set up a small library. Moore had gathered 798 volumes from members of the community to start the book collection. The library remained in the church for three years, but Moore was not satisfied because denominational disagreements prevented its use by the entire community.

Dr. Aaron McDuffie MooreDr. Aaron McDuffie Moore, engraving, circa 1900.

In 1916 Moore brought Merrick on board. At the time, Merrick owned a lot and building on the corner of Fayetteville and Pettigrew Streets, which he agreed to rent to the library. Early references indicate that Lillian Griggs assisted in setting up the library though her precise contributions are unknown.[36] 0n August 14, 1916, the Durham Colored Library opened its doors to the public with Hattie B. Wooten as its first librarian. At first, as the library's only employee and a part-time one at that, Wooten did the work of several librarians. Depending on her memory to keep track of the books in the library, she managed the collection (acquiring, cataloging, circulating and repairing books), made the community aware of the library, and initiated and ran activities for patrons.[37]

During the first years of its existence, the library's only source of income was personal contributions from members of the African American community. Funds were so limited that in 1916 school children raised $30 through begging cards to supplement the money donated by individuals. The maintenance of this institution, Moore wrote at the end of 1916, is presenting a serious problem to those most interested in its welfare.[38]

But the next year Moore and the library's supporters were able to overcome these difficulties. By raising funds from citizens, churches, and even James B. Duke, they purchased the property from Merrick, who also made a substantial donation. Then, beginning in June 1917, the city began a monthly appropriation Of $30 (versus nearly $200 a month for the white library), which helped to relieve the financial strain. The incorporation of the Durham Colored Library Association and a $20 per month appropriation from Durham County the next year further strengthened the financial base. One indication of the library's success was the fact that Griggs mentioned the library in her annual report for 1917. Remarking that the library had secured a librarian and a monthly appropriation, she reported that good work is being done here. The teachers and children are deriving great benefit from it.[39]

While Moore and Merrick were succeeding in establishing a library for African Americans in Durham, war had erupted in Europe. At first the war did not affect the small city in central North Carolina to any great extent. But if a person did want information on the increasingly global conflict, they visited the Durham Public Library, which served as a publicity bureau for the various war activities. Griggs set up a bulletin board and offered information on the Civil Service exam, the Red Cross and YMCA. During the canning campaign in the summer Of 1917, the library became a distribution center for brochures on food conservation. Griggs also organized several drives to collect books for servicemen. [40]

In terms of traditional uses of the library, for the first two years of war there was little interest in books pertaining to the European war. However, by 1917 Griggs and her small staff could not keep up with the demand for material related to the war. In Griggs' words, It has been truly remarkable how in the last four months Durham has realized the war.[41] In 1918, Griggs, as president of the North Carolina Library Association, canceled the organization's annual meeting so that librarians could collect books for troops stationed overseas. She then became a volunteer for the United War Work Campaign; her first assignment was to run the book service of the Naval and Coast Guard Station headquartered in New Orleans. Then, in 1919, Griggs joined an American Library Association delegation which went to Germany to provide library and information services to the Army of Occupation. Stationed in Coblenz, she helped operate a 10,000-volume library and distributed books and periodicals to hospitals in the region.

One casualty of the war years--at least as far as the Durham library was concerned, was its children's story hours. Griggs had made significant progress in terms of children' services since 1914. At the beginning of that year, the Board decided to apportion part of the library as an area devoted to children, and a citizen donated money to convert two of the reading alcoves into a children's room. During this period, Griggs also strengthened the relationship between the library and the public schools and in 1917 reported that as a result of increased cooperation with teachers, children are using the library more intelligently than ever before, and it is a rare occurrence when I get a request for an Alger Book.[42] As far as the story hours were concerned, Griggs had turned the program over to Annie Brooks, who offered story hours at various locations including the Welfare Club in 1916. Their goal, to expose the library to children who had never enjoyed its privileges, was met, but Griggs had to discontinue the program in 1917 due to lack of funds.

The children's program was not the only aspect of Durham's library service suffering at this point. The book fund was perennially insufficient, and the building itself was becoming increasingly unsatisfactory. Although Griggs had set up a good arrangement with local literary clubs, which purchased books on topics under discussion and then donated them to the library, this system improved the library's holdings to a limited degree. Carr could always be counted on to donate books, but even he could not keep up with the demand. And neither of these sources could help improve the woefully inadequate children's collection. What the library needed most was increased appropriations from the city and county.

As for the building, it had undergone a series of repairs and seemed to be holding up. The main problem was space. As a result of Griggs' efforts, there had been a significant increase in the number of users. Moreover, even though they needed more funds to purchase books, the existing facility could not contain the books they had. And, as Griggs frequently mentioned, the building did not have enough space for a proper children's room. In short, the city that had built the first public library in North Carolina could not rest on its laurels; it needed a modern library.

Griggs had begun the campaign for new facilities before she left Durham. As a professional librarian, she was well aware of what the Carnegie Corporation was doing for communities in need of libraries all around the world; after all, she had attended the library school of the Carnegie Library in Atlanta. Awarding a total Of $56 million, the Carnegie foundation built over 2,500 libraries in the United States and overseas between 1898 and 1917. In 1916, Griggs had introduced the idea to the Board of Trustees, still headed by Carr. General Carr was far from impressed with the proposal. In fact, he threatened to resign his position as chairman if the Board decided to apply for Northern charity.[43]

Griggs must have been persuasive and the need great, for the Board did submit its application over the objections of its primary benefactor to this point. Griggs had the backing of the vice-chairman, Thomas Fuller, President of the Golden Belt Manufacturing Company, who became chairman of the building committee. In addition to the objections of Carr, the Board faced another obstacle. Following Andrew Carnegie's philosophy of helping those who helped themselves, the Corporation required that communities come up with ten percent of the building cost annually to meet operating expenses. Although both the aldermen and county officials had verbally agreed to supply these funds, the county government could not legally require annual appropriations for public libraries. The passage of special legislation by the General Assembly was required to resolve this difficulty.

One factor that had virtually assured Durham's success, once the Board had decided to ignore Carr's wishes and had solved the problem of county appropriation, was their choice of architect. The Board of Trustees awarded the contract to Edward L. Tilton of New York. Having received his training at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, Tilton designed the Ellis Island Immigration Center (1897), but then switched his emphasis to become a master of designing Carnegie libraries. What Tilton offered to the corporation as well as communities seeking a library was his ability to stick to the budget. Selecting Tilton was a wise move on the Board's part because his name had become synonymous with Carnegie library building and the fact that he had been consulted early on probably helped their chances in securing the grant.

On September 14, 1917, one month before the termination of its library program, the Carnegie Corporation awarded Durham a $32,000 grant. After putting the project on hold until Griggs returned to Durham, the Board of Trustees sold the original library building and its lot for $21,000 and with the money purchased a new lot at 311 East Main Street and added to the building fund. In 1918 Griggs oversaw the moving of the library collection to the Malbourne Hotel's Lochmoor Dining Room, which the Board had rented for $75 a month. Obviously these were not ideal conditions for a library, and Griggs reported that the quarters were crowded and inconvenient. Meanwhile, the local construction firm of N. Underwood erected Durham's latest cultural landmark.

Durham Public Library 1921
Durham Public Library, 1921

On July 6, 1921 the Board of Trustees presented Durham with its new library, costing a total of $59,000 and marking a new era in the affairs of the Durham Public Library which plans to enlarge and develop its various activities during the coming year both in city and county.[44] ) Tilton had designed a neocolonial structure of cream tapestry brick and columns of old ivory and included all the standard features of Carnegie libraries.[45] Two rows of windows allowed light to illuminate the interior and resulted in a restful, airy appearance. The library had a central circulation desk (from which an attendant could monitor the entire floor), a Reading Room with a fireplace, and, for children, low tables and a cabinet containing a lavatory, where children who have come in hurriedly from play may wash their hands.[46] The building also included rooms for reference services, repairing and stacking books, storage, and club meetings.

At the opening ceremony, Fuller gave the keynote address in the place of General Carr, who was conspicuously absent from the occasion. Carr did not withhold his support and enthusiasm for long. Upon the completion and dedication of the new building, he returned to the Board of Trustees as honorary chairman, a position he held until his death in 1924, and even signed the resolution creating a new Board composed of city and county representatives. In a letter to Tilton immediately after the opening, Griggs reported: We are doing a rushing business, the public seems book hungry.[47]

As the Board had promised, in the new era marked by the opening of the Carnegie library, both urban and rural communities would enjoy increased services. While city residents would come to the new library, books would go to the people of the county. When she was in Germany delivering books to units and hospitals, Griggs had become well acquainted with perambulating libraries. But during the 1920s bookmobiles were rare: only six were operating in the United States in 1923.[48]

One day in July of that year Griggs opted to eat lunch downtown instead of walking home; she ran into the County Superintendent of Education (who was also on the Board of Trustees) and R. L. Baldwin, long-term friend and member of the Kiwanis Club, and joined them for lunch. In the course of their conversation, the superintendent remarked that getting books to children in the county was one of the crying needs of our County educational system. Griggs responded that it was her dream to serve the rural and urban populations equally and brought up the idea of a book truck. Baldwin proposed that if the county could provide for a book truck's operation and maintenance, the Kiwanis Club could purchase a truck for the library.[49] The result of this conversation was North Carolina's first bookmobile, aptly named Miss Kiwanis. In their decision to provide a bookmobile, the Kiwanis Club upheld the tradition of civic organizations' supporting Durham's public library and initiated its own long-term commitment to addressing the library's needs.

Miss Kiwanis
Miss Kiwanis

Miss Kiwanis was a half-ton blue Ford truck which the Oxford Body Company had converted into a bookmobile by adding shelving and exterior doors. In large gold letters along the upper frame was written Durham Public Library; the panels carried the slogan, Free Books, County Service. It could transport up to 600 books at a time. The Kiwanis Club staged the Jollies Of 1923 as a fund-raiser in early October at the Academy of Music; the Board of Trustees attended the show as a body. In an interesting side note, it was at this production that the future Andy Brown met Amos Jones, a relationship that would eventually culminate in the creation of Amos 'n' Andy. The bookmobile embarked on its first trip on October 17, 1923, distributing books to the 36 white Durham County schools, where teachers selected books for their students. As long as the teachers kept track of the books, children were allowed to take books home to their parents, and in this way Miss Kiwanis began providing service to adults.

In 1923 Griggs resigned her position in Durham to become secretary, and soon thereafter director, of the North Carolina State Library Commission, which was based in Raleigh. Her innovative programs in Durham as well as her service to state and national library associations had made her well known and respected in state library circles. In her thirteen years as Durham's librarian, Griggs had modernized the library, demonstrated her commitment to children, convinced the local governments to increase the library's appropriation, extended service to county residents, and initiated bookmobile operations. In the process, she made the library a leader in the field while she became an integral member of the community and by her personal and professional influence fostered the library's development and usefulness.[50] As head of the state's library commission, Griggs borrowed Miss Kiwanis to make demonstrations throughout the state, thereby spreading the idea of bookmobiles as an effective means of reaching rural communities. Durham, with its new library, financial support from the county government, community support, and highly effective librarian, had taken library service in North Carolina in new directions.

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