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

Branching Out

On March 27, 1947, the Durham Public Library celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. In the half century since its founding, the library's book stock had grown from a small collection of books donated by members of the community to over 30,OOO volumes.

In the early forties the collection had overwhelmed the Carnegie-built facility, which had a capacity of 25,000, and Crawford had to start storing thousands of books in the basement of City Hall and at the old East Durham Cotton Mill. The building itself appeared to be bursting at the seams; with leaks, crumbling plaster, and basement flooding, its condition was approaching the danger point.

Stanford L. Warren Branch
Stanford L. Warren Library, Fayetteville Street, circa 1940.

Likewise, the Stanford L. Warren Library had filled to capacity by the end of the war. In the fall of 1945, the library came under new leadership when Selena Warren Wheeler resigned her position to become a librarian for the African-American county school system.[81] Wheeler's replacement was Ray Nichols Moore. A native of Georgia, Moore received her undergraduate degree from Spelman College and her library science degree from North Carolina College. During the late forties and 1950s, both Moore and Crawford would deal with the space problem by increasing bookmobile service, constructing annexes, and developing branch libraries. With some of the pressure relieved, the librarians could then expand their programs and community outreach.

In 1948 the Stanford L. Warren Library Board purchased a bigger bookmobile, which had outside shelving. This feature provided additional capacity and gave patrons much better access to books. Moore was proud of the new bookmobile and felt it indicate[d] that we are still making progress. Able to transport 300 more than its predecessor, the new bookmobile extended the library's outreach by adding three routes, stopping at more homes on old routes, and servicing playgrounds during the summer. Public reception remained positive and encouraging. In the first decade of service, celebrated in 1952, the Stanford L. Warren bookmobiles had circulated over five thousand books and provided service to 1830 borrowers in fourteen communities.[82]

Stanford L. Warren Bookmobile
Stanford L. Warren Library bookmobile, 1948.

One factor that enabled the African American library to purchase a new bookmobile and broaden its services was its gradually improving financial position. This situation can be attributed to the persistent advocacy of John Wheeler, prominent citizen and African American leader, who served on the Board from 1931 to 1966.[83] An astute and aggressive businessman, Wheeler anticipated the needs of the library and, as chairman of the budget committee, annually presented the needs of the library to the city council and county commissioners. Over time his efforts resulted in significant increases in appropriations. His advocacy of the library during his tenure on the Board made his contributions nearly as significant to its development as those of Moore and Merrick a generation earlier. Moore continued the tradition of innovative programming started by Selena Wheeler. In her last year as librarian of Stanford L. Warren Library, Wheeler had initiated two new services: art exhibits by Negro artists and book delivery to Lincoln Hospital.

Moore's first major project was the Book Review Forum, established in 1945. The American Library Association had started emphasizing adult education before the war broke out; its advocacy of the public library as an educational institution for adults, as well as children, only strengthened after 1944.[84] The Book Review Forum was one of many programs reflecting this commitment to adult education in the post-war era. Set up as a series of one-hour monthly programs, the forum aimed to acquaint participants with outstanding books that were not necessarily best sellers, and to serve as a medium for informing adults of current events and important issues of our time.[85] Historian John Hope Franklin's From Slavery to Freedom was one of the books reviewed in the first years of the program.

Another major, long-term initiative of Moore's early tenure was the establishment of the Library Corner for the Blind. In 1949 Lyda Moore Merrick (the daughter of Aaron Moore and daughter-in-law of John Merrick), who was chairman of the Board of Trustees and inspired by her blind friend, John C. Washington, set up a library club and resource center for blind persons. Using Braille and records the club aimed to increase interest in educating the blind, offer recreational activities, and provide reading services for personal mail. Once again, civic clubs pitched in--the Durham Lions Club provided funding and the Dorcas Club transported blind patrons to the library. After two years of successful programs and growing membership, Washington and Merrick collaborated in the establishment of the Negro Braille Magazine, the first issue of which came out in June 1951. Having secured assistance from the American Printing House for the Blind, Merrick culled articles from newspapers and popular African American magazines; the magazine, the first of its kind, would achieve national and even international circulation.[86]

All of these programs, in addition to the expanding book stock, created a great need for additional space. In 1949 the Board decided to borrow $20,000 from North Carolina Mutual to construct an addition to the library. With construction lasting just over a year, the annex opened at the end of January 1950 and contained storage, stack, and work rooms. More importantly, it served as the central distribution node of the bookmobile and had a children's room. The library held a contest for the naming of the children's room, and Key Korner, indicating both its position in the library and its role in giving children access to information and new worlds, was the winning entry. In yet another example of a community organization assisting the library, the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority donated the furniture for the children's room.[87]

The Durham Public Library also had a need to expand and purchased a house to serve as an annex in 1955. Space had been an issue for a long time. The Post War Planning Committee had reported in 1945 that library expansion was one of its main priorities since every available foot of space in this building is crammed to capacity.[88] Expansion remained as an item on the ten-year plan developed in 1952, and in 1954 the library started renting books from the American Lending Library because it did not have the resources--monetary or spatial--to meet demand for popular fiction. By the mid-fifties the library had 20,000 books in storage and space limitations had prevented the establishment of some programs. On the urging of M. B. Fowler the trustees approved the purchase of a house on Liberty Street. The library occupied the facility, after the floors were strengthened, in late 1956. Like the one at the Stanford L. Warren Library, the annex had shelves and work rooms and served as the main distribution center for the bookmobile.

Another way to deal with the space problem was to set up branch libraries throughout Durham, a strategy which both libraries pursued. The first branch of the white library had opened at Carr Methodist Church in March 1944. The public library took over the Y. E. Smith Community Library, which opened earlier that year as an experiment of the Y. E. Smith Bible Class. Carr Methodist Church provided a room, furniture, and volunteers while the library filled the shelves. Originally opened two days a week, the branch emphasized children's services and by the mid-1950s was open five days a week. In the pastor's opinion, the library made a real contribution to the welfare of East Durham.[89]

In the decade after the war, the branch option increasingly became the solution to the problem of overcrowding. The library established another branch in the Forest Hills Clubhouse in 1947. In the mid-fifties, Crawford and the Board started communicating with the Public Recreation Department about setting up branches in other community centers as demand arose. According to Crawford, the branch library addressed two issues: First, it gets books closer to people who want and need them. Second it relieves the congestion in the small main Library Building, and obviates the necessity of enlarging that building.[90] As a result of this policy, the Board arranged with the Recreation Department to establish branch libraries in any white community building where it seemed advisable.[91]

Although Crawford had mentioned in her post-war planning report that additional branches would benefit the black community, the white library did not take any steps in this direction. However, the Stanford L. Warren Library readily assumed the responsibility. In 1954, upon the recommendation of Moore, it set up a branch in the McDougald Terrace housing project, which was home to 247 families. The Housing Project office provided space in the administration building and the library furnished shelving, equipment, and books. Among the programs the branch offered were the Saturday Morning Movie, Well-Baby Clinic, and Reading Club. The library followed the same pattern for setting up the John Avery Boys Club Branch in 1960.

Librarian and children Bragtown Branch
Librarian and two children inside the Bragtown Branch Library, March 19, 1959

The new branches set up in this period resulted in part from the advent of federal aid through the national Library Services and Construction Act, which enabled the Stanford L. Warren Library to improve its services in a number of ways. To this point the library had managed to reach only 8.7 percent of Durham's rural population. Hoping to provide services to every person in Durham County and increase the community's interest in libraries, the Board established a Five-Year Federal Aid Program in 1957. Its goals included hiring additional staff, purchasing a new bookmobile, adding more books and materials, and setting up new branches and deposit stations. The new bookmobile, a Walk-In International truck, arrived in 1958. Three years later the library opened its Bragtown Branch on Dearborn Drive. Resulting from the cooperation of Bragtown community leaders and the library Board and staff, the branch had been temporarily housed in a store while the steering committee raised money through fish fries and bake sales. [92]

Separate libraries, separate boards, separate bookmobiles, separate branches--the library was just one of many public institutions that revealed that Durham, like every other county in the South, had perfected systemic racial segregation by the late 1950s. Toward the end of the decade black leaders and organizations, with the support of some whites in Durham, began challenging the status quo. As it had been elsewhere in the country since the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, the first target was Durham's schools. Through a variety of strategies, including petitions, law suits, sit-ins, and boycotts, John Wheeler, the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs, and other more militant groups waged the campaign for the integration of schools and other public facilities and fair employment practices during the late fifties and sixties.

Children in front of BragtownChildren in front of the Bragtown Branch Library, June 30, 1964

In 1960, Pauli Murray, a nationally recognized lawyer, black activist, and author, came to Durham to participate in the Book Review Forum at the Stanford L. Warren Library. Murray had attended high school in Durham and been a patron of the library as a young girl; the book under discussion, Proud Shoes, told the story of her grandfather's experiences in the Durham area during Reconstruction. Durham's African American library could be proud that it had played a role in Murray's development. When the Stanford L. Warren Library commemorated fifty years of library service on February 25, 1964, it had cause to celebrate its achievements and contributions as an integral part of Durham's African American community. Although the black library had achieved tremendous success on its own, its future remained uncertain at this point. But there was no doubt that a segregated library system would no longer be acceptable.

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