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

A Horse-and-Buggy Library in a Jet Age

Clara Crawford retired in October 1959 after 38 years of service to the Durham Public Library.

Upon Crawford's retirement, the Board remarked that under Miss Crawford's able and inspiring direction, the library has increased tenfold in book holdings and tremendously in usefulness and service to the community and through her progressive leadership has extended service to every section of Durham, both city and county.[94] Audrey Johnson Cushman took Crawford's place. A North Carolinian who had attended Duke University and done graduate work at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of North Carolina, Cushman had served as adult services librarian and Crawford's assistant since 1957.

In the early sixties a library that had been filled to the brim with 30,000 books owned 90,000 books. Thirty years of overcrowding and inattention to the building had made white Durham's public library situation critical. The library was just one indicator that the city had not rebounded from ;the doldrums of the 1950s, a decade characterized by economic stagnation, racial unrest, neglect on the part of the local government, and white flight to the suburbs.[95] Like most other American cities, Durham's response during the subsequent decade was urban renewal, planned and undertaken by the Durham Redevelopment Commission. The Commission targeted the most run down areas of the city and applied the bulldozers. The community renewed utility services, changed traffic patterns, and built new fire and police departments, as well as a new judicial building.

One major result of the redevelopment program was the construction of an expressway to connect Durham to the new Research Triangle Park and Raleigh. In the process of building this urban artery, the Redevelopment Commission demolished the area of Hayti nearest downtown. As the promises made by Durham's leaders to rebuild Hayti evaporated, resentment on the part of the African American community built up. Some blacks argued that urban renewal had served only to destroy black neighborhoods and in the process their community's power and unity. Twenty-five years later the land that had bustled with life was still a wasteland overgrown with weeds.[96]

With both libraries in the midst of this general upheaval, the time had come to bring in an expert to advise them on their own problems and challenges. The person chosen to conduct the external review of Durham's library system in 1963 was Emerson Greenaway, executive director of the public library system in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Greenaway's outside perspective and thorough report recommended sweeping changes to the way Durham administered its libraries. Nothing is adequate, he concluded, about the present arrangement in spite of every effort on the part of the staff and the Board to make do with what they have. First, he recommended the creation of a single library system by building an entirely new facility and turning the Stanford L. Warren Library into a branch. The existence of two main libraries had resulted in duplication in terms of book selection, acquisition, cataloging, and processing. Second, to bring Durham up to public library standards, the city and county needed to increase its annual appropriation by $25,000.[97] In addition to augmenting the book budget, increased appropriations would enable the expansion of the staff-the libraries currently employed five professional librarians, and Greenaway recommended no less than seventeen. Finally, in order to effect these changes, he suggested the establishment of two organizations, the Friends of the Durham Library and the Durham Library Council. The former would be an informal group whose primary responsibility would be to increase public awareness about the library; the latter would be a professional group comprised of librarians from all libraries in the area.[98]

The Greenaway Report marked a critical philosophical shift in the way Durham approached public library service. Most of Greenaway's ideas, including the integration of the two systems, increase in appropriations, hiring of additional staff, and setting up of library advocacy groups were implemented within the first few years after the study. However politics and practicalities would prevent the most important recommendation--building a new facility--from becoming a reality for nearly twenty years. The year after the study a concerned citizen called the mayor's attention to a condition that is bad, is getting worse, and must be corrected immediately if the library is to be of any use to the people who could profit from it the most, the high school students. The simple fact is this: The Durham Public Library is choking to death.[99]

Greenaway had felt that hiring a new director was critical to implementing the necessary changes and steering a new course. Having held the library together at the seams for five years, Cushman resigned in 1964 to become librarian for the Durham Industrial Education Center. After Allen Earhart held the position briefly as an interim director, the city and county hired George R. Linder in July 1965. Linder had graduated from Superior State Teachers' College in Wisconsin and received his MLS from Emory University. Since 1956, he had been serving as director of the public library in Spartanburg, South Carolina. A tenacious, strong-minded person who seemed to thrive on controversy, Linder relentlessly pursued his course and advocacy of the library from the day he arrived. [100]

Linder was hired specifically to guide the merger of the two libraries and serve as director of a combined system housed in a new facility.[101] For two years prior to Linder's arrival extensive discussions about the proposed merger had occurred between the staffs of both libraries and local officials. Both the City Council and the County Board of Commissioners expressed initial approval for the plan in mid-1964. On February 21, 1965, the Board of the Stanford L. Warren Library adopted a resolution in support of merging the two systems. They had agreed to amalgamation on several conditions. First, the Durham City-County Library would purchase the property occupied by both the Stanford L. Warren Library and the Bragtown Branch and as long as a library occupied the building on Fayetteville and Umstead it would maintain its current name. The second condition was the holding of a bond election to raise money for the construction of a new main library. Third, the boards of the two systems would be dissolved and in their places a new Board composed of six members from each of the former boards would be elected; future members would hold staggered terms. Finally, the city and the county would share the costs of running the new library system by providing two thirds and one third of the budget respectively.[102]

Merging the black and white library systems of Durham required an amendment of legislation passed by the General Assembly in 1897; Durham County's legislative representatives saw this through in 1965. On April 15, 1966, after the city and county purchased the land of the Stanford L. Warren Library, and the Durham Colored Library, Inc., donated the building, Durham's black and white libraries were merged after over half a century of separation. The merger resulted in an administrative reorganization, with Ray Moore becoming assistant director of the Durham City-County Library system and the moving of two departments--Technical Services and Extension Services--to the Stanford L. Warren Branch. Margaret Whisenton, who had worked at the black library since 1951, was named head of extension services for the whole system.

The creation of a unified system and the hiring of a new director ushered in a twelve-year period of defeated bond elections, neglect of the library by local officials, even more crowded, deteriorating conditions, and extreme frustration for the library's advocates. At the time of the merger, the Board of Directors was under the leadership of Dr. Benjamin Powell. Powell had taken a position at Duke University Library in 1927 and was named University Librarian in 1946. Having served as president of the American Library Association in 1959, Powell was highly regarded in library circles nationwide.

Interior of Library
Interior of Durham Public Library, 1963

As chairman of the Board of Directors, Powell was responsible for recruiting Linder and overseeing the merger. Powell's twenty years of service on the board was another example of individuals affiliated with Duke devoting their time and energy to the public library, while the university, as an institution, offered little in the way of support.

The first proposal to reach the ballot box was for a combined library and public parking facility to be located in the two-block area between Chapel Hill, Mangum, and Orange Streets in downtown Durham.[103] The proposal, which received the support of Linder and the Board, called for the facility to be built on land purchased from the City Redevelopment Commission. The public would vote on a $2.5 million bond issue to pay for the part of the facility that would house the library. One of several bond issues the Durham electorate was asked to consider in 1968, the library joined the list of public capital improvements involving schools, the airport, and the hospital and totaling $32 million dollars.

At this point, two new organizations--the Friends of the Durham Library and the Durham County Library Association--came into existence to lobby for the new facility. With the Junior League taking the lead, the Friends was organized in early 1968 by persons interested in stimulating growth and improvement of the public library. Under the leadership of John Morehead, a local advertising executive, the group launched a multifaceted campaign: They sent representatives to speak at civic clubs, schools, and Parent Teacher Association meetings; they mailed circulars to library patrons; they even wrote letters to children asking them to tell their parents to vote in favor of the library bond issue.[104] The Durham County Library Association formed in February to provide professional librarians in the area with a forum to promote closer cooperation among librarians for the benefit of the community and to further the cause of librarianship.[105]

The bond had the support of the newspapers, which ran stories revealing that the need for new facilities went back to 1937 when they had first reported the library required larger quarters. An editorial in the Durham Sun boldly claimed: Durham, if it is to retain any sort of prestige as a modern, progressive community, no longer can afford to allow these deplorable conditions to exist. The present public library facilities are a stain on Durham's reputation, are a corrosive blemish that needs to be eliminated without further delay.[106] The majority of voters apparently did not share the newspaper's opinion, and the bond issue failed by a comfortable margin.[107] It was the third bond issue in a row rejected by Durham County voters, whose decision was attributed to apathy and a widespread unwillingness to accept increased property taxes.[108]

Despite this attitude, it was not long before a new proposal concerning the library came before the voters. In November 1972 the electorate rejected a plan to convert a vacated Sears store into a library. The idea had originated with the County Commissioners, who purchased the site located on Main Street in the southeastern part of the city with the library situation in mind. Neither Linder nor the Board of Trustees endorsed the proposal; they wanted a structure built specifically for the library. Moreover, they felt the building was not conveniently located and commissioners had significantly underestimated the cost of renovations.[109] One Board member even quit over the issue. The first sign of public support surfaced only one week before the vote, when 250 people attended a barbecue sponsored by the Citizens Committee for Improved Library Facilities. Their short-lived campaign failed to swing the majority's votes.

By this point the library faced an uncertain future. As part of a general trend away from joint county-city programs and after two years of negotiations, the city council terminated its support of the library in 1973.[110] With the library becoming an agency of Durham County, the Board of Trustees was reduced in size and given advisory powers only. The reconstituted Board was ineffectual. The newspaper reported that it had been in a state of limbo for many months, often failing to get a quorum to conduct the library's routine of monthly business.[111] Both the failure of the first bond issue and the restructuring of the library's relationship with the local government had discouraged Linder. He had come to Durham expecting to run a brand new library that still had not materialized; on top of that, he had thrived on operating independently and now was reporting directly to the County Manager.

Wheeler, Bailey, Powell, Linder
Left to Right: John Wheeler, J. Russell Bailey, Benjamin Powell, George R. Linder

Moreover, the physical condition of the library continued to weigh on Linder. In addition to the traditional litany of necessary repairs, including painting and plasterwork, the floor in the main library rolled from the weight of books. And the majority of the books were not even housed in the main library at the time--since the sixties the number of books in storage exceeded accessible volumes.[112] The exterior masonry was becoming precarious, and the library was completely inaccessible to handicapped persons. Both the library's annex and the Stanford L. Warren Branch suffered from leaks and, consequently, many books showed signs of water damage. Although the branch had undergone some renovations in 1968 when a new entrance was built, it was definitely showing its age and needed work.

In addition to dealing with the buildings, Linder also faced personnel issues including a movement for the unionization of library workers. In May 1973, 32 workers joined the Durham City Worker's Union in part because of the inadequacy of salaries compared with other city workers. The salary issue was a long-term problem for the library. As far back as 1920s, the library had lost employees because it could not offer competitive salaries. Linder, who was an excellent professional mentor, had pressed this issue since his arrival. In 1968 he complained to city and county officials that twelve library employees were receiving less than minimum wage. As a result of Linder's efforts and the library's coming under the sole jurisdiction of the county, salaries eventually improved and by 1974 library employees were on a salary scale comparable to that of other county employees.[113]

The transition to integration had also posed some challenges. When the library needed to hire a replacement for Moore, the assistant director who died in 1975, a controversy erupted when board member Josephine Clement questioned the library's commitment to affirmative action. Linder stated that color made no difference to him as long as the person was qualified, but he opted to hire in-house. At the time only one of the ten professional librarians working for the Durham County Library system was African American, but gradually the situation did become more equitable.[114] Clement would continue to serve as a conscientious board member until 1981 and later as the liaison from the Durham County Board of Commissioners to the library.

Linder named Dale Gaddis assistant director in August 1975. She had received her undergraduate education from Duke University and then, like Griggs, Crawford, and Linder, attended Emory University for her library science degree. Brought on in 1967 during the wave of new hirings resulting from the Greenaway study, Gaddis held a variety of positions in her early years with the library: head of adult services, night reference librarian, initiator and manager of a federally funded project to serve elderly and homebound patrons, and head of reference services.

As they had done for many years, Durham's public librarians continued to make do with terrible working conditions and totally inadequate facilities. In fact it was during this period that they built the nucleus of services still being offered by the library today. Attempting to superimpose modern library services on a creaking facility, Linder built up the library's audio-visual offerings, and Betty Clark, head of adult services, started the business reference collection.[115] An increase in federal funding for libraries in the early seventies enabled the Durham library to emphasize its special outreach programs. Taking books to senior citizens and other homebound patrons was one example.[116] With these funds, the library also initiated Project LIFT (Learning Information for Today), which provided patrons with information on continuing education and employment opportunities.

Also the result of external funding, the main new project at the Stanford L. Warren Branch in this period was the Early Childhood Learning Resource Center, which opened in 1973 and aimed to assist parents in educating their children. Linder, Lillian White (who took over as head of extension services after Whisenton), and Sandra Roberson (children's librarian at Stanford L. Warren) cooperated with Annette Phinazee, director of the School of Library Science at North Carolina Central University, in this venture. The university's Early Childhood Training Department had secured funding from the Xerox Corporation and Carnegie Foundation, and some of this money was used to establish a Play 'n Learn project at the branch.[117] Always eager to extend the library's outreach to children, Linder acquired federal funds to offer the Play 'n Learn program to the system's newest branch at the Salvation Army Boys Club (set up in 1969).[118]

During the 1960s the Negro Braille Magazine had experienced financial difficulties. After eighteen years of service Lyda Merrick retired in 1968. In April 1969, through John Wheeler's strong leadership and fundraising skills, the magazine's patrons organized the Negro Braille Magazine Project with an Editorial and Management Board in charge. Under new management and with a reliable financial sponsor in the form of the Durham Colored Library, Inc., the magazine stayed in business while remaining true to its founders' original vision.[119]

Another development of the period was the establishment of the first full-service branch library to open since the merger. The Board first considered the idea of providing a branch for the growing communities near Research Triangle Park in 1972. Linder viewed the establishment of a branch in that part of Durham as an excellent opportunity to keep faith with the people of the county. [120] By 1974 residents in Parkwood were enthusiastically vocalizing their need for more convenient library services. In July 1975, the branch opened in space previously occupied by a laundry in the Parkwood Shopping Center, soon became an integral part of the community, and maintained high usage levels from the beginning. Its location reflected the trend of placing libraries in suburban strip malls as cities increasingly spread away from their original centers. Having set a precedent with the Parkwood Branch, which at the time was the only branch located outside the city limits, library officials would find the issue of branches emphasized in the discussions about the third bond issue.

Buckets at main library
Buckets catching water dripping from the ceiling at the Main Street Library, circa 1976

By 1976, when the campaign for the third bond issue was launched, library advocates could at least benefit from the experience of previous failures. The crucial issues, they determined, were community support, the proposed location, size of the bond issue, and timing of the election. Six months before the election, library supporters from twenty five community groups met and under the leadership of the Junior League formed a coalition in support of the bond.[121] The much-debated issue of where to put the new library was finally settled when Capital Cities Communications, the company that operated the WTVD television station, purchased 7.5 acres on the edge of the city's business and government center from the Redevelopment Commission and then donated 4.3 acres to the county to build the library.[122]

Another aspect of the location issue was the relationship of the main library to its branches. At the same time that the coalition was campaigning for a new main library, a group of citizens brought the issue of branches to the public's attention. Led by Forrest Calhoon, a private citizen who was active in the Friends of the Durham Library, they firmly advocated the development of additional branch libraries, particularly one in northern Durham, to proceed concurrently with the construction of a main library. Calhoon proposed the interim measure of leasing spaces in shopping centers and sought a portion of the overall bond issue to be devoted for the improvement of branch facilities. Although neither of these measures was adopted, library officials agreed in principle to the expansion and improvement of branches.

Linder and others at ParkwoodGeorge Linder (3rd from left) and others at the Parkwood Branch Library, 1975

Library and county officials had learned from the first bond issue that the amount requested and the timing of the election were also critical issues. The commissioners decided to place a $3 million bond issue before the electorate instead of the higher amount recommended by the library planning committee. This meant that Durham would build a 65,000, rather than an 80,000, square foot facility. Furthermore, the commissioners set the date of the election for early fall when no other issues would be competing for voters' attention. Members of the coalition worked tirelessly to gather support by speaking to civic clubs, running a far-reaching advertising campaign, and papering the city with 25,000 brochures. Although Linder had warned that Durham's various communities of interest--white, black, university, labor, urban, and rural--might refuse to compromise and work together, the bond received endorsements from both the Labor Board and the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People.[123] On September 14, 1976, voters overwhelmingly approved the construction of Durham's first new library since 1921.

Library employee at Main
A library employee struggles with stacks of newspapers at the Main Street library, 1970s

Having finally succeeded in securing public funding for a new library, the administration's next hurdle was to conduct a state-required study of the existing library system and the community's needs. Over the course of two years, staff evaluated every aspect of Durham County, from its topography and demographics to its culture and economy and published a report in 1979. The recommendations included opening a new main library, keeping the library open on Sundays, and providing children's services at night during the week. As far as branches were concerned, it advised opening one to serve northern Durham County (which did transpire later that year), evaluating the role of and renovating the Stanford L. Warren Branch, and studying the need for a branch in the southwestern part of the county. Among its most significant proposals was the computerization of library operations. The planners sought to improve reference services and to focus on local history, information and referral, education, and business.

Finally, they recommended bringing the library's collection up to state standards, increasing programs with community agencies, and improving public relations. These new directives and objectives would guide the library in the next phase of its history.

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