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

A Slow Start

As a result of the town's prosperity, civic pride, and involved citizenry, Durham had built the first tax-supported free public library in North Carolina.[18]

The city government had agreed to support the library with an annual appropriation of $600. But the novelty wore off quickly and when it came to the work of ordering, circulating, and taking care of the books, keeping the library open for business, and regularly advocating its existence, the community fell short. Durham discovered that it was easier to build than to maintain a library. Interestingly, the opposite would be the case in the future.

For the first decade and a half the library was run by a caretaker and overseen by the Board of Trustees and the Board of Lady Managers. The primary function of the Ladies' Board, it seems, was to raise money. Although they brought it in, they were not in charge of it--that was the province of the all-male Board of Trustees. The women took care of everything else. After attempting to organize a library association in 1898 and finding public support lacking, the Board of Lady Managers took it upon themselves to keep the library afloat. They organized entertainments and lectures, prepared food for receptions, procured curtains for the reading room, and paid weekly visits to the library.[19]

Despite their consistent efforts to provide Durham's citizens with entertainments such as The Temple of Fame and Echoes from Operas , they did not reap sufficient funds in exchange. Selecting and procuring books was among the Board's diverse responsibilities, and they found themselves perennially lacking this vital resource. The Durham Public Library's original books were donated by Carr and other citizens. The majority of these books were of a religious nature: Bibles, tracts, sermons, and commentaries. The classics were represented by Dickens, Dumas, Twain, Thackery, Scott, and Eliot. Works such as Photographs from the 1893 World's Fair and From Hong Kong to the Himalayas added another dimension.

Mrs. F. L. Weddell, the first librarian, quickly realized that this collection did not satisfy the needs of the library's patrons. The Board of Lady Managers had set up a book committee upon the library's opening, but there was little point in selecting books they could not purchase. Within the first few months of the opening, Weddell started coming up with innovative ways to meet this need. For example, the Board of Lady Managers approved her idea of keeping on her desk a list of books from which visitors would choose volumes to purchase, read, and then donate to the library. Weddell even asked the members of the Board to test this strategy themselves.

The problems with the book budget were indicative of greater financial strain. As Board members, the women themselves contributed annual subscriptions of five dollars each to assist in the running of the library. But even this was not enough as evidenced by problems the Boards ran into in 1901. That year, the Board of Trustees decided to hold an anniversary celebration to raise public awareness about the library. Realizing they did not even have enough chairs for the meeting, the Board asked the ladies to furnish them by any means within their power, except by entertainments. (It seems that the community had heard enough library-sponsored entertainments!) So the women decided to purchase the chairs themselves, a true indication that public and civic support was lacking. Although the Board of Lady Managers continued to sponsor fund-raisers, the library was in debt by 1904.[20]

In addition to the financial problem, the library suffered from a general lack of interest and support. Often the Lady Managers themselves did not meet because of summer vacations, severe weather or failure to draw a quorum. After less than a year of monthly meetings, the Board decided to form an Executive Committee that had the power to oversee the general running of the library and call meetings only when necessary.

Main Street Library Interior
Main Street library interior, children's corner, 1920s

Since 1898 the Board had been trying to nurture a community-based library association. Although they held receptions and charged minimal membership fees for this group, it did not succeed in arousing public interest. In 1905, they tried to revive the association by asking several leading citizens, including Mims and Carr, to make addresses at a public meeting, but they managed to raise only $66. By 1906 the need for books was becoming urgent; in a circular the Board informed its readers, Durham's progressive and thoughtful citizenship, that the library required a permanent fund for books. Without it the community would lose the library, which they described as a silent force for education in our midst, a provider of healthy entertainment, and a means of education and culture. [21] But the public did not respond and interest continued to flag. In January 1909 the Board of Lady Managers could not raise a quorum; and in 1910 a field agent for the North Carolina Library Commission described the Durham Public Library as being in a perfectly awful condition. [22]

Original Durham Public Library
Original Durham Public Library, circa 1900.

The problems that had surfaced in the first decade and a half of the library's operation would plague the library over the long term. Future library administrators faced the perennial book budget problem, difficulties securing enough operating funds, the need to arouse wider public interest, and the issue of inadequate facilities. Part of the reason why the Board of Lady Managers had trouble filling the shelves and operating the library was that the men who had originally been so supportive were distracted. During the period between 1900 and 1910, Durham's entrepreneurs and magnates turned their attention to other aspects of city growth, particularly commercial buildings and the development of Main Street.[23]

But this situation should not detract from the substantial accomplishments of the Board of Lady Managers. Despite all their problems, never did they resort to asking for subscriptions from library patrons. Moreover, some of their innovative strategies and ideas would carry on long into the future. They went to great lengths to secure support from prominent individuals and community organizations, a method of fundraising that all future librarians adopted. The Ladies' Board also started a rent shelf, an idea that future librarians in Durham, and throughout the state, would adopt. Moreover, they took library service beyond the library's walls by initiating services such as book deliveries to the hospital. In short, the women's contributions had been crucial, and statistics attest to their success: in 1911 Durham held first place in the state in per capita circulation and second in proportion of citizens registered as borrowers. [24]

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