History of the McDowell County Public Library
The McDowell County Public Library had its beginning before 1920, when the Marion Women’s club started a small book collection. In 1920, Mrs. Florence Irvin Thomas willed her personal library of several hundred volumes to the Women’s club, which named the collection “The Florence Thomas Memorial Library.” The collection was moved to various locations, including the basement of the W. F. Burton home, the Flemming Hotel, an office, a room over a store on Main Street, the office of the McDowell News, and the third floor of the courthouse. Mrs. Burton, Miss Margaret Winslow, and Rosamond Braly, among others, were volunteer library staff. The Library was open a few hours each week.
In 1936, Alyce Blanton (Mrs. S. Walker Blanton,) the former chairman of the High School Libraries Section of the North Carolina Library Association, was asked to take charge of the Women’s Club Library. For the next eighteen years, she devoted herself to establishing the Library as a professionally operated institution with reliable support and a larger collection.
Mrs. Blanton and the Library Committee (Mrs. J. Homer Beaman, Mrs. Zeno Martin, Mrs. Barron Caldwell, and Mrs. J. R. Jimeson) spent several months cataloging, processing and weeding the collection. They secured a front room in the new Marion Community Building; and on January 27, 1937, the Florence Thomas Memorial Library held open house, with those attending being asked to donate a book to the collection. The Federal Works Project Administration (WPA) supplied clerical workers for several years.
In 1937 the Library Committee asked the town Board of Aldermen to budget funds for library operations and books. The Board voted to appropriate fifteen dollars per month for one year (the appropriation was increased in following years).
In 1939, the Library Committee and the WPA borrowed a bookmobile and a collection of books from the North Carolina Library Commission (now the Division of State Library) for a demonstration of service to rural areas. The service operated for three months to enthusiastic response, which persuaded the County Commissioners to appropriate funds to buy a bookmobile.
In 1942, the Library received its state charter and began to operate under the governance of a six-member Board of Trustees. The first Board’s members were: Mrs. Blanton, Mrs. J. Homer Beaman, Mrs. J. F. Jonas, R. J. Noyes, I. L. Caplan, and Miss Ruth Greenlee. In 1947, the name was changed to the McDowell Public Library.
Mrs. Ann Carson Hawkins oversaw the Library and the bookmobile services from 1942 to 1945; and in July 1945, Miss Alice Bryan became the first full-time, professional librarian.
Early statistical reports reveal the slow but steady growth of patronage. Between January 27 and July 1, 1937, an average of ten people daily visited the Library, and an average of six books per day were circulated. One hundred fifty-five patrons (28 of them children) were registered as borrowers. From July 1947 through June 1948, 19,067 books were checked out. The annual report for June 1957 lists circulation of 50,043 books.
Finances were always a problem. There was not enough money for the books, staff, space, and varied services a modern library is expected to provide. By the late 1950’s, it became clear that a reliable base of County support was needed. A proposal to levy a tax of not more than ten cents per $100 assessed property value was put to the vote on March 3, 1959, and defeated. Unable to continue with inadequate support, the Library closed.
Deprived of their library and bookmobile service, the citizens of McDowell County used the two years that must elapse before another election to create support for the tax. A Friends of the Library organization was formed and conducted a well-organized and vigorous campaign. The second election, for not more than five cents per $100 valuation, was successful in 1960. The Library became an agency of the County, its name becoming the McDowell County Public Library.
The City of Marion donated rent-free quarters at 105 West Henderson Street and Eleanor Laughridge (Mrs. Philip Laughridge) guided the Library through its first years, succeeded by Joan Burgin (Mrs. Charles Burgin). In 1964, Alice Newell was appointed Librarian.
When the former Post Office at 100 West Court Street was replaced, the Library Board seized the opportunity to improve the Library’s physical facilities. The Friends of the Library again mounted a successful drive, this time to raise money to match federal Library Services and Construction Act and Appalachian Regional Commission funds. The Federal style building was renovated and an addition was built. In September 1968, the new Library was opened to the public. Honored guest at the Open House were Alice Blanton and Alice Bryan McKelvie.
The Library Board which initiated and oversaw the building program was chaired by Carter Hudgins; their members were: Kathleen Noyes (Mrs. R.J. Noyes, Jr.), Mrs. Hubert Philbeck, Margueritte Gilkey (Mrs. John Gilkey), Oliver Cross, and P. W. Greer.
A new bookmobile was purchased in 1969 it lasted until 1991); and in 1970, an Old Fort Branch Library was opened in another former Post Office building on Spring Street.
Circulation in 1991 was four times the 1957 statistic. Library use increases yearly and added resources and services are constantly needed to keep up with demand.