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Almost 100 years ago, in January of 1891, a group of prominent Charlotte citizens gathered at the Law Library on North Church Street. Their intent was to organize a library for the people of Charlotte, a library which would be the forerunner of today's Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.
By the 1890s Charlotte had become a bustling center of 18,000 people with many modern conveniences. Telephones had come in 1884, and electricity was replacing gas for illumination. These and other innovations helped give people more leisure time. Political, social and cultural organizations - like the library - were springing up to help fill it. The men who came together to organize the Charlotte Literary and Library Association saw it as another means of building and improving their community.
The idea for the library is credited to two men: Willis B. Dowd, a lawyer, and John M. Walker, Jr., a reporter for the Charlotte Chronicle. They and General Rufus Barringer, a Civil War veteran and successful lawyer, called an organizational meeting January 16, 1891. Twenty-seven citizens came, including Dilworth developer E.D. Latta, physician Dr. George W. Graham, Col. William Johnston, a railroad financier, and other community leaders.
These men placed a high value on books and education, a trait their Scotch-Irish ancestors had brought with them when they first settled Mecklenburg County in the early 1700s. Soon after the Revolutionary War, a debating society, with members from parts of Sugaw Creek, Steele Creek and Providence townships, had established a collection of books they circulated among themselves. Wills and inventories from the 1800s show that the wealthier townspeople and farmers often had extensive private libraries. In the 1770s, Waightstill Avery, a singer of the Mecklenburg Resolves, had a collection of religious, legal and classical volumes which comprised one of the best libraries in the state at that time.
By the time the Charlotte Literary and Library Association was started in 1891, the idea had begun to take hold that books should be available to the middle class as well as the wealthy. The Association's goal was "to form a Library on whose shelves may be found not only the best periodicals, light literature of the day and works of eminent authors, ...but also those valuable books, which, by reason of their cost, are beyond the reach of so many individuals."
It was to be a subscription library, open to those willing to pay 50 cents per month. In advertising their new library, the organizers promised "attractive quarters . . . that will be centrally located and will be kept open during the evening as well the day so that a pleasant place of resort may always be accessible to the members".
Ferebe Shaw, who assisted librarian Bessie Lacy Dewey in the 1890s, later described the literary atmosphere at the first library in rooms above the Stone and Barringer bookstore at 22 South Tryon Street: It was like one of those famous London literary clubs where visitors would come in for a book and remain to talk with their literary friends for hours... When Richard Tiddy, famous Shakespearean scholar, would drop in at the library, the conversation would quickly turn to the plays of Shakespeare and those present would vie in recognizing quotations and the characters quoted.
Mrs. Dewey presided as hostess of this literary club for nine years until her death in 1900. The library's board of directors then proposed to turn over management of the library to a group of upper class women who had been the library's regular patrons. There had been problems in collecting subscription fees, and the association had debts totaling $475. Eight women canvassed for unpaid dues and signatures of supporters. When after two months this effort had failed to generate enough support, the library's board of directors proposed to turn library books and equipment over to the city schools. The general public, as well as students, would use the collection. School commissioners agreed and made available two rooms in City Hall at the corner of North Tryon and East 5th streets. The name was changed to the Charlotte Public School Library.
This arrangement, although lasting only two and a half years, was significant. For the first time, the library would be supported by public taxes. Any citizen, except the disenfranchised blacks , had the right to its services. Charlotte's library was now a public institution.
Ryckman, Patricia. Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County: A Century of Service. Charlotte, N.C.: Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, 1989.