Spirit of Rowan 2023: Reading into it: A look back at Rowan County’s libraries

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 26, 2023

The Rowan County Library system may have the county covered nowadays, but like most things, it started out rather small.

In its early days, it hardly resembled a library at all but rather a collection of books shared among Salisbury’s elite.

Kerr Craige and J. F. Ross organized the first library association open to the public in 1877. It lasted until 1881. The association’s 23 books and 145 magazines were housed in the office of Dr. J. F. Griffith, a Salisbury dentist.

Shortly after that, a literary society was formed and headed by Rev. Charles Storch. In a letter, he wrote that the society had about 15 members.

“Their collection of books is good and during the years has become larger,” the letter read. “Every month, the members meet to discuss the books they have read.”

The current library system officially began through the efforts of the Traveler’s Club, a study group that needed reference books and reasoned that others in the community might, too.

Under the sponsorship of the Traveler’s Club, a library was opened in the Henderson Law Office at the corner of Fisher and Church streets.

Inspiration to make a permanent library came from an article entitled “How to Start a Public Library,” which appeared in the March-May 1910 North Carolina Library Bulletin.

“Any town, however small, can maintain some sort of a library, provided there are a few people in the town who really want one and are willing to work for one,” it read. “The best way to start a library is to ‘start’ one.”

At an Elks Lodge meeting in 1911, Mrs. James Moore set the wheels in motion. They selected a chairman and secretary that night to establish a library association. The Traveler’s Club contributed $100 to the fund. U.S. Sen. Lee Overman also gave $100.

Early librarian Elizabeth Hedrick volunteered, but her successor Mary O. Linton became the first paid librarian soon after.

City and county financial support began in 1921 when those entities voted to include $300 for the library in their budget.

According to the North Carolina Library Bulletin, the number of volumes in 1920 was 2,215. It had more than doubled by 1934.

Edith Clark was the first professionally trained librarian. The third floor of the Rowan County Library headquarters is named after Clark. She had been a teacher in Salisbury public schools before accepting the public library position.

Clark’s first task was to classify and catalog the roughly 5,000 volume holdings in the library. They had to close the library briefly while that task was completed.

It reopened in 1936 with three separate rooms; a reference and periodical room, a fiction room and a children’s room sponsored by the Salisbury Junior Woman’s Club.

New rules for the library were submitted at the July 1936 Board of Trustees meeting. Membership in the library would be for “white citizens of Salisbury who may qualify to register for voting.”

The Board of Trustees explored extending services to the Negro Civic League, saying the board would be glad to cooperate with them in any efforts to secure a branch for Blacks.

The first branch of the library in Salisbury was opened in 1937 and was designed for the use of Negroes.

In 1937, Rowan County borrowed a bookmobile from the N.C. Library Commission for September. The truck traveled to all sections of Rowan County, stopping at stores, homes, schools and filling stations.

Marjorie Beal, the director of the N.C. Library Commission, visited Salisbury to discuss possible plans for future libraries to service the county and city.

At that time, Rowan County had one book for every six people. Beal pointed to the limits to service because of the crowded conditions at the library. Members of the board recognized the urgent need for larger quarters.

A $100,000 bill for public libraries passed the NC. General Assembly, and each county got $900. At that time, Rowan County ranked seventh in wealth but 18th in its support of libraries.

Unfortunately, the emergence of World War II hindered the purchase of a permanent bookmobile and other developments that might have expanded library services to the county.

That is when Clark went into the various communities of Rowan to get their support.

In 1943, steps were taken to start several branch libraries.

A station library opened at Yadkin under the auspices of the Yadkin Community Club. The mayor of Spencer also met with library officials about a branch there. By October 1943, a branch was open in China Grove at the city hall.

With the war, no additional branches were opened until early 1945.

The Rockwell Civitan Club was the originator of the first county branch to open after the war. The first home of the branch was in the Holshouser Motor Company.

The much-anticipated bookmobile arrived in April 1948. It was a green Chevrolet truck equipped with shelves inside and out. It could hold around 500 books. The truck began its rounds in May.

A new branch in Landis was organized by the Civitan Club in 1949. Like its China Grove counterpart, that library was also in the town hall.

Unfortunately for Rowan County youth, the polio epidemic prevented children from coming to the bookmobile in 1948.

A new 10,000-square-foot library facility was opened in 1951 near the library’s first home. The family of the late Burton Craig donated the property and substantial funding to help build a new library.

In 1954, the research papers of Mrs. J. Frank ‘Mamie’ McCubbins were donated to the library, firmly establishing the library as a significant genealogy research center. During the last 69 years, additional collections have been added, making Rowan Public Library’s history room one of Southeast’s premier genealogical research centers.

Interlibrary loans, where books are borrowed for library users from other libraries throughout the Southeast, began in 1955. Rowan Public Library was one of four pilot libraries in the state for the new service.

In 1969, the Rowan Citizens for Better Libraries was organized. The group spearheaded an effort that resulted in a complete renovation of the library in the early 1970s. The library also acquired adjacent property for future expansion. That expansion would occur in 1989 when the library headquarters grew to its current size of 47,500 square feet.

In the mid-1970s, an adult outreach service was established to extend library services to homebound persons and residents of care facilities.

The following decade would prove integral in the expansion of the library system.

The South Branch, the first full-service branch in the county, was established in 1982 in Landis. Two years later, the library system began providing microcomputers for public use.

The second full-service branch, the East Branch, was opened in Rockwell in 1986.

Automation came to the system in 1990, which improved circulation and catalog functional efficiency. By 1996, Rowan Public Library was offering access to the internet and developed a website. It was among the first five library systems in the state to do so.

In 2004, the library opened a new facility in China Grove called the South Rowan Regional Library.

The latest addition to the library system opened only a couple of years ago when the former Cleveland Elementary School’s media center and the auditorium were repurposed to create the West Branch of the Rowan Public Library. It officially opened on June 1, 2021, bringing the library system to its current count of one headquarters building and three distinct branches.