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E-MAIL:|LOCATION:  28 East Main Street, Salem, VA 24153
PHONE:  (540) 375-3089|FAX:  (540) 389-7054|HOURS:  Mon-Thur 10am-8pm, Fri-Sat 10am-5pm

Library History

E-MAIL:|LOCATION:  28 East Main Street, Salem, VA 24153
PHONE:  (540) 375-3089|FAX:  (540) 389-7054|HOURS:  Mon-Thur 10am-8pm, Fri-Sat 10am-5pm



By Norwood C. Middleton

Special Writer


The modest tourist information building where the Salem Public Library began pales in comparison with the newly expanded and renovated library dedicated last week.

Fortuitous developments leading directly to today's library began when the Salem Kiwanis Club proposed that the town buy the land on which it stands for a park. This the Town Council did in 1935.

A handsome frame house once stood on the lot, almost on the sidewalk. It had been the residence of William T. Younger, a pharmacist and the mayor of Salem with the longest tenure on record, 20 years. In his honor, the Town named it Younger Park.

A landscaping plan for the park included a one-story brick building euphemistically called a tourist station. When completed in 1936 with the use of money from the town and the depression-spawned Works Progress Administration, there were public toilets at each end of a 30-by-13 foot building - and a space in between designated on the plans as a tourist information room.

Enter the Salem Woman's Club, whose members cast covetous eyes on the building no one seemed to know what to do with. They persuaded the Town Council to adapt it for a library. Within a few months, the women, if they didn't originate it, were spreading a catchy phrase (slightly risqué for the times): " From back house to book house".

Before the close of 1936, at the urging of Councilman Charles R. Brown, a Roanoke College professor and later mayor, the Council named a library board, chaired by Mrs. Chester S. Phinney. On the board with her were Mrs. Howard U. Butts of Salem, the only surviving member; Mrs. Alex D. Carson, who was president of the Woman's club; Mrs. George V. Downing; and Mrs. James B. Taney.

What followed is a glowing tribute to the tenacity and perseverance of one person - Geneva Reed Phinney. Her sounding board was the Salem Woman's Club, which had fostered the earlier Roanoke College connection.

In 1928, Mrs. Phinney had made a talk to the club on "What a Public Library Means to a Community." Her enthusiasm was contagious and was based on hands-on experience in libraries before moving to Salem from Indiana in 1926, as well as affiliations with libraries at Hollins College and at Roanoke College, where her husband was head of the modern languages department.

Seldom was a public library out of her consciousness. She reviewed books for club meetings, wrote reviews for the Salem Times-Register, and talked libraries to any group that would listen.

At its January 1937 meeting, the Council appropriated $150 to get the library started. With it, the town manager, Carleton C. Massey, was told to install shelves, obtain furniture and fixtures, put the furnace into operation, have the building heated, and to furnish light and water when needed. The mayor at the time was Wilbur R. Cross.

The big day was Monday, February 15, 1937. The library opened its one door with only a few volumes on its shelves. Included were 100 volumes of something called a state teaching library and a few, purchased or contributed.

The Sunday newspaper story announcing that the library would open the next day urged townspeople to contribute readable books or money with which to buy new books. Then it added:

"Because of the small amount of shelf space available, the library board reserves the right to withhold from circulation any books which may not be easy to circulate - and asks donors of any considerable number of books to submit a list of titles rather than the books themselves, if there is any doubt as to their usefulness."

The librarians were trained by Mrs. Phinney on her typewriter at home, and she brought the few books for which money was donated.

Two months after the opening, the Council bought awnings for the building.

In December 1937, $50 was turned over to Mrs. Phinney for operations. She was back in early 1938 when another $50 was appropriated, money that probably helped in opening that same year a branch library for blacks in the Bessie C. Hall building on Water Street (now South Broad).  

The congestion in the building was only slightly relieved in 1939 when NYA funds and town materials were used for a one-room addition at the rear.

 It was only in 1940 that the library was recognized for the first time in the town's printed annual report. That year, the town spend $325 for maintenance at the Main Street library and $121 at the branch library - not a cent for salaries or books. On the shelves were 2.545 books at Main and 472 at the branch. There were 2,700 registered borrowers. Total circulation was 22,500. By 1947, there were 6,269 volumes at Main and 1,075 at the branch - about double the number Main had 10 years earlier at the opening.

 It was not until 1957, 20 years after the start, that the town appropriated tax money to buy books - $500 that year for Main and $150 for the branch. By that time, the branch had been named the Lula V. Penick Branch, in honor of a respected civic leader and social welfare worker. This was when the branch moved in 1954 into the new Theron N. Williams Community Center at Broad and Burwell streets, now headquarters of the city's parks and recreation department.

Mrs. Phinney strongly and successfully resisted importunities to give her name to the main library. She was steeped in the belief that libraries should be truly "public" in image and nature.

WPA money to pay the part-time library workers was cut off in February 1943 and the Town took over salary payments at a cost the first year of $900 at the main library and $300 at the branch.

Mrs. Phinney, who had been functioning as volunteer chairman of the library board, was in 1947 named supervising librarian. She was persuaded to accept an annual stipend of $150. After 23 years service, she retired June 30, 1960, and died in July 1965. Retiring at the same time was her assistant for 19 years, Miss Isabel Baumgardner.

Mrs. Phinney's successor as librarian in 1960 was Mildred K. Conrad, followed by Virginia S. Dawson, beginning in 1966; Charlotte F. Martin, in 1969; and Janis C. Augustine in 1979.

In 1966, Mrs. Dawson presided over the addition of a phenomenal 15,000 volumes, through State aid, purchases and gifts.

Mrs. Martin was at the helm as librarian, when the core of the present building was opened on another red-letter day, January 2, 1970. The Penick branch was consolidated with the new library.

The title of library director was awarded Mrs. Augustine when she was promoted from within the staff in 1979. She guided the planning that led to the $969,835 project that more than doubled the size of the building.

There have been other abortive efforts at two other libraries in Salem. The earliest we know of was spearheaded by a prominent Salem physician, Dr. John Hook Griffin, who was a leader in a circulating library project in the mid-1850s.

The other was actually called a public library, the work of Miss Fannie R. Hannah, who had operated a private school in Salem before the advent of public schools. She kept the library going two years before closing it down in December 1910, because of a shortage of fee-paying subscribers. Its 160 volumes were donated to the library for patients at the one-year-old Catawba Sanatorium.

The next semblance of a library service grew out of a Salem Woman's Club project in 1921. It was made possible by the interest and support of Roanoke College. The club women signed up enough subscribers to set up a woman's club section in the college library.

The college librarian, Janet Ferguson, volunteered to catalog and shelves the books. Bolstered by 400 volumes of fiction from the college and a few books bought by subscriber fees, circulation began in late April 1921. After several struggling years, this project fell into disuse.

Residents of Salem also had access to a county library in a room of the Conehurst clubhouse of the Roanoke County Junior Woman's Club, beginning in 1932.

The writer is author of Salem: A Virginia Chronicle, published by the Salem Historical Society.

 Salem Times-Register Thursday, May 2, 1991