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LITERARY SANCTUARY: Gwenyfar takes the Friends of the Library Tour, reflects on the public institution

Gwenyfar walks readers through the history of New Hanover County’s library system, including downtown’s Main Library. Photo by Shannon Rae Gentry

Gwenyfar walks readers through the history of New Hanover County’s library system, including downtown’s Main Library. Photo by Shannon Rae Gentry

 

In a way, these are a time capsule.” I pointed to one of the Wilmington posters that William Fridrich recently brought me.  The talented photographer and designer put together a montage of images from the area in 2001. I’ve liked it for many years, but just recently, I started to realize why: It is my era of Wilmington he has photographed. 

No longer is there a Su-Ann Shoes—where I loved buying shoes after I outgrew what Mr. Joey had on offer at Maye’s Shoes. Now it is Beer Barrio. Reeds Jewelers is now The Gourmet Market. The collection of multicolored newspaper racks are gone. Theatre posters on the door of City Stage/Level Five are now a moot point, as that space is not an operating theater. Perhaps my favorite picture on the poster is The National Cemetery on Market Street blanketed in snow. 

About 10 years ago Thalian Hall executive director Tony Rivenbark said to me in conversation, when people say “Wilmington,” you have to ask them which Wilmington they mean. There are a lot of Wilmingtons. 

My concept is firmly in the ’90s and early 2000s, when I “came of age” as novelists would say. I learned to walk the streets, to navigate by bicycle and eventually drive a car. I still rarely drive on streets that were built after 1998. I am pretty much lost beyond 23rd Street;  though, I daily bemoan the constant changes. “Change” has been the watchword of this city.

For me, the main branch of the New Hanover County Public Library always has been located on 3rd Street. The parking lot changed and became a deck. The gas station on the Chestnut Street side became Story Park, and the third floor was added. I have become one of those people who says things like, “There used to be a gas station there.” I’m too young to be that person. But the library feels unchanging, in spite of those obvious changes. Recently, that assumption was seriously challenged by a very thoughtful invitation: Attend a walking tour of former library locations.

The tour was put together by the Friends of the Library and included testimonials of “Library Luminaries”—or people who were instrumental in moving the library forward in our area. 

The Friends of The Library is an advocacy and fundraising organization to support the library’s needs. The all-volunteer group is really quite impressive. Many people are familiar with their book sales, held twice a year, but a lot of their membership is attracted to supporting the library system. To that end, the idea of learning more about the history of our own library locations birthed the tour. 

It really was an amazing opportunity to watch the intellectual development of  our community—the struggles, the triumphs, the setbacks. Building a public library did not come quickly or easily.  In our modern world, The New Hanover County Public Library is a county service, and property taxes are a big piece of paying for library services. Many times a week, I listen to new transplants to Brunswick County express dismay at paying a nominal fee to check out books from the library. Well, you moved to Brunswick County because the property taxes were lower there. The result: You get what you pay for in life.

But back to the tour. We walked backward in time, starting at the current main branch on Chestnut. One of the first luminaries celebrated was Ms. Coco, the first African-American librarian to integrate the staff of the then-segregated library system here. Now, segregation and Jim Crow laws are not deep secrets that are hidden from the public. They are well-documented, well-reported facts, of which many people alive today experienced first hand; but on a regular basis I encounter people who are completely shocked that libraries were segregated—and not just people younger than me, but white Americans who came of age during segregation. It’s a pause when someone says, “I never knew that” (my response is always the phrase “white privilege”).

Wilmington and New Hanover County’s library system, like many throughout the country, was segregated for a long time. Former library director Katherine Howell decided it needed to change and asked Ms. Coco, who was working behind the scenes, if she was willing and ready to face the circulation desk.  It took the bravery and grace of both these women, and the support of Ms. Coco’s colleagues, to get through early trials and hurdles of her joining the staff. In the personal history shared on the tour, Ms. Coco acknowledged slurs that were used.

Just stop and think about that: In the library, someone felt comfortable enough to verbally assault a librarian for trying to help them check out their books.   

Another luminary is the amazing Bertha Todd and her campaign to integrate patronage of the main branch of the New Hanover County Library. If African-American students needed a book for school unavailable at the Williston High School Library, they could receive permission to use the main branch. Ms. Todd would only issue permission forms after a strict lecture about acceptable behavior, and then the young person could go in search of the materials needed for class.

I found myself floored by the bravery these students  displayed. At that time the main branch was housed in the former light infantry building on Market Street—sided in marble and built like a fortress. During the Coup of 1898, this is where the Gatling gun was stored. If you were 80 years old in 1968, that means you would have been alive during  1898 and old enough to remember. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that African-American teenagers in the 1960s would have had family members alive who remembered the massacre. In their shoes, I would have been too terrified to even consider walking up the steps.  But the brave young people did, quietly circumventing the rules and fighting battles that needed to be fought with dignity and strength.   

How often, I wonder: Do we have to send our children in to fight our battles?

At every stop on the tour, it felt like another piece of history fell into place and made real how the library’s story is one of people building and shaping something of value together. It pushes us forward and makes us, as a whole community, better than the sum of our parts.

At St. John’s Lodge, now Slice of Life Pizzeria & Pub on Market Street, the story focused on the efforts to organize a private, subscription-based lending library at the end of the 19th century (1874-1895). Books were expensive, luxury items then; it cost money to join the library, hence the designation of a subscription. Shortly thereafter, the North Carolina Sorosis (a women’s club dedicated to uplifting the community) had a house where the parking lot for Thalian Hall is now.

Never, ever underestimate the power of Southern matriarchs, I thought.

Indeed, the efforts of such a determined group of ladies who fundraised and advocated (read: badgered and insisted) from 1901-1906 made possible the creation of a public library. They had amassed over 1,000 donated books to form the beginning collection. Largely because of their efforts (and collection), the public library as we know it opened in 1906 in what is now the City Council Chambers at Thalian Hall.

What these pieces illustrate, for me, so clearly is how the library really is the public’s trust.  The public’s will built  and shaped it into what it is today. Perhaps that’s why when Project Grace was announced—with plans to tear down the existing main branch and construct another building for it on the same block, to share with Cape Fear Museum and above it be more condos—the public outcry was so impassioned. I don’t think this was driven by some nostalgia for the place where the card catalog files were stored.  If anything, Friends of the Library illustrate how the local citizens built the library, not the county government.

We saw the benefit of a well-educated community, with access to information, and insisted it be available to all citizens of New Hanover County—without fear or intimidation.  If anything it was the presentation of Project Grace without public input that rankled.

Project Grace has become nothing more than a whisper since the concern about the hospital sale. We can only hope either the idea has been abandoned or when it resurfaces the county government decides to allow the public to actually participate in the process.  Because the people are the library. It’s a reflection of us. 

In the meantime, please, go to your local library branch and thank a librarian today. Because of their work, our community has grown and become a happier, safer place.

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