Asheville Archives: Pack Memorial Public Library opens, 1919

COURTESY OF GEORGE: In 1918, the Pack Memorial Library Association donated its building and collection to the city of Asheville. On Jan. 2, 1919, Pack Memorial Public Library opened on Pack Square. Photo courtesy of North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville

On Dec. 8, 1918, The Sunday Citizen reported on the Pack Memorial Library Association’s plans to donate its dues-based library collection to the city. Dubbed a “Christmas gift” by the paper, the donation included the library’s three-story building on Pack Square (where the Asheville Art Museum stands today), its 15,000 books and an additional empty lot on Church Street. The estimated value of the acquisition totaled $75,000 (roughly $1.2 million in today’s dollars).

For the transfer to go through, conditions needed to be met. Among them, the city was required to operate the space as a public library, doing away with the association’s previous $2 annual fee. Also, it had to continue to operate as a memorial to the late George Willis Pack, who deeded the property to the association in 1899.

An editorial in the same day’s paper praised the impending transfer. Quoting from author and theologian William Ellery Channing, the article read:

“Books are true levelers. … The diffusion of these silent teachers through the whole community is to work greater effects than artillery, machinery and legislation; their peaceful agency is to supersede stormy revolutions. This culture which is to spread, whilst an unspeakable good to the individual, is also to become the stability of nations. Thrice blessed are the people who have unlimited access to good books.”

It’s important to note that in 1918, “the whole community” was not all-inclusive. Such exclusivity was made explicit in Pack Memorial’s earliest rules and regulations, which stated: “The library is free to all white residents of Asheville more than twelve years old.” The city’s Colored Library would not open until 1927 (see “Asheville Archives: Irene Hendrick and the Colored Library,” Sept. 4, 2018, Xpress).

Additional rules were highlighted in the Dec. 29, 1918, edition of The Sunday Citizen. According to the article, application cards would be available to all residents whose names appeared in the city or telephone directory. Meanwhile, individuals whose names did not appear in either directory would need to secure a signature from a verifiable resident in order to check out books; otherwise, unlisted members were required to make a $2 deposit. A similar deposit was required of “transients who have resided in Asheville less than six months.”

Before Pack Memorial’s opening, the newspaper did what it could to assist residents unfamiliar with the public library system. For example, on Dec. 31, 1918, The Asheville Citizen informed readers that laws did exist and would be invoked “in the possible case of a few crooks.” But in general, the paper continued, “people who come to the library are to be trusted in the same way that people who attend church are trusted to do the right thing.”

In the following day’s paper, further clarification and instruction was offered:

“To those who have not been using the library it is suggested that they visit it and consider how it can serve them. They will doubtless find it has many possibilities of helpfulness which have not occurred to them. It is urged that people do no hesitate to ask the librarians for any information or advice. Advice will be cheerfully given those who have not familiarized themselves with libraries.”

On Jan. 2, 1919, Pack Memorial Public Library opened. “So far West Asheville residents appear to be availing themselves of the new library privileges in greater numbers, proportionately, than people of the city proper,” the Jan. 4, 1919, edition of The Asheville Citizen reported. Within two weeks membership totaled 1,225.

Over time, community interest continued to grow. On March 30, 1920, The Asheville Citizen announced that Pack Memorial led the state in book circulation with 69,979. Charlotte placed second with a circulation of 57,400. Other cities noted in the state’s official report included Durham, Winston-Salem, Greensboro and Raleigh.

Proud but not satisfied, the paper boasted, “The figures would be even more interesting if they reflected the past two months. At present the circulation of the local library is at the rate of 100,000 a year.”

Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original documents. 

About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist.

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One thought on “Asheville Archives: Pack Memorial Public Library opens, 1919

  1. Jerri Cordell

    The library building was beautiful! I’m sad that more efforts haven’t been made to preserve some of our historical buildings. The architecture and details from the past are nothing like the boring buildings that are thrown up today.

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