Asheville Archives: The Asheville library opens, 1879

MEMBERS ONLY: Asheville's first library opened in 1879 on the third floor of the former courthouse on Public Square (present-day Pack Square). The library was membership-based, with an annual fee of $1.50.
MEMBERS ONLY: Asheville's first library opened in 1879 on the third floor of the former courthouse on Public Square (present-day Pack Square). The library was membership-based, with an annual fee of $1.50. Photo courtesy of North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville

In 1899, professor J.D. Eggleston Jr., the superintendent of the city schools of Asheville, wrote a brief history of the community’s library. The article first ran in the April edition of the North Carolina Journal of Education. That same month, The Asheville Daily Citizen republished the piece in its April 22 issue. Eggleston’s chronology began:

“The Asheville library, now handsomely endowed and open to the white people of the city, had its small beginning as far back as January, 1879, when Asheville was a mountain village of not more than 2500 inhabitants. The idea of founding the library originated with a reading club, or circle, and as is almost always necessary, most of the labor of canvassing and devising ways of raising money for buying books and paying running expenses was borne by a few enthusiastic friends of the cause. Misses Anna Aston, Fannie L. Patton and Anna Chunn, all known in Asheville and throughout North Carolina for their interest and leadership in many noble enterprises, were the leading spirits.”

Advocacy remained strong throughout the library’s inaugural year. On Feb. 20, 1879, the North Carolina Citizen included an appeal to the public, written by J.G. Hardy, president of the Asheville Library Association. In it, Hardy outlined several points, including the institution’s financial plan. It involved an annual membership fee of $1.50. Hardy wrote, “Thus every annual member will have the opportunity to read, during the year, as many books as he may desire, for about the price he would pay for one volume at a retail bookstore.”

In his appeal, Hardy went on to implore residents to donate books, periodicals and money to the institution. He also promoted the free reading room in connection with the library, located on the third floor of the courthouse. In addition to these points, Hardy highlighted the benefits libraries had brought to other parts of the country:

“The association finds ample reason for encouragement in the history of similar undertakings elsewhere. Free town libraries, supported by municipal taxation, have, as a class, existed in this country only during the last twenty-five or thirty years. They are, generally speaking, the outgrowth of such libraries as it is proposed now to inaugurate, and it is a very significant act, shown by an official investigation, that in towns where such free libraries exist, public opinion is almost unanimous — in a large majority of the towns perfectly unanimous — in their favor. No instance appears of a town, once having undertaken the support of such an institution, ceasing to do so.”

Three months later, Asheville’s first library opened on the third floor of the courthouse. The May 8 issue of the North Carolina Citizen reported that “[s]peeches, songs and refreshments” were in order for the May 9 opening night celebration. The article went on to state that roughly 700 volumes lined its shelves. “Pretty good, we say, for the first four months effort,” the paper added.

Throughout the year, the North Carolina Citizen kept readers updated on new additions to the library’s collection. Donors were locally, regionally and, in one case, internationally based. J. Evan Brown contributed to this final category. According to the newspaper’s Oct. 23, 1879, publication, the former Asheville resident had relocated to New Zealand where “[h]e has acquired … a fortune, and has occupied for a long time in that English colony an enviable position in social and political life.”

The article included a recent letter by Brown, sent to the library’s president. In it, Brown wrote:

Dear Sir: — On perusing a late number of the North Carolina Citizen I was gratified to learn that a free Library Association was established at Asheville and under the impression that not a few of the frequenters of the library would be likely to take some interest in the far distant New Zealand, I have taken the liberty of forwarding to yourself, as president of the Association, a series of Geological Reports and catalogues of New Zealand crustacea, land and marine molusca, fishes, echinordermata and birds; also the Handbook of the Colony.”

On Dec. 11, 1879, the North Carolina Citizen reported on the library’s ongoing success. It stated:

“The rapidity with which this institution has become established in our midst is a matter of congratulation to its many friends, and a matter of just pride to those who have had it in charge, and who have engineered it from its infancy to its present substantial footing. With less than a year’s effort, there is now in the Library more than 1000 volumes. … The first year of the Association will end in January. Let a-many of our people as can take a membership during 1880, in order that those having the matter in charge may be enabled to add materially to the value of the Library during 1880.”

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

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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. For his weekly #tuesdayhistory tidbits on Asheville, follow him on Instagram @tcalder.

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2 thoughts on “Asheville Archives: The Asheville library opens, 1879

  1. Ben

    Given the quotation at the top of the article, it would be interesting to know when a library first opened in Asheville to black citizens and other people of color. Has Mountain Xpress done similar reporting about that history?

    • Thomas Calder

      Thanks for the suggestion, Ben. We have not yet covered that specific issue in our weekly column, Asheville Archives.

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