One hundred years ago, the Black Mountain Public Library started with just 50 books. Now it offers more than 28,000.
This summer, the library recognizes 100 years of service. To celebrate the centenary, local historian Tom Stiles gave a talk titled “The Black Mountain Library: The First 100 Years” to show the various changes and progression from where the library started to where it exists today. About 40 community members attended the July 18 event, including many volunteers and members of the Friends of the Library.
“It started with 50 pounds,” Stiles says. “It has become a multimedia information center that includes books, large print books, audio books, CDs and DVDs.”
Stiles said the Black Mountain Library circulated about 87,000 items in 2021. Over the past 100 years, the library has had 13 librarians, starting with Edith Sloan and now led by Melisa Pressley.
Saro Lynch-Thomason, the events coordinator for the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center, the library’s partner for the celebration, introduced Stiles and said he was on Cherokee land.
“The land acknowledgments are just a small part of a much larger work that is needed to restore treaty rights, return lands and respect Indigenous sovereignty,” Lynch-Thomason said, before presenting Stiles.
Stiles, who is trained as an Air Force pilot, flying in Vietnam, Alaska and Turkey, to name a few places, began his speech at the founding of the Black Mountain Library.
In July 1922, members of the Black Mountain community donated 50 books to open the library in a classroom at the local Presbyterian Church. The church pastor served as administrator with Sloan volunteering as the first librarian. Stiles said the library was open four hours a week.
Changes came in the spring and summer of 1923 as more members of the community began to support the library, increasing the number of volumes to around 1,000, and the location was later changed to City Hall on State Street. However, not all members of the community were welcome to use the library services.
“Racial segregation was enforced across the country,” Stiles said, recounting the story of Inez Daugherty, a black woman who attempted to consult books at the City Hall location but was turned away. .
A library in Asheville for black patrons was opened in 1927, although Stiles said many residents did not own vehicles, so Black Mountain residents such as Daugherty had limited access.
Locals have complained that City Hall’s location is inconvenient, requiring guests to climb to the second floor and inaccessible due to limited downtown parking. In 1956, Congress passed the Library Services Act, aimed at promoting and developing public libraries through federal funding.
Black Mountain Library became part of the Buncombe County system in 1965.
The Friends of the Library, organized by passionate locals in 1963, worked to raise funds to build a new library. Stiles said construction costs were $124,000, including furnishings. With $79,000 covered by federal funding, the Friends of the Library organized to cover the rest.
Through book sales, performances by Warren Wilson students, and a variety of performances by local artists and musicians, more than 400 individuals and businesses have donated to fund the new library. The Friends of the Library paved the way in 1967 and the building was ready for occupancy in 1968.
Volunteers, scout troops and other locals came together to move all the books from the old library to the new building. The books were moved in just four hours.
“It took 100 years to walk about four blocks,” Stiles joked, showing aerial footage of where the library started and where it is now.
Continuing to elevate the library today, the Friends set up a table at Saturday Tailgate Market in 2017.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the library closed in March 2020. Nonetheless, the library continued to provide services to the community. Customers could pick up books curbside, with librarians setting aside returned books in quarantine for 72 hours before being returned to shelves. Pressley also worked at the 911 call center, answering non-emergency calls.
Throughout the pandemic, Friends of the Library still managed to raise more than $56,000 in funding, according to Bebe Woodside, vice president.
After a consultant’s report recommended combining Black Mountain and Swannanoa Libraries in 2021, community members came together to keep the library in town.
“Friends have collected over 900 signatures on a petition opposing the move,” Stiles said. “Signs all over town showed that the overwhelming reaction was not to shore up and keep our library at Black Mountain.”
Although Renee Hudson, president of the Friends of the Library, was unable to attend, Woodside spoke on her behalf at the event. Woodside thanked the town and community for their continued support of Friends as well as the library itself.
Woodside said the letters, signatures and signs asking the county not to close the Black Mountain branch made the library’s survival possible.
“The letters people have written to the commissioners, the petitions that have circulated in the community, and the great turnout here have effectively convinced our decision makers to take another path to improve the library,” Woodside said.
Ezra Maille covers the town of Black Mountain, Montreat and the Swannanoa Valley. Contact him at 828-230-3324 or [email protected] Please support local journalism with access to more breaking news by subscribe.