|Volume 59 Number 2
History of the Johnson City Public Library
Gail C. Campbell
Adult Services Librarian
Johnson City Public Library
The Johnson City Public Library first opened its doors on May 1, 1895 in an upstairs room in the Reeves Building in downtown Johnson City. The library room was established by the ladies of the Monday Club. In 1893, three women from Johnson City visited Chicago’s Columbian Exposition and were so impressed with the various art and culture displays that when they returned to Johnson City, they formed the Monday Club for the express purpose of studying art, history, and literature. They soon realized they needed reference books for their studies and decided that Johnson City, population 4,500, needed a library. From that point on the Monday Clubwomen were dedicated to establishing a library. By 1895, the club had 20 members and Mrs. Ida Potter Harris was President. The library room was not free to the public, but was a subscription library with 45 subscribers paying $1.00 a year to be members. In 1904 the club began paying one of its members to be the librarian, rather than relying strictly on volunteer help. In 1905, after moving the library several times, the club started a Building Fund for the eventual establishment of a permanent location. In 1912, the City of Johnson City began contributing to the support of the library, and the subscription fee ended.
In 1913, after many years of struggling to raise enough money to keep the library open, heated, and stocked with books, the ladies of the club received a generous donation from Samuel Cole Williams, a Johnson City judge who had recently been appointed to the Tennessee Supreme Court. Judge Williams gave a parcel of land on Roan Street for the establishment of a permanent library building and $10,000 toward its construction in memory of his young son, Mayne Williams. The Mayne Williams Library Association was incorporated in April, 1913 and the club ladies began more vigorous fund raising efforts.
By 1920, the ladies had over $29,000 in the Building Fund, and decided to begin work on the library. A local architect, D. R. Beeson, was hired to draw the plans and the building was constructed by the Janes Construction Company. An elaborate cornerstone ceremony was held in February 1922. The cornerstone contained a metal box with a Bible, an American flag, the library’s history and charter, U. S. coins, and newspapers of the day. The stone was anointed with wine to signify pleasure and joy, corn to signify plenty and oil for religious significance.
The Mayne Williams Public Library opened to the public on January 1, 1923 (see fig. 1). Mrs. Florence Wofford was President of the Monday Club. The 8,000 square foot building cost $38,000, held 6,000 books on opening day, and was open 40 hours each week. The building consisted of two floors, with the library and clubroom upstairs and the auditorium in the basement. The auditorium was used by many local organizations including the Wednesday Morning Music Club who purchased a Steinway grand piano for the library’s use. The Steinway has recently been refurbished and is still used in the library’s current building. Other groups using the auditorium were the American Legion, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Red Cross and the Little Theater Guild. The library became a central community gathering place.
Figure 1. Mayne Williams Public Library, 1923-1981
Hard times followed. During the Great Depression, the library was closed for a full year from September 1931 until September 1932 when it reopened from noon to 6 on weekdays. By 1938 the library’s annual budget was around $100 per month with the Monday Club and the City of Johnson City each contributing about $50. By 1948 the library was receiving $5,000 annually from the City.
In 1948 Dr. Carroll Long was elected to the Johnson City School Board. Dr. Long asked the Monday Club to change the library’s rules to allow black students from Langston School to use the building. The Monday Club agreed and the library became one of the first institutions in Johnson City to integrate. Later, during the 1960’s, Dr. Long was Mayor of Johnson City and oversaw the integration of the public school system.
In 1967 the library began receiving support from Washington County. The library also joined the Watauga Regional Library System to gain additional support and services. By 1972 the library was in need of more space and more parking. As a temporary measure the library moved the children’s area from the first floor into the auditorium in the basement. A new Building Fund was established and a fund raising effort was begun with Mr. Louis Gump as chairman. The site of the original Science Hill High School was chosen for the new building with Frank Knisley as the architect.
On May 15, 1981, the new $1.6 million Johnson City Public Library opened its doors with 24,000 square feet (see fig. 2). About 45,000 books were moved from the old building into the new. Mrs. Kathryn Jones was President of the Monday Club when it relinquished its ownership and management of the library, and the library took back its original name. Ultimately, the library became an independent 501 (C) (3) organization under the governance of a seven member Library Board appointed by the City of Johnson City. The City owned the library building which was constructed by Calloway Construction Company.
Figure 2. Johnson City Public Library, 1981-1999
New technology came to JCPL with the computerized catalog and circulation system in 1991, followed by Internet access for the public in 1996. The building was having various structural problems and was very crowded with patrons, staff, equipment, and materials. By 1997 the library had once again begun a fund raising campaign with Nita Summers as chairwoman. A new downtown site was chosen and the McCarty Holsaple McCarty architectural firm was chosen to design the library.
The current Johnson City Public Library, located at 100 West Millard Street, opened to the public on August 10, 1999 (see fig. 3). The two-story 42,000 square foot building was constructed by the Barker Building Company at a cost of $9 million. Ms. Polly Peterson was President of the Library Board. About 95,000 books were moved into the new building. The collection, which includes both print and non-print items, has now grown to over 140,000 items.
Figure 3. Johnson City Public Library, 1999-present
The Johnson City Public Library is a true testament to the volunteer spirit and determination of a small group of women who labored for many years to make it a reality. Today, the library houses a large popular materials collection in formats that include books, magazines, talking books, videos, DVDs and compact discs, and circulates over 400,000 items per year. The library provides a reference center with the latest electronic resources and databases, which are also available for remote access through the library’s webpage. A variety of services and programs are offered, including many programs that serve children from preschool age through high school, and the Foundation Center collection, a resource for information about grants and grant-writing aimed at non-profit organizations. Meeting room facilities are available to the public.
In 1904, when the library was located in an upstairs room of the Hart Building with unpainted pine shelves, a small cast iron stove for heat, and split bottom kitchen chairs as seating, Mrs. Walter H. Harman, President of the Monday Club, stated in her annual President’s report: “Any story … must start at the beginning, so perhaps our humble efforts while sometimes ludicrous and sometimes a little pathetic, may at least serve as a small part of the beginning of a story of real accomplishment in later years, one in which we all feel a sincere and justifiable pride, humbly claiming a small part of the honor because we were a small part of the beginning.”
Bohannon, T. T. (1998). The ladies and their library: The history of the Johnson City, Tennessee public library as revealed through the Monday Club archives. Johnson City, TN: East Tennessee State University.
Fry, J. W. (1966). Mayne Williams, the history of a library; photographs by George W. Fredericks, III. Johnson City, TN: the author.