Swarthmore Public Library: 90 Years at the Heart of the Community (Part 1)
When the Swarthmore Public Library officially opened its doors on May 17, 1929, the concept of a community library was still somewhat uncommon. In Swarthmore, though, the idea to start a library had been brewing for at least a year, thanks to several groups of forward-thinking women. In 1928, one group opened a children’s library. A small lending library followed, set up by — and for — the Women’s Club of Swarthmore.
J. Russell Hayes, the librarian at Swarthmore College, encouraged the movement toward providing free public access to books, and offered advice. By the end of 1928, the Swarthmore Public Library Association was formed. Its executive committee went on to become the first library’s Board of Directors.
No funding was initially available to start a library, but that didn’t deter the driving force of the people who wanted to bring the idea to fruition. According to one account, a public appeal brought in more than a dozen men, with all the necessary carpenter’s tools, to transform two rooms on the second floor of the original Borough Hall — hammers, saws, hatchets and nails. Borough Council allocated the rooms to the new library rent-free. The “Library Building Bee” as the volunteer effort was called, arrived early on January 14, 1929, and worked all day, with several women from the borough furnishing coffee and doughnuts to keep the construction going. By midnight, the library rooms were finished, with enough shelving to hold 2,500 volumes.
Now books were needed to fill the space. A call went out through the borough for book donations to the fledging library, and the community responded with resounding generosity. Hundreds of volumes were donated. To bolster the supply, books from the already-established children’s library and Women’s Club library were added to the collection. The Women’s Club also contributed $200 to the cause.
The Library Board next turned its attention to raising additional funds to meet operating expenses. Roland Eaton, Vice-President of the Library Board, headed the drive. Harold Barnes, the first President of the Board, wrote a piece in The Swarthmorean to encourage residents to join the Swarthmore Public Library Association. He used words by Andrew Carnegie, a great patron of libraries, to bolster his case: “I choose free public libraries as the best agencies for improving the masses of the people. They help those who help themselves… They open to them the chief treasures of the world — those stored in books.” Within a few months of starting the campaign, Eaton had enrolled 1,100 members, at an annual membership fee of $2 each.
One of the initial expenses for the library was a salary for its first librarian, Miss Grace Lindale, who spent her first two months sorting and cataloguing the hundreds of donated books. By May 17, 1929, the library was ready for its official grand opening to the public.
Word — and use — spread quickly. Within two months of opening, the library had 400 borrowers. According to an August 1929 headline in The Swarthmorean, “Detective Fad Grips Swarthmore,” mysteries were the most read, and it remains a very popular genre with our readers.
Circulation continued to increase, and by November 22, 1929, a headline in The Swarthmorean read “Library in Need of Larger Quarters.” It was not even a year old, and the library was already bursting at the seams (which is still true today)! By 1930, the total circulation of adult books reached almost 5,300, with children’s books circulating at more than 2,700. There were 22,800 books on the shelves. The number of “readers cards” (now called library cards) issued rose to 725. The Board continued to solicit necessary financial support from Swarthmore’s citizens. On March 7, 1930, a full-page advertisement appeared in The Swarthmorean announcing a fund drive under the slogan “Don’t be a Slacker! Be a Backer!” and listing the names of all of the citizens who had previously provided financial support to the library. There is no doubt that this would be considered a heavy-handed fundraising tactic today, but it certainly worked!
With its growing popularity, the Borough Council voted to provide fiscal support, endorsing the library as a “community asset” by giving $200 to the library fund in 1930. In thanking Borough Council for the monetary gift, Library Board President Barnes said, “From its inception [the library] has been a community-wide movement. No Swarthmore enterprise has offered more public service at such small cost.”
The following year, Borough Council approved a measure to assign ½ mil in tax revenues to support the library. Even in the midst of the Great Depression, the contribution continued. A piece in The Swarthmorean noted that “[t]he library honestly merits the support of every resident of Swarthmore who takes any pride in the cultural and recreational facilities of our community.”
In 1935, the library was enlarged and remodeled. Material came from a Borough Council grant, and labor through the Works Progress Administration (the largest New Deal agency created to provide employment to men and women during the Great Depression). Work began in May and was completed by the following January, with the formal dedication of the newly refinished library rooms occurring with much fanfare on January 27, 1935. During the 1940s, the collection and circulation continued to grow, and it was smooth sailing for the library for many years, with steady growth in services provided and circulation.
Disaster struck the Swarthmore Public Library on March 15, 1950, when a fire broke out in Borough Hall. Beginning in the chimney, it destroyed the building’s top stories. Miraculously, the fire caused little damage to the library, but a high cost was paid in extinguishing it — the water ruined more than half of the books. Wearing winter coats and gloves as protection against the cold, the librarians sifted through the books to salvage what they could. In a letter that was published in The Swarthmorean one week after the blaze, librarians Bettina Hunter and Elizabeth Shepherd thanked the many members of the community that had come to the library’s aid during its time of crisis and said “…our one hope is that out of the chaos and distruction (sic) of a flaming roof-top may rise a more modern, more workable, first-rate, first-floor Swarthmore Public Library.”
Please join the Swarthmore Public Library as it brings the community together to reflect and celebrate its impact during its 90 years of operation. Events will be held Friday, May 17, and Saturday, May 18, and all are invited to join in on the fun! A sampling of activities includes: BYOB pizza and wine trivia night, Children’s Books and Breakfast with celebrity readers, and a birthday party complete with piñata and cake. Want to learn more? Please visit: https://swarthmorepubliclibrary.org.