Early 19th Century: There were many private libraries in Norfolk
during this period, notably those of Gen. Robert Taylor, Hon.
Littleton W. Tazewell, Hon. William Wirt, Hon. William B. Lamb, and
others. As early as 1805, advertisements appeared in the Norfolk
Gazette and Public Ledger announcing meetings for persons wishing
to contribute to the development of a public library.
March 22, 1827: Saw the opening of the Lyceum, a one story brick
building on the northwest corner of Wolf and Chapel Streets. Named
for the place where Aristotle taught philosophy in Athens, the
building housed a circulating library, and was also used for
public lectures and literary association meetings. The Lyceum was
opened through the efforts of William Maxwell, lawyer, who later
left Norfolk for Richmond to become editor of the Virginia
Historical Register and manager of the Virginia Historical Society.
The Lyceum lasted for over a decade.
1839: The Lyceum building was sold to the Odd Fellows Society for
$2,000; was destroyed by fire 2-18-1859.
1847-1850: A library was established around this time by the
Washington Institute. It was broken up during the Yellow Fever
Epidemic of 1855.
1870: Norfolk's population was 19,229. The Norfolk Library
Association was organized at City Hall on 18 August that year, with
Samuel Selden as the first president.
October 1872: The Norfolk Library Association (NLA) was chartered
by the Circuit Court. Officers were Samuel Selden*, president; F.
Welborne, vice-president; T.R. Ballard, corresponding secretary;
George Chamberlain, treasurer; T.B West, librarian. The membership
fee was $5 per year for all except stockholders. Members might
check out 1 book at a time for no more than 10 days. The fine for
taking a book without checking it out was $1.
Norfolk's first library opened in a large rent-free room in the Norfolk Academy
building. Built in 1840, the Norfolk Academy (Bank Street) was a
copy of the Grecian-Doric temple of Theseus at Athens and was
designed by Thomas U. Walter of Philadelphia. C. Hall, a prominent
book merchant of this city, directed the building. The Norfolk
Chamber of Commerce is now housed here.
*Samuel Selden resigned 10-1-1870 and William Selden was
elected president on 11-9-1870.
1883: The library moved into the YMCA building on Main Street.
1893: Moved to the Newtown House on the corner of Granby and
College Place. The house was built in 1793 and used by the Branch
Bank of the U.S. and the Farmers Bank of Virginia. It was sold to
George Newtown in 1828.
1894: The move from the Norfolk Academy building had been opposed
as disadvantageous by many, and proved to be financially unwise.
Even after all subscriptions had been paid, funds were still
insufficient to increase the book stock. Without new books, there
would be no new subscribers, hence no future income for NLA. As
the library was about to be sold for debt, the stockholders
consented to transfer the books to a few individuals, who would
agree to pay the debts of the NLA and organize a public library.
2-12-1894: The Norfolk Public Library was incorporated by the
General Assembly. Its affairs were vested in a self-continuing
Board of 15 directors, from and by whom officers were elected: Col
William Lamb,president; John L. Roper, vice president; William
Henry Sargeant, librarian. Mr. Sargeant came to Norfolk from
Baltimore, where he had served as librarian of the Mercantile
Membership dues to the library were payable to the treasurer in
$3 per year -- for the use of the Reading Room and 1 book at a
$50 -- for a 3rd rate lifetime membership, with the same
privileges as above.
$75 -- for a 2nd rate lifetime membership, giving the use of the
reading room and two books at a time.
$100 -- for a 1st rate lifetime membership, with the use of the
Reading Room and three books at a time
$500 -- for a perpetual and transferable membership, with reading
room privileges, 3 books at a time, and admission to all
lectures and entertainments sponsored by the Norfolk
1895 The first appropriation was made to the library by the City
of Norfolk -- $750 for the last 6 months of the year.
1896 The first steps were taken towards the creation of a free
public library. To the 3 types of paying memberships (life, annual
and monthly) were added free memberships for scholars, teachers,
ministers, and editors
1897 Mr. Sargeant began to advertise in Norfolk newspapers for
donations to supplement the library's collection of Virginiana.
If I am over zealous in bringing the public library
continually before the people, it is certainly a
zealousness in good cause -- that of the people
themselves. A little while ago I wanted complete files
of newspapers, just because the library is the very place
for them -- the place where they will do the most good.
Now I am asking for copies of old city directories. A
complete set ought to be somewhere easy of access, and
where better than in the library?
And so began the collection of the Sargeant Memorial Room.
1900 Library attendance was 53,000 this year, with 26,000 books
given out. Miss S.E. Taylor died, leaving $2,000 to the library.
1901 John B. Jenkins and Barton Myers applied to Andrew Carnegie
for a grant to build the new library. They received the promise of
$50,000 on the condition that the city appropriate $5,000 for
maintenance. The children of William Selden gave land on Freemason
Street as a site for the new library, and as a memorial to their
At his death, H.D Van Wyck bequeathed $15,000 to the library for
the purchase of a lot for a library branch.
1902 There were 3 collections of books available to the Norfolk
Public this year: the Norfolk Public Library collection, about
8,000 volumes; the YMCA library; and the Norfolk and Portsmouth Bar
Association Law Library. A charter from the legislature gave city
councils in Virginia the authority to appropriate up to $5,000 a
year for support and maintenance of libraries.
10-8-1903 The cornerstone for the Carnegie Library on Freemason
Street was laid under Masonic auspices by Owens Lodge. Herbert D.
Hale of Boston drew the plans for the building.
11-21-1904 Norfolk's first free public library, the Freemason
Street Library opened quietly, with no special ceremonies to mark
the occasion. John L. Roper was the new president.
1904 The new library had 2,712 members; 11,403 books; and a
circulation of 34,225.
1905 Anna Cogswell Wood's Irene Leach Memorial art collection had
been housed on loan at the library. Its care was taken over by the
Leache-Wood Alumnae Association at this time.
10-1-1905 E.W. James, a director of the library and editor of the
Lower Norfolk County Antiquary, died, leaving his collection of
books and $1,000 to the library.
Mr. Carrington Grigsby and his sister, Mrs. W.W. Galt, gave the
Grisby collection of old Norfolk newspapers to the Virginiana
1916 The library Board voted to use the Van Wyck bequest (see
1901) to build a branch opposite Maury High School. Application
was made to Andrew Carnegie, who gave the city a grant of $20,000
under the same conditions as his earlier grant (1901). Ferguson,
Calrow and Wren drew the plans for the branch.
5-15-1916 Van Wyck Branch, Norfolk's first branch library opened
at 345 Shirley Avenue.
1917 Mr. Sargeant died on 23 March, and in May Miss Mary Denson
Pretlow became librarian.
All non-fiction books (@14,000) were reclassified to conform to the
Dewey Decimal System completed in 1938.
World War I The library opened on Sunday afternoons during the War
until August 1920. Local people donated books and magazines to be
sent to servicemen, and library staff, with the assistance of
enlisted men stationed here, packed them for delivery.
6-24-1918 Capt. Roper died, and Robert M Hughes became President
of the board.
9-1918 Miss Pretlow went overseas to work with the YMCA on American
military bases. Janet Carter Berkley was acting librarian for a
During World War I, the library acted as an agent for selling War
The library was closed for four weeks during the influenza epidemic
of October 1918.
During part of 1919 and all of 1920 the library furnished books to
the Merchant Marine and the Public Health Hospital.
4-20-1921 The Berkley branch opened.
7-19-1921 The Blyden Branch opened, the first library for blacks supported by a municpality in Virginia.
4-26-1922 The Brambleton Branch opened at 1520 E. Brambleton Ave.
7-21-1923 The Ocean View Branch (later Pretlow) opened on the second floor of an office building. In 1939 it was moved into a large room in Ocean View School with a separate entrance on
Government Ave. It was moved to its present location in 1961.
9-24-1923 The Tanners Creek branch opened in a half-basement in Larchmont School. It would later become the Larchmont branch.
1924-25 Government Documents on deposit were cataloged.
1925 The library had 52,000 members, and attendence was 241,000.
Norfolk was ranked 38th among 43 cities with a population of
100,000 to 200,000 in per capita budget for libraries.
1926 The Norfolk City manager designated $35,000 for the library's
May 1927 The opening of the Sargeant Memorial Room, with Mary
Churchill Brown in charge. Due to the efforts of Mr. Sargeant and
Miss Pretlow, there was finally enough Virginiana to set aside an
entire room for it -- the Library Board room was fireproofed and
dedicated SMR. The collection included one of the most complete
files of historical newspapers in the U.S at that time. (by 1957,
SMR averaged 6 patrons a day)
1921-1930 saw the greatest period of growth because of the opening
of many branches.
7-1-1930 Opening of Lafayette Branch.
1932 This was the greatest year of activity thus far (other than
wartime), with circulation at 1/2 million.
1-13-1933 The library was to be opened on Sunday afternoons from
2:30 to 6:00 as an experiment of indefinite duration. (This
practice was begun during World War I, but attendance dropped so
sharply that the Sunday schedule had been abandoned after Armistice
1934 With the population of Norfolk 129,710, the library boasted
50,972 members; 80,833 books; and a circulation of 385,747.
A "pay collection", begun during the Depression, lasted until 1944.
Books were purchased from the fines account and placed in the pay
collection. They were loaned for 10c per circulation until paid
for, then put on the regular shelf.
1937 Military Hospital Service was inaugurated by NPL, when the
Junior League began this service at Norfolk General Hospital. The
Women's Auxiliary at St. Vincent's began service there in 1942.
1940 A study of the main library made by Brigham and Hughes termed
the building a "formidable staircase surrounded by inadequecies and
inconveniences," further stating that "the side of Norfolk's
cultural development which was most often neglected was represented
by its public library." The main building was too small, the seven
branches were overcrowded and understaffed. Norfolk did not act on
this report for more than ten years.
1943 The Library Board voted to convey all library properties to
the City of Norfolk and to turn over the operation of the library
system to the City. By ordinance effective 25 November, the
library ceased to be operated as a private corporation.
1946 Land on Olney Rd. was chosen as a potential library site.
Jan 1947 A "branch" was created at the South Pole, when 12 books
from the Norfolk Public Library were loaned to Admiral Byrd's
April 1947 John A Norton came to NPL as Director.
1950-1952 The number of books loaned declined (298,000 in 1952;
daily attendance 500)
Oct 1951 Norton resigned.
7-1-1952 Arthur M Kirkby, from Enoch Pratt Free Library in
Baltimore, succeeded J. A. Norton as Librarian.
1952-56 The number of books loaned increased 60% after City
Council increased the book budget 2.5 times. The number of
reference questions tripled.
7-1-53 The Board engaged Alfred Morton Githens, the foremost
library architect in the country, as consultant for building a new
Sept 1954 A move had been made to combine the Norfolk Public
Library and the Norfolk Division, College of William and Mary
library. The Board issued a statement pointing out the
impracticability of such a move.
Sept 1954 A proposal was made to move the Berkley Branch to the
Berkley police precinct station -- the old building was inadequate.
A $15,000 appropriation was asked. City Council delayed action on
the request, ordering instead a study of the cost to rebuild.
8-29-1955 Berkley Branch reopened in a new building at 225 E.
7-17-1956 The City of Norfolk launched its first bookmobile to
provide service to the 55,000 residents of the recently annexed
Tanner's Creek area of Norfolk County.
1956 The Friends of the Norfolk Public Library formed to get
support for building a new main library.
1957 Blyden Branch opened at 879 E. Princess Anne Road.
March 1957 The Friends of the Norfolk Public Library organized.
Their first annual meeting was held on 29 May. The 2400 members
paid dues of 50c per year.
1957 Harold G. Sugg suggested a new study of the prospective
library site. Norfolk's population had doubled and two annexations
had taken place since the Olney Rd site had been selected in 1946.
The 42-room Joynes mansion, close to City Park, was recommended by
several people as ideal for the new library.
1958 Norfolk City Council called for a full study of the main
1958 Russell Munn and Keith Doms were hired by City Council to
study the library and recommend specifications for a new main
library building. They said "with respect to library service,
Norfolk is one of the most under-privileged cities in the U.S. ...
Based on per capita figures of books owned, books loaned, and
dollars spent, Norfolk has about 1/3 of a library system, compared
with other cities in its population group."
$100,000 was pledged from the Munro Black fund of the Norfolk
Foundation for the new building, stipulating that it must be begun
within three years, and it must cost more than $1,500,000.
In a comparison with 24 cities in the 250,000 - 500,000 population
group, Norfolk ranked at the bottom with .44 books per capita, 1.77
books loaned per capita, and an expenditure of 68c per capita.
Munn and Doms recommended the relocation of Lafayette, Larchmont,
and Ocean View branches; new branches to be located at Wards
Corner, Five Points, the Military Highway/Little Creek Road
intersection; the purchase of one additional bookmobile; the
closing of the Brambleton Branch; a $2,000,000 central library; and
a greatly increased operating budget.
8-8-1960 Second bookmobile hit the streets to serve residents of
the portion of Princess Anne County (Kempsville District) recently
annexed to the City of Norfolk.
1961 Pretlow branch opened at 9640 Granby Street.
1962 Kirn Memorial, 301 E. City Hall Ave., became the new main
library for the City of Norfolk.
1966 Janaf branch opened at 124 Janaf Shopping Center.
1967 Little Creek branch opened at the intersection of Little
Creek Rd. and Tarpon Pl.
1968 Larchmont branch opened at 6525 Hampton Blvd.
1970 Lafayette branch opened at 1610 Cromwell Road.
1972 Feldman Audio-Visual Dept. opened at Kirn.
1977 Barron F. Black branch opened at 6700 E. Tanners Creek Dr.
1979 Park Place Multi Service Center (formerly the Black Culture
Center, established in 1970) opened at 606 W. 29th Street.