Elon’s First Library: The Reading Room

Randall Bowman
August 1, 2014

Library Reading Room in the Administration Building, circa 1909

Library Reading Room in the Administration Building, circa 1909

Elon’s very first library was a far cry from the libraries of today.  It wasn’t even a separate building like Carlton, McEwen, or Belk Libraries.  According to George Troxler, in his book From a Grove of Oaks: The Story of Elon University, “…the library and reading room occupied two adjoining rooms on the second floor of the college building.”  It served the college for thirty-three years, from 1890 to 1923.  Along with most of the college’s book collection, both rooms in the Old Main Administration Building were incinerated in the 1923 fire that destroyed this building.  Little is actually known about these two rooms; one photograph of them exists.  It shows a view of the Reading Room, with students reading various magazines and newspapers; other periodicals are seen on the table in the foreground.  One can gather from this picture that the Reading Room was a popular place to go in Elon’s early days. In the background of the photograph is the entrance to the adjoining Library, where part of the book collection is visible.  Early issues of the Bulletin of Elon College describe the two rooms separately.  The 1907 Bulletin states that “The College has a well-selected Library” and that carefully selected books were added every year.   It also states that the “accommodations are being constantly improved, making this one of the most enjoyable and profitable features of the Institution.”  Some of the original book collection was no doubt inherited from Graham College.

In the days before the Internet, even before radio and television, people found out what was happening in the world through magazines and newspapers.  So the Reading Room was where Elon students and professors could read the latest issues of various weekly and monthly publications.  The 1907 Bulletin describes this room: “In addition to the Library, the College maintains an excellent Reading-Room, supplied with the best magazines, weekly and daily journals, which keep students in touch with the current thought and issues of the day.” Durward Stokes, the author of Elon College: Its History and Traditions, describes the Library renewing subscriptions to a number of popular magazines in 1894, including St. Nicholas, Cosmopolitan, and Century.  Other publications included Harper’s Weekly, Harper’s Monthly, Arena, Forum, Homiletic Review, North Atlantic Review, London News, Ladies’ Home Journal, New York Herald, Atlantic Constitution, Chautaugua Independent, Sunday School Times, Youth’s Companion, Literary Digest, Quarterly Journal of Economics, and The Nation. The 1907 Bulletin goes on to say, “The Reading-Room is open two hours each day.”  This is a far cry from Belk Library today, which is open twenty-four hours a day, five days a week during the academic school year.

In Elon’s earliest years, the Library and Reading Room were supervised by the Curator of the Library, which was an appointed Elon faculty member.  This changed in 1906; according to Troxler, Elon hired Mamie Tate, Elon College’s first librarian.  When Carlton Library opened in 1924, the Board of Trustees accepted a recommendation to hire the college’s first professionally trained librarian, Louise Savage who was also Dean of Women.

During Elon’s early years, there were gradual improvements to the Library and Reading Room.  According to Stokes, during the 1907-1908 year, 190 volumes were added to the library, increasing the collection to 1,401 books.  During that same period, 1,110 books and 1,160 periodicals were borrowed by students, giving a sense of how much the library was being used. In 1912, a third room was added to the library.  Stokes describes this expansion: “In the latter, a wall was removed to provide a new reading room and the old one used for additional stack space ‘with adjustable shelving around the walls.’  The old bookcases were removed and ‘a gallery built on all sides of the room.’  The gallery was reached by a stairway.  Shelving extended from the floor to the 16-foot-high ceiling.  This practically doubled the capacity of the library.”

Sadly, very little else is known about the Reading Room and Library.  Most of the book collection was destroyed in the 1923 conflagration.  A few volumes that were checked out survived; these books, along with donations, became the nucleus of the collection in Carlton Library.  Some of the books that survived the fire are currently on display in Belk Library on the first floor.

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