History of the Norfolk Public Library

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Researched and written by Peggy Haile McPhillips, City Historian

Historical Photo from the Sargeant Memorial CollectionEarly 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: The Lyceum, a one story brick building on the northwest corner of Wolf and Chapel Streets, opens. Named for the place where Aristotle taught philosophy in Athens, the building houses a circulating library, and is also used for public lectures and literary association meetings. The Lyceum opened through the efforts of Norfolk attorney William Maxwell, 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 is sold to the Odd Fellows Society for $2,000; and is destroyed by fire February 1, 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 August 18th that year, with Samuel Selden as the first president.

Norfolk Academy buildingOctober 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 October 1, 1870 and William Selden was elected president on November 9, 1870.

1883: The library moved into the YMCA building on Main Street.

YMCA Building on Main Street













1893: The library moves to the former 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.

Newtown House on Granby and College Place 

1894: The move from the Norfolk Academy building was opposed as disadvantageous by many, and proves to be financially unwise. Even after all subscriptions have been paid, funds are still insufficient to increase the book stock. Without new books, there will be no new subscribers, hence no future income for NLA. As the library is about to be sold for debt, the stockholders consent to transfer the books to a few individuals, who agree to pay the debts of the NLA and organize a public library.

February 12, 1894: The Norfolk Public Library is incorporated by the Virginia General Assembly. Its affairs are vested in a self-continuing Board of 15 directors, from and by whom officers are 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 Library.

Membership dues to the library were payable to the treasurer in advance:

  • $3 per year -- for the use of the Reading Room and 1 book at a time.
  • $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 Public Library.

    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 is 53,000 this year, with 26,000 books given out. Miss S. E. Taylor dies, leaving $2,000 to the library.

    1901: John B. Jenkins and Barton Myers apply to Andrew Carnegie for a grant to build a new library, and receive the promise of $50,000 on the condition that the city appropriate $5,000 for maintenance. The children of William Selden give land on Freemason Street as a site for the new library, and as a memorial to their father.

    At his death, H. D. Van Wyck bequeaths $15,000 to the library for the purchase of a lot for a library branch.

    1902: There are three 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 gives city councils in Virginia the authority to appropriate up to $5,000 a year for support and maintenance of libraries.

    October 8, 1903: The cornerstone for the Carnegie Library on Freemason Street is laid under Masonic auspices by Owens Lodge. Herbert D. Hale of Boston drew the plans for the building.

    November 21, 1904: Norfolk's first free public library opens quietly on West Freemason Street, with no special ceremonies to mark the occasion. John L. Roper is the new president. 

    1904: The new library has 2,712 members; 11,403 books; and a circulation of 34,225.

    1905: Anna Cogswell Wood's Irene Leach Memorial art collection has been housed on loan at the Freemason Street library. Its care is taken over by the Leache-Wood Alumnae Association at this time.

    October 1, 1905: E.W. James, a director of the library and editor of the Lower Norfolk County Antiquary, dies, leaving his collection of books and $1,000 to the library. Mr. Carrington Grigsby and his sister, Mrs. W. W. Galt, give the Grigsby collection of old Norfolk newspapers to the library’s Virginiana collection.

    1916: The library Board votes to use the Van Wyck bequest (see 1901) to build a branch opposite Maury High School. Application is made to Andrew Carnegie, who gives the city a grant of $20,000 under the same conditions as his earlier grant (1901). Norfolk architects Ferguson, Calrow and Wren draw the plans for the branch.

    Van Wyck Branch LibraryMay 15, 1916: Van Wyck Branch, Norfolk's first branch library opens at 345 Shirley Avenue.

    1917: Mr. Sargeant diea on March 23, and in May Miss Mary Denson Pretlow becomes librarian. All non-fiction books (around 14,000) are reclassified to conform to the Dewey Decimal System. The reclassification is completed in 1938. 

    World War I: The library opens on Sunday afternoons during the War until August 1920. Local people donate books and magazines to be sent to servicemen, and library staff, with the assistance of enlisted men stationed here, pack them for delivery.

    June 24, 1918: Capt. Roper dies, and Robert M Hughes becomes President of the library board.

    September 1918:

    • Miss Pretlow goes overseas in September 1918 to work with the YMCA on American military bases. Janet Carter Berkley serves as acting librarian for a year.
    • During World War I, the library acts as an agent for selling War Stamps.
    • The library is closed for four weeks during the influenza epidemic of October 1918.
    • During part of 1919 and all of 1920, the library furnishes books to the Merchant Marine and the Public Health Hospital.

    April 20, 1921: The Berkley branch opens at 517 Main Street (later S. Main).

    Berkley Branch Library

    July 19, 1921: The Blyden Branch opens. It is the first library for African Americans supported by a municipality in Virginia.

    Blyden Branch Library 

    April 26, 1922: The Brambleton Branch opens at 1520 E. Brambleton Ave.

    Brambleton Branch Library

    July 21, 1923:  The Ocean View Branch (later Pretlow) opens on the second floor of an office building. In 1939 it moves into a large room in Ocean View School with a separate entrance on Government Ave. It moves to its present location in 1961.

    Ocean View Branch Library 

    September 24, 1923: The Tanners Creek branch opens in a half-basement in Larchmont School. It will later become the Larchmont branch.

    Tanners Creek Branch Library 

    1924-25: Government Documents on deposit are cataloged.

    1925: The library has 52,000 members, and attendance is 241,000. Norfolk ranks 38th among 43 cities with a population of 100,000 to 200,000 in per capita budget for libraries.

    1926: The Norfolk City manager designates $35,000 for the library's budget.

    Sargeant Memorial RoomMay 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 is finally enough Virginiana to set aside an entire room – the former Library Board room – for the collection. The collection includes one of the most complete files of historical newspapers in the U.S at that time. By 1957, SMR averages six patrons a day.

    1921-1930: The greatest period of growth because of the opening of many branches.

    July 1, 1930: Opening of Lafayette Branch.

    1932: This is the greatest year of activity thus far (other than wartime), with circulation at 1/2 million.

    January 13, 1933: The library is 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 Day.)


    With the population of Norfolk 129,710, the library boasts 50,972 members; 80,833 books; and a circulation of 385,747.

     A "pay collection," begun during the Depression, lasts until 1944. Books are purchased from the fines account and placed in the pay collection. They are loaned for 10¢ per circulation until paid for, then put on the regular shelf.

    1937: Military Hospital Service is inaugurated by NPL, when the Junior League begins this service at Norfolk General Hospital. The Women's Auxiliary at St. Vincent's begins service there in 1942.

    1940: A study of the main library made by Brigham and Hughes terms the building a "formidable staircase surrounded by inadequacies and inconveniences," and says that "the side of Norfolk's cultural development which was most often neglected was represented by its public library." The main building is too small, the seven branches are overcrowded and understaffed. Norfolk does not act on this report for more than ten years.

    1943: The Library Board votes 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 ceases to be operated as a private corporation. 

    1946: Land on Olney Road is chosen as a potential site for a new central library.

    January 1947: A "branch" is created at the South Pole, when 12 books from the Norfolk Public Library are loaned to Admiral Byrd's expedition. 

    April 1947: John A. Norton comes to NPL as Director.

    1950-1952: The number of books loaned decline (298,000 in 1952; daily attendance 500).

    October 1951: John A. Norton resigns as library Director.

    July 1, 1952: Arthur M. Kirkby from Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore succeeds J. A. Norton as Librarian.

    1952-56: The number of books loaned increases 60% after City Council increases the book budget 2.5 times. The number of reference questions triples.

    July 1, 1953: The Board engages Alfred Morton Githens, the foremost library architect in the country, as consultant for building a new library.

    September 1954: A move had been made to combine the Norfolk Public Library and the Norfolk Division, College of William and Mary library. The Board issues a statement pointing out the impracticability of such a move.

    September 1954: A proposal is made to move the Berkley Branch to the Berkley police precinct station, since the old library building is inadequate. A $15,000 appropriation from City Council is requested. Council delays action on the request, ordering instead a study of the cost to rebuild.

    August 29, 1955: Berkley Branch reopens in a new building at 225 E. Berkley Ave.

    July 17, 1956: The City of Norfolk launches 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 form to raise support for building for building a new central library.. 

    1957: Blyden Branch opened at 879 E. Princess Anne Road. 

    March 1957: The Friends of the Norfolk Public Library organize with 2400 members. Their first annual meeting is held on 29 May. Dues are 50¢ per year.

    1957: Harold G. Sugg suggests a new study of the prospective library site. Norfolk's population has doubled and two annexations have taken place since the Olney Road site was selected in 1946. The 42-room Joynes mansion, close to City Park, is recommended by several people as ideal for the new library.

    1958: Norfolk City Council calls for a full study of the main library site.

    1958: Russell Munn and Keith Doms are hired by City Council to study the library and recommend specifications for a new main library building. They say "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."

    1958: $100,000 is pledged from the Munro Black fund of the Norfolk Foundation for the new building, stipulating that it must be begun within three years, and must cost more than $1,500,000.

    In a comparison with 24 cities in the 250,000 - 500,000 population group, Norfolk ranks at the bottom with .44 books per capita, 1.77 books loaned per capita, and an expenditure of 68¢ per capita.

    Munn and Doms recommend 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.

    August 8, 1960: A second bookmobile hits the streets to serve residents of the portion of Princess Anne County (Kempsville District) recently annexed to the City of Norfolk.

    1961: Pretlow Branch opens at 9640 Granby Street, replacing the former Ocean View Branch.

    1962: Kirn Memorial Library, the new central library for the City of Norfolk, opens at 301 E. City Hall Ave.

    1966: Janaf Branch branch opens at 124 Janaf Shopping Center.

    Janaf Branch Library 

    1967: Little Creek Branch opens at the intersection of Little Creek Rd. and Tarpon Pl.

    1968: Larchmont Branch opens at 6525 Hampton Blvd. 

    1970: Lafayette Branch opens at 1610 Cromwell Road. 

    1972: A fine arts, music & video collection, the Feldman Audio-Visual Dept. opens at Kirn.

    1977: Dean C. Gross is hired as Director of the Norfolk Public Library system.

    1977: Barron F. Black Branch opens at 6700 E. Tanners Creek Dr.

    Barron F. Black Branch Library

    1979: Park Place Multi Service Center (formerly the Black Culture Center, established in 1970) opens at 606 W. 29th Street.

    1983: Sue E. Darden becomes Library Director.

    1986: A new Brambleton branch is dedicated at 961 Park Avenue.

    1989: Norfolk Public Library begins the process of automation, sending its shelf list to OCLC for conversion. 

    1989: Kirn Library is closed during June-September for asbestos abatement. Limited telephone reference service is provided by Kirn staff from the cafeteria of Blair Middle School on Colley Avenue.

    1991: The first module of the library’s automated public access catalog comes up, when the cataloging module is put into place. Other modules, including dial-in access, quickly follow.

    1995: NPL goes global when, through a joint project with WHRO public television, the library creates its own Home Page with Internet access, and begins to offer public access to the Internet through terminals at Kirn and selected branches.

    1995: Reference departments at Kirn Library merge and a one-point reference / circulation service desk is created.

    1995: Sally G. Reed is hired as Norfolk Public Library Director.

    1997: The Brambleton Branch Library is renamed Jordan-Newby Branch in honor of the late Judge Joseph A. Jordan and members of the Newby family. 

    1999: New state-of-the-art Bookmobile was put into operation.

    1999: On 13 June, the Berkley Branch is renamed the Horace C. Downing Branch, in honor of the late civic leader, fondly known as the “Mayor of Berkley.” A computer, funded with a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is dedicated at the same time. Downing died at the age of 82 in April 1999.

    2001: The Treasure Truck begins to roll. The outreach program is initiated to spread a positive literacy message to all young children of Norfolk during visits to daycares, public and private preschools, recreation centers, shelters, etc.

    2003: Norman L. Maas is hired as Director of the Norfolk Public Library.

    2004: The Norfolk Public Library celebrates its 100th year as a free library on November 21.

    2005: The Pretlow Branch closes in February and reopens April 1 at a temporary location a block away so that a larger, $9.5 million regional, or "anchor," library can be built on the site.

    2006: Norfolk Public Library receives recognition as the first Family Place Library in Virginia.

    2007: As the City of Norfolk announces plans to demolish Kirn Library for the implementation of light rail, negotiations began for the purchase of the former “Seaboard Center” at 235 East Plume Street for use as an interim main library.

    2007: As the Sargeant Memorial Room celebrates its 80th anniversary, Norfolk Public Library Foundation announced a campaign to raise an endowment of $1.5 million over the next ten years to support, maintain and preserve the Sargeant Room collection.

    2008: Norfolk’s first anchor branch library, the Mary D. Pretlow Anchor Branch, opens on the site of the former Pretlow Branch Library. The $10.8 million regional facility with 90 public computers and a huge children's area features a 110-seat public meeting room and a wing for the Ocean View Station Museum.

    2008: Frank Batten Sr., retired President of Landmark Media Enterprises, announces a gift of $20 million from his family to the City of Norfolk towards the construction of a new main library.

    March 11, 2009: Norfolk Main Library at 235 East Plume Street opens to the public

    April 26, 2012: Groundbreaking for Slover Memorial Main Library.

    October 14, 2013: Acting Library Director Sonal Rastogi is named NPL Director.

    January 9, 2015: Slover Library opens to the public.

    September 12, 2016: Groundbreaking for Jordan-Newby Anchor Branch at Broad Creek.

    June 14, 2018: Grand opening of Jordan-Newby Anchor Branch at Broad Creek.

    November 14, 2018: Groundbreaking for Richard A. Tucker Memorial Branch.

    April 11, 2018: After extensive renovations, a refurbished Bookmobile returns to service.