Black Mountain Library kicks off centennial celebration with walk through history

Ezra Maille
Black Mountain News
The Black Mountain Public Library celebrates 100 years of service this summer.

One hundred years ago, the Black Mountain Public Library began with just 50 books. Now, it offers more than 28,000. 

This summer, the library recognizes 100 years of service. To celebrate the centennial, local historian Tom Stiles gave a talk entitled "The Black Mountain Library: The First 100 Years" to show the various changes and progression of where the library started to where it exists today. Roughly 40 community members attended the event on July 18, including numerous volunteers and members of the Friends of the Library. 

"It began with 50 books," Stiles said. "It has grown into an information media center that includes books, large print books, audiobooks, CDs and DVDs."

Stiles said the Black Mountain Library circulated roughly 87,000 items in 2021. Over the course of the past 100 years, the library has had 13 librarians, beginning with Edith Sloan and now led by Melisa Pressley. 

Head librarian Melisa Pressley presented historian Tom Stiles with a certificate of appreciation for his discussion of the library.

Saro Lynch-Thomason, the events coordinator for the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center, the library's partner for the celebration, introduced Stiles and stated a land acknowledgement for being on Cherokee land. 

"Land acknowledgements are a small part of a much bigger work that's needed to restore treaty rights, return land and respect native sovereignty," Lynch-Thomason said, before introducing Stiles. 

Stiles, who holds a background as an Air Force pilot, flying in Vietnam, Alaska and Turkey, to name a few locations, began his talk at the inception of the Black Mountain Library.

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In July 1922, Black Mountain community members donated 50 books to open the library in a classroom of the local Presbyterian Church. The church pastor served as the administrator with Sloan volunteering as the first librarian. Stiles said the library was open four hours a week. 

Changes came in the spring and summer of 1923 as more community members began to support the library, growing the number of volumes to roughly 1,000, and the location was later changed to City Hall on State Street. However, not all community members were welcome to utilize the library's services.

"Racial segregation was enforced throughout the country," Stiles said, telling the story of Inez Daugherty, a Black women who attempted to check out books at the location in City Hall but was turned away. 

A library in Asheville for Black patrons was opened in 1927, though Stiles said many locals didn't own vehicles so Black Mountain residents such as Daugherty had limited access. 

Locals complained that the City Hall location was impractical, forcing patrons to climb to the second floor, and inaccessible due to limited parking downtown. In 1956, Congress passed the Library Services Act, aimed at promoting and developing public libraries through federal funding.

The Black Mountain Library became a part of the Buncombe County system in 1965.

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The Friends of the Library, organized by passionate locals in 1963, worked to raise funding to build a new library. Stiles said building costs totaled $124,000, including furnishings. With $79,000 covered by federal funding, the Friends of the Library organized to cover the rest.

Through book sales, performances by Warren Wilson students and a variety of shows from local artists and musicians, more than 400 individuals and businesses donated to fund the new library. Friends of the Library broke ground in 1967, and the building was ready for occupancy in 1968. 

Volunteers, scout troops and other locals came together to move all of the books from the old library to the new building. The books were moved in just four hours. 

"It took 100 years to travel about four blocks," Stiles joked, showing aerial footage of where the library began and where it now sits. 

Local historian Tom Stiles gave a detailed presentation on the extensive history of the Black Mountain Library on July 18.

Continuing today to uplift the library, the Friends set up a table at the Saturday Tailgate Market in 2017. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the library closed in March 2020. Nevertheless, the library continued to offer services to the community. Patrons could pick up books curbside, librarians setting aside returned books in quarantine for 72 hours before being moved back to shelves. Pressley also worked in the 911 call center, answering nonemergency calls.

Throughout the pandemic, the Friends of the Library still managed to raise more than $56,000 in funding, according to Bebe Woodside, vice president.

After a consultant report recommended combining the Black Mountain and Swannanoa libraries in 2021, community members came together to keep the library in town.

"The Friends gathered over 900 signatures on a petition opposing the move," Stiles said. "Yard signs throughout the town showed that the overwhelming reaction was not to consolidate and keep our library in Black Mountain."

Though Renee Hudson, president of the Friends of the Library, could not be present, Woodside spoke at the event on her behalf. Woodside thanked the town and community for its continued support of the Friends as well as the library itself.

Woodside said the letters, signatures and signs all petitioning the county to not close the Black Mountain branch made the library's survival possible.

"The letters people wrote to commissioners, the petitions circulated in the community and the large attendance here effectively convinced our decisionmakers to take a different path to improve the library," Woodside said. 

Ezra Maille covers the town of Black Mountain, Montreat and the Swannanoa Valley. Reach him at 828-230-3324 or emaille@blackmountainnews.com. Please support local journalism with access to more breaking news by subscribing.