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Norfolk Highlights 1584 - 1881
By George Holbert Tucker

Chapter 55

The Norfolk Library and Its Antecedents

The Norfolk Public Library of today, incorporated by an Act of the Virginia Assembly in February of 1894, had one legitimate and several bar sinister antecedents.

Its legitimate ancestor was the Norfolk Library Association, organized on August 18, 1870, with Dr. Samuel Selden as its first president and T.B. West as its first librarian. Its books, contained in eight rows of shelves, and a varied selection of periodicals, were originally housed in the Old Norfolk Academy building on Bank Street.

The association's career was rather precarious. Depending on subscriptions, which were not always forthcoming, its road was hard. No new books, no new subscriptions, no new subscribers, no new books -- a somewhat hopeless circle.

The Act of the Assembly in 1894 ended this vicious pattern, however, and with it the Norfolk Public Library system of today was born.

Before the establishment of the Norfolk Library Association in 1870, there were several subscription circulating libraries in Norfolk, some of which had fairly active histories.

The first indication that Norfolk had a subscription library comes from the "American Journey - 1793-1798" by Moreau de St. Mery. In it he wrote: "Norfolk also has a book dealer who makes quite an advantageous affair out of the rental of books. This bookseller is M(r). Hunter."

Sometime before 1795, Hunter died, at which time his business was taken over by the Messrs. Rainbow and Hannah, stationers, who issued a catalog of the books in the library in 1796, a copy of which is preserved in the Sargeant Memorial Room of Kirn Memorial Library.

As far as can be ascertained, the Rainbow and Hannah subscription library was the only one of its kind in late Eighteenth Century Norfolk. But there were several excellent private libraries in the borough during the early years of the Nineteenth Century, notably those of Littleton Waller Tazewell and General Robert Barraud Taylor.

Norfolk's second subscription library belonged to the Norfolk Athenaeum, a "library company" chartered by the Virginia Assembly on January 5, 1816. General Robert Barraud Taylor was its first president, and one thousand five hundred dollars was appropriated for the purchase of books.

Each of the seventy-eight original members was assessed twenty-five dollars to cover the expenses, but some of them never paid their assessments, and this contributed to the failure of the undertaking. There also seems to have been no permanent place for the storage of the library's books, because each succeeding president moved the library to suit his convenience.

Finally, in 1842, the Norfolk Athenaeum went out of existence, and its library was sold at public auction.

Two other early Nineteenth Century Norfolk subscription libraries deserve mention.

On March 23, 1827, William Maxwell, a prominent Norfolk lawyer and later the editor of the Virginia Historical Register, opened the Norfolk Lyceum on Wolfe, later Market, Street.

The purpose of the Lyceum was to house a subscription library and to provide a meeting place for literary associations. It continued to operate until 1839, when it was sold to the Washington and Lafayette Odd Fellows Lodges. It burned on February 18, 1859.

The other subscription library was operated by the Washington Institute and Library Association. In 1853, the American Beacon carried a notice of the organization of this group, a venture that was short lived because of delinquent subscribers and the deaths of many of the paying members during the yellow fever epidemic of 1855.

Chapter 56
The Virginia Club

Norfolk Highlights 1584 - 1881

Norfolk Highlights 1584 - 1881

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