Portsmouth Public Library

Article by B. D. White. B. D. White was a retired judge. He wrote this article in the mid to late 1940s.
Submitted by the Portsmouth History Commission

First Public Library in 1914

"Although there were private subscription libraries in Portsmouth before 1914, in that year the Portsmouth Students Club, a private women's study club, opened a small library behind the courthouse. It had one librarian and was contracted by the city council to serve as the city's public library. The first librarian was Miss Esther Wilson who received $25 a month.

The original collection included books from the Seaboard Air Line Railroad, and the Portsmouth Y. M. C. A. gave about 400 books. On December 1, 1914, after about nine months of preparation and cataloging, in behalf of the Portsmouth Public Library Association, Hon. J. Davis Reed presented the library for the use of the City of Portsmouth.

In the 1940s a Black library was added, with Mrs. Bertha Edwards as its librarian, and in 1963 the city made these contractual libraries into one city department. It was then moved to the present location on Court Street.

The City of Portsmouth, having secured the former Post Office building from the United States Government, undertook to remodel and equip it as an adequate, attractive and modern library.

Proceeds from a book auction on its 75th anniversary in 1989 were used to start the Mary Lockhart Johnson McMurran local history fund in Portsmouth Public Library Foundation. Mrs McMurran served on various boards of the library for more than 30 years and had a keen interest in collecting and sharing Portsmouth's history. Money from the McMurran fund is used to buy local history materials and to preserve items in the collection.

There were no formal library services for Blacks in Portsmouth until 1945. The first public library for Blacks was the Portsmouth Community Library on South Street. This was the result of many years of hard work, effort, and prayers by the Rev. M.B. Birchette, Rector of St. James Episcopal Church; the Rev. W H. Willis; Mrs. W E Reid and others.

The idea of a public library had its origin in an address before the Mission Study Group of Monumental Methodist Episcopal Church (Monumental United Methodist Church) in 1927 by Rev. Birchette. A few years later about 1931 he called a group of persons together for the purpose of forming a library committee. For four years (1937-1941) through the untiring efforts of Rev. Birchette and others, Negroes had a small library in the Parish House of St. James Episcopal Church financed by National Youth Administration Funds.

Mrs. Kitty Leary (who subsequently became the Craddock Branch Librarian of the Portsmouth Public Library System) trained the workers for this library. It was forced to close in 1941 when the NYA ceased to support the project.

A successful community fund drive was conducted in 1944 for funds to purchase a lot for a Black library. A brick building was built by the City of Portsmouth. Ms. Bertha Winborne Edwards, a graduate of Hampton Institute with library training became the first Public Librarian of the Community Library."