In honor of National Library Week (April 10-16, 2011), here’s a brief history of the Rockville Library Association, using a few pieces from our own library.

The first Rockville Library Association was formed in 1869 by a small group of local lawyers, educators and businessmen. It was a shareholding group; any “white person” (per the group’s minutes) who owned at least one share had access twice a week to the Library’s books, which were kept in the law offices of Anderson and Bouic in downtown Rockville.  By1876, however, no one was attending the Association’s meetings, and the group dissolved.

Noma Thompson, in her 1949 history of Rockville Western Gateway to the National Capital, concluded of this first Library, “Judging from the various titles of books bought for the library from time to time, the villagers were then extremely sentimentally inclined.” Be that as it may, at least one volume was intended for practical use: The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds of Small Extent (Frank J. Scott, 1873)*. The inside cover (see below) of this educational tome is inscribed “Rockville Library Association,” along with the initials E.B.P., probably for local educator Elijah Barrett Prettyman (1830-1907). Mr. Prettyman was one of the officers of the organization; his initials here might mean that he donated it to the Library Association. The book was eventually donated to MCHS by the Anderson family. What happened to the rest of the books? Who knows?

Inscription inside the cover of "The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds," 1872.

In 1916, a group of local women founded a new Rockville Library Association, more successful than the first. They started with 150 books; by 1918, they had 1,500; and by 1939 they had 5,000. The Association was a small, mostly-volunteer run local institution until the late 1940s, when the board decided to apply to the city for assistance and open its services to all residents of the Rockville election district. The Rockville Library remained independent of the County’s Department of Public Libraries (formed in 1951) until 1957. 

Article 2 of the RLA's Constitution, written in 1916: "The object of the Association is to place before the public the best available literature."

MCHS has the 1916-1957 minutes of the Association’s meetings, in two volumes (not yet transcribed). Although, sadly, the various Recording Secretaries did not list all the books purchased or donated, there are plenty of other interesting details, from fundraising efforts to facility problems. Here’s a tiny sampling: In 1918, the motion was carried to charge 5 cents per book for the first seven days, then 2 cents a day thereafter; a variety of due and fee schedules follow throughout the years. In 1919, Mrs. Spencer the Librarian announced that she was “much handicapped by the need” of a file case; attempts to secure the necessary $9 through “voluntary donations” met with little success, although happily the case was ordered later that year. Any modern librarian – or anyone working in a similar field – can surely feel Mrs. Spencer’s pain.

Also included in the 1916-1948 volume are a few other documents, including the 1921 Articles of Incorporation; a 1926 postcard to Miss Magruder, asking that she be sure to attend the next meeting; a letter from the DC Public Librarian, 1937, expressing his regrets that he can’t make it to the “house warming” of the “new” library building (they moved into the old Rockville Academy); an application letter from a Mrs. Miller for the position of Librarian, 1945 (she was accepted “at a salary of $100 a month until a trained librarian could be secured”); and a 1948 letter to the membership about changes to the organization’s structure and audience.

The conclusion of the RLA's 1948 letter to its membership. By accepting financial assistance from Rockville, the library was obligated to allow all residents to use its services.

A side note: The Rockville Library has had a variety of homes over the years, before landing in its current, snazzy facility in the town center. One of those homes, coincidentally enough, was our own Dr. Stonestreet’s office. After Dr. Stonestreet’s death in 1903, the little office (still in its original location at Monroe and Montgomery) served a number of functions, including “Laboratory” for the high school, a small museum operated by the Women’s Club of Rockville, headquarters for the local Boy Scout Troop, and, from 1921 until the 1930s, the Rockville Library.

Dr. Stonestreet's office (not yet the Library), ca. 1900. MCHS library collections.

* This is one of my favorite books in our collections; I’ve used it (or images from it) in three exhibits so far, including “Good Neighbors” on display in the Silver Spring Civic Building through April 30.

In addition to Ms. Thompson’s book and the primary sources noted above, Eileen McGuckian’s Rockville: Portrait of a City (2001) provided much of the information presented here.