The development of public libraries in Progressive-Era North Carolina, 1896-1929

WCU Author/Contributor (non-WCU co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Robert Michael Manzo (Creator)
Western Carolina University (WCU )
Web Site:
Alexander Macaulay

Abstract: My research traces the history of one type of educational institution in North Carolina from the beginning to the end of the Southern progressive movement. Progressivism was a national movement that re-interpreted the role of the state in the nation’s economic and social life. Reformers as different as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson espoused a theory ofpositive government, meaning that government had a responsibility to meet more than just thebasic needs of citizens. As a result, the administrative bureaucracy of government at all levels — federal, state, county, and city— grew to unprecedented size during the first quarter of the twentieth century. New agencies, commissions, and boards exercised new or expanded controlover such matters as public health, education, interstate trade, and road construction. Althoughthe liberal social-justice ideals of progressivism were somewhat restrained in the traditionally conservative Southern states, they still had a transformative impact. With efficiency and expertise as the guiding keywords of the era, a proliferation of government and voluntary organizations developed detailed strategic plans to address a range of social and economic problems. Public libraries were one such organization. They were supported by civic clubs, operated under the auspices of government, dedicated to serving citizens’ educational needs, and managed by experts in the novel discipline of library science. Using the interpretive frameworkof progressivism, I show how public libraries fit into the broad context of educational reform,civic activism, and government expansion that characterized progressivism from the 1890s to theGreat Depression. The force of new progressive theories about society and government, and thereality of economic hardship that invited the intervention of such theories, finally tipped theSouth away from unyielding suspicion of big government and allowed new institutions, like thepublic library, to emerge. To be sure, conservatism tempered reform in North Carolina and the South. For example, public libraries mostly remained off limits to African-Americans until after World War II, although some independent libraries were started by middle-class black citizens who advocated the principle of self-help. Only three scholars have addressed the emergence of public libraries in North Carolina, and only two have addressed the context of progressive-era reform. State archivist Thornton W. Mitchell prepared a brief 1983 report summarizing library history over two centuries, including early church, college, and state libraries. More recently, Dr. James V. Carmichael, Jr. has assessed the unique opportunities for women in the libraryprofession in North Carolina, as well as the mixed record of Southern librarians in challenging the region’s conservatism and racism in the early twentieth century. Lastly, Dr. Patrick M. Valentine has treated the role of both homegrown and Northern philanthropy in financing North Carolina public libraries from 1900 up to World War II. My own approach is to use tradepublications, newspapers, and secondary works to bring out the deeper connections between thebroad context of progressivism and the emergence of the specific institution of the public libraryin North Carolina.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2020
Library History, North Carolina History, Progressivism, Public Libraries, Southern History, Women's History
Libraries -- History
Public libraries
Progressivism (United States politics)
Southern States -- History
North Carolina -- History

Email this document to