The story of the Arlington's Public Libraries begins long before the County had a Library Department. Five neighborhood libraries - Glencarlyn, Cherrydale, Clarendon, Aurora Hills and Arlington/Columbia Pike - began to form in the early part of the 20th Century, organized and run by civic-minded women who recognized the need for libraries in their respective communities and took it upon themselves to make that vision a reality.
In one case, an act of vandalism helped spur the founding of a library. As one witness said after that event, they needed,
“A library—a place where the children playing in the streets might come and find a new interest, something to hold their thoughts and develop their better instinct.”
The women who started these libraries were not trained librarians, but volunteers who gave of their time and energy to do whatever needed to be done. Book drives, bake sales, card parties, lectures and festivals all helped raise money. Unused stores, vacant houses, garages, and schools were painted and furnished with discarded furniture. The women grappled with cataloging and circulation issues, and over time, short but regular hours were established.
Unlike today's Library system, these libraries were truly independent efforts. The women running the neighborhood libraries may even have been unaware of each other’s efforts, as Arlington of the early 1900s was essentially made up of small villages.
After WWI, the population of Arlington increased significantly, gradually changing from a community of “villages” and subdivisions to a more unified whole. In response, the County adopted the County Manager form of government - the first of its kind in the state of Virginia. This new system was designed to meet the needs of the whole County in a more efficient and organized way.
This change in government caused the women running individual neighborhood libraries to consider the advantages of a county-wide library system. Thus, in 1936, the Arlington County Library Association was formed. Composed of four delegates from each community library as well as four delegates at large, its mission was the formation of a county library system. The first undertaking of the Association was a survey of the County, its libraries, population, trends and resources, and was an important first step toward reaching their goal. Library Association members persisted in their efforts, including an “educate-your-county officials” campaign, and eventually persuaded the County Manager and County Board of the importance of a County library department.
In 1937, the Library officially became a department of the County government, with a budget that provided for the hiring of a professional librarian as the library’s director. (Note: There was one church library that also existed at this time, the Vanderwerken Library, which did not elect to become part of the County library system.)
A search for a professional librarian was undertaken, and in July 1937 Eleanor Leonard was appointed to the position. She immediately set to work, discarding damaged material, cataloging the library’s holdings and training volunteers in all aspects of library work. By the fall of 1939, the five libraries had been standardized, while the daily routine continued to be done by volunteers. By July 1938, 11,328 books had been reclassified and cataloged according to American Library Association standards. Eleanor Leonard had laid a good foundation for the new system and there was a feeling of unity and cooperation among the branches.
The enormous work done through the efforts of these women in Arlington County is perhaps best summed up in the Library’s Annual Report of 1942-43:
“Perhaps there is no better place to voice my personal thanks to all of the women in Arlington County who for many years gave generously and devotedly of their time and energies. The Library as it now stands, in good condition and on a sound foundation, is a monument to these women. There are a few who gave outstanding service but everyone who worked, if only a few hours, kept the doors open and the ideal before the people. The County as a whole owes a large debt of gratitude to these women. They gave and asked no return but that a good Library emerge and give service to the County, now and in the years to come. Personally I have known almost all of them and I am very grateful for the help and cooperation that they gave the former Librarians and to me”
-Mildred Blattner, Library Director, Annual Report 1942-1943
This is just the beginning of the story. In the following years as new branches were formed, women remained the bedrock of the system providing countless volunteer hours and holding a number of professional positions. We will continue this narrative over the coming months as the story of Arlington’s libraries and the many women who founded and supported them will continue to unfold.