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Alexandria Library Company Records (MS002)

Identifier: MS002

Content Description

The collection consists of circulation, subscription, and financial ledgers, annual lecture series documents, catalogues, correspondence, and various organizational documents. Topics include: foundation of the Alexandria Library Company, its cycles of growth and decline reflecting the local economy; the formation of the local public library system; and the on-going activities of the Alexandria Library Company, most notably its lecture series.


  • 1794-2007

Biographical / Historical

In the 1780s, a discussion group of Alexandria gentlemen called “The Society for the Promotion of Useful Knowledge” was formed. In 1794, many of these same individuals gathered to form the nucleus of the Alexandria Library Company (ALC). The ALC was a subscription library modelled after the Philadelphia Library Company, which had also emerged from such a club.

Society president Reverend John Muir became president of the ALC, a position he would hold for almost 20 years. Many of the library’s founders are known to have been members of local Masonic lodges. Elisha Cullen Dick, who had succeeded George Washington as the leader of Lodge 22, was among the first directors of the ALC as well as the secretary of the earlier Society. The first Librarian was Edward Stabler, the proprietor of an apothecary shop. In 1796, Stabler was replaced by James Kennedy, who served as librarian until 1818. Overlaps and family links between the leadership of the library and other Alexandria institutions remained common over the next century and a half.

For a time, the Alexandria Lyceum (founded in 1838) and the ALC shared a physical space as well as similar missions. The Alexandria Lyceum was founded as part of a national movement focused on educational lectures. The union between the two organizations was dissolved in 1844, but the library continued to rent space from the Lyceum. The library was later said to have been in a state of “suspended animation” from around 1846 to 1852. In 1852, a “Young Men’s” group took over under the original charter, publishing a new catalog in 1856. The library continued to operate into the Civil War. It remained in the Lyceum but not without acrimony, which is evident in the Alexandria Gazette in 1860.

In October 1867, an agreement was reached with what was variously referred to as the Alexandria Christian Association and the YMCA for assistance with running the library. The library separated from this organization during the early 1870s. By the second half of the 1870s, the library fell into a decline which the directors blamed on the lack of a published catalog.

The first library catalog had been prepared by Kennedy in 1796 and published sometime thereafter. The earliest catalog of which there is an extant copy was published in 1801, followed by another in 1808 of which there are few traces. A more enduring catalog was created in 1815. The 1830s saw publication of a supplement to the 1815 catalog and the creation of a working catalog that would be used into the late 1840s. Normal circulation records end in April 1861 when the library was converted into a military hospital. There are stray entries in May and December before operations resumed on a limited basis in May 1862 and continued at least through that year. Over a thousand volumes were lost during the war. Due to the decline in usage in the 1870s, a new catalog was produced by librarian Emma J. Young in 1872 but never published. After two years with Young’s catalog, another was commissioned from Dr. Theo West, which also went unpublished. As a stopgap, handwritten copies were used by patrons. In 1898, a new catalog was created which utilized a decimal system for the first time. The last published catalog was a supplement to the 1912 version.

In the late 1870s, appeals were made to the men of Alexandria for support,. The directors met with another “Young Men’s Library Association” in 1878 without success, records of operations stop after January 1880.

The Gazette reported in January 1881 that the books were now in the custody of the school board, whose membership included William F. Carne, a former library company director and the son of one its former presidents. In May 1887 it reported that Carne, as leader of the board’s library committee, was inviting associations wishing to participate in re-opening the library to a meeting at the Peabody school building where the books were held, and explained that he had always intended a reading room to be opened to the public once space was freed up for that purpose.

In June 1887, the Gazette reported that the “Reading Circle of Washington and Lee Schools” organized by teachers two years prior and the YMCA would operate the free library during the summer, in the hope that in September “an effort will be made, with a very fair prospect of success, to re-organize the Library Company.” Gazette reports in 1890 and 1891 refer to continued efforts by Carne and others to “re-open” the library, and in 1892 being part of a “committee on the project for a free public library,” but they did not succeed.

In the decades after 1870s librarianship not only professionalized but underwent a rapid gender shift, and apart from the periods in which there was no librarian for financial reasons, no male librarians seem to have been employed until well into the 20th century. Women’s library organizations had become common nationally, and along with the philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie played a major role in the growth of public libraries in America starting in the late 19th century.

In September 1897, the Alexandria Library Association led by Virginia Corse received custody of the books then in possession of the school board. With a modest donation from Carnegie, by 1898 the library was back in business, but as a subscription library, it would not become a free public library for almost 40 years. The new library needed a new librarian, and after one or two initial hires, the association found Alice Green (1865-1956), who would serve from 1902-1937 and in a lesser capacity into the mid-1940s. During this period, space for the library was rented from the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC).

The Depression brought financial hardship. As the crisis worsened in early 1931, the association had obtained $1,000 from the city council to form “a nucleus for the establishment of a public library.” Discussion of becoming a public library had been common since the 1920s, as the efforts of Carnegie and others had made them the norm nationally. Attempts were made to sell older books and hold fundraisers as subscription fees dried up. There was also a dispute with the UDC over a rent increase in 1933. The library was aided by the wealth of its members, including a $5,000 bequest in 1935 from its long-time treasurer, Margaret L. Smoot.

Members built political support both on the council and among the public in the mid-1930s and in 1937 it was agreed that a building would be constructed on the site of the old cemetery of the Society of Friends and that the city government would cover annual expenses of no more than $5,000 for the association to operate a free library. One member of the board would be appointed by the city. The new governing organization was rebranded the Alexandria Library Society. Agreements were signed in January, and the library opened at the Kate Waller Barrett Branch’s current location, 717 Queen Street.

Another change after 1937 was the gender composition of the leadership. Men served on the board of the new Society and played prominent roles after 1937. After 1948 they typically occupied the presidency of the organization. Most elections were unanimous, often with women casting most of the votes, but it ceased to be a women’s organization.

In 1945 a technicality in the Society’s contract with the city was brought to the attention of the board. Namely that the $5,000 the city was obligated to provide each year was not the minimum but rather the maximum contribution, and that the higher appropriations it had been making were illegal. The city took this as an opportunity to demand a contract change beyond the funding formula. Although the men of the city council had representation on the board, the women of the Society were still ultimately running the library, and the Society was asked to allow a majority of the executive board to be appointed by the city, and a minority by the Society. That the city legally “owned the building and all its contents” so long as it paid $5,000 per year was also pointed out. The Alexandria Library Society signed the new contract, surrendering control of the library in November 1947. In its reduced role, the Society still elected members to the board and received reports from the librarian. It also retained independent funds that could be used for the benefit of the library. With the library now fully the city’s responsibility, the membership was also able to more openly advocate for additional funding.

Another longstanding issue at the library was race. The president’s 1928 annual report had endorsed becoming a "free city library," but feared that becoming a Carnegie library "would bring in some elements hitherto unknown and I think undesirable in our Library.” In the 1930s the library association favored providing segregated facilities, but, after repeated meetings with the city council, failed to achieve even that modest goal. In the 13 March, 1939, minutes, the issue was revisited yet again, but without result.

Four days later on 17 March 1939, Sergeant George Wilson was turned down for a library card because of his race and Samuel Tucker filed a civil rights lawsuit against the librarian on his behalf. Plans for a segregated facility were dusted off, and new staff was hired so that the librarian could focus on the controversy. On 21 August 1939, several black men organized by Tucker entered the library and followed Wilson’s example, but after being refused, seated themselves in the library with books, beginning America’s first library sit-in. It ended only after the city manager called the police, and all were arrested. The lawsuit was dismissed on technical grounds, but to prevent a new lawsuit the city approved the Robert H. Robinson branch, which opened in 1940. Tucker refused to accept a card there.

A major issue in the early 1950s was the push to expand the overcrowded main library serving the white community. The white librarian at the time, who had been hired in a junior capacity during Tucker’s campaign in 1939, suggested to the Society that the expansion could be an opportunity to integrate. In the midst of the debates over expansion and additional funding, an opportunity emerged to purchase a neighboring building on the corner of North Columbus and Queen, which was later demolished. This prompted a discussion about the Alexandria Library Society’s connection to the original library company. It was decided to change the name from the “Alexandria Library Society” to the “Alexandria Library Company,” make the appropriate filings with the state government, and reinstate the 1799 charter, which would be revised by the legislature in the 1980s to help obtain tax-exempt status from the IRS.

This name change was completed at one of the company’s most consequential meetings in February 1956. Every member was asked to sign their name in the minute book to signal their assent. A letter from a local civil rights activist questioning the legality of library segregation was also read, but deemed the province of the library board, which referred the matter back to the company whose reply is not preserved.

Member Mangum Weeks thereupon raised the question of the future role of the Library Company, and proposed resuming the tradition of annual lectures dating from the Lyceum period using funds from the newly instituted membership dues. This proposal was adopted, and preparing the annual lectures soon became a major focus of the Company. The Library Company continues to appoint members to the board of the Alexandria Library and hold its annual lecture series. It commissioned a new history of the library by William Seale in 2007, which can be found at the Local History and Special Collections Branch.

Presidents and Librarians of the Library

Chronological listings for both presidents of the board and librarians up to the modern day.

Presidents of the Library Company and Its Successors

February 1794-February 1813
Rev. James Muir
February 1813-February 1815
Hugh Smith
February 1815-March 1824
John Roberts
March 1824-February 1829
Hugh Smith
February 1829-February 1835
John Richards
February 1835-February 1840
John Roberts
February 1840-1852
Elias Harrison
1852-February 1855
J. Louis Kinzer
February 1855-September 1858
Francis Miller
September 1858- February 1859
Richard L. Carne
February 1859-September 1859
Caleb S. Hallowell
September 1859-February 1860
William G. Cazenove
February 1860-February 1870
Richard L. Carne
February 1870-February 1873
K. Kemper
February 1873-October 1873
Samuel H. Janney
October 1873-February 1874
Sidney C. Neale
February 1874-June 1879
Mercer Slaughter
September 1897-October 1905
Virginia Corse
July 1906-June 1925
Mrs. Samuel. L. Monroe
October 1925-April 1930
Loula Smoot
April 1930-November 1933
Mrs. Henry B. Soule, [Jessie E. Soule]
December 1933-December 1934
Mary Lloyd
December 1934-December 1936
Susan Thomson
December 1936-November 1937
Mrs. Louis Scott
November 1937-November 1944
Mrs. Curtis Backus
November 1944-November 1946
Mrs. [Lawrence] Fawcett, [Mary Fawcett]
November 1946-November 1947
Howard Worth Smith
November 1947-October 1948
[Miss Anne] Lewis Jones
October 1948-October 1949
Miss Horne
October 1949-October 1950
Mr. Stanley King
October 1950-December 1951
Mr. [Joseph] Crockett
December 1951-February 1955
Mr. Robert Moncure
February 1955-February 1957
Dr. [W. Bruce] Silcox
February 1957-February 1959
Stanley King
February 1959-February 1962
Mangum Weeks
February 1962-February 1963
Richard Bales
February 1963-February 1965
Donald King
February 1965-February 1967
David Squires
February 1967-February 1969
Howard Worth Smith Jr.
February 1969-February 1971
William Francis Smith
February 1971-February 1972
John T. Ticer
February 1972-February 1974
David M. Abshire
February 1974-February 1976
Mrs. Merill Beede
February 1976-February 1978
Mrs. Douglas Lindsey
February 1978-February 1980
Clarke T. Cooper Jr.
February 1980-February 1982
William Seale
February 1982-February 1983
Denys Peter Myers
February 1983-February 1985
William B. Hurd
February 1985-February 1986
George J. Stansfield
February 1986-February 1987
Dr. Ernest A. Connally
February 1987-February 1989
Dr. Wilton C. Corkern, Jr.
February 1989-March 1991
James M. Lewis
March 1991-March 1992
Mrs. Anne Smith Paul
March 1992-March 1993
Richard R. G. Hobson
March 1993-March 1995
Dabney Waring
March 1995-March 1997
James R. Hobson
March 1997-March 1998
Robert C. Reed
March 1998-March 2000
Neil Horstman
March 2000-March 2002
Carroll Johnson
March 2002-March 2003
Thomas C. Brown Jr.

Librarians of Alexandria

February 1794-February 1796
Edward Stabler
February 1796-February 1818
James Kennedy
February 1818-August 1826
William Cranch
August 1826-October 1829
W. Samuel Mark
October 1829-March 1845
George Drinker
March 1845-September 1845
James M. Eaches
September 1845-September 1852
C.F. Stuart
September 1852-April 1853
H. W. P. Junius
September 1852-April 1853
L.? Hunter
November 1853
Office Abolished
February 1854-October 1855
E. M.[Magruder?] Lowe
October 1855-September 1858
Norval E. Foard
September 1858-February 1859
S. Scott
February 1859-September 1859
Edward R. Roxbury
September 1859-February 1860
James A. Clarridge
February 1860-April 1861
Charles R. Burgess (acting)
April 1861-Unknown
Edwin N. Wise
March 1868
Wr. Bushby
April 1870-May 1871
August Henning
July 1871-March 1872
W. F. Stansbury
March 1872-August 1873
Emma J. Young
October 1873-March 1876
Emily English
March 1876
Position Eliminated
June 1879
R. Pendleton Bruin (unofficial? acting?)
October 1900-October 1903
F. Olive Lyons
October 1903-April 1937 (continued part-time, mentioned up to 1946)
Alice Green
April 1937-December 1938
Miss Beatrice Workman
January 1939-January 1941
Katherine Scoggin (later Martyn)
February 1941-June 1948
Bessie Watson
July 1948-June 1969 (hired part-time October 1939, letter of resignation later that month)
Ellen C. Burke
July 1969-October 1992 (librarian from 1958)
Jeanne G. Plitt


7.75 Linear Feet (15 boxes) : 12.5 legal size boxes, 1 oversize box, and one record storage carton of audio-visual material. ; Oz 25 x 20 x 2.5

Language of Materials


Related Materials

The Alexandria Library Records (Ms 98) document the library as a separate institution from 1937 onward.

It particularly complements this collection in its early decades through its administrative correspondence, board correspondence, minutes, annual reports, and organizational records, including contracts with the Alexandria Library Society.

The minutes of the library's executive board (1938-1947) are included in the microfilm version of the library minute books 1794-1947.
Transcripts of library company lectures 2-18 are available in the library.

Lecture series : [transcripts of the audiotapes made of the scholars invited to speak at these annual lectures]

Alexandria Library Co. Lecture Series #2
080 LEC 2
Alexandria Library Co. Lecture Series #3
080 LEC 3
Alexandria Library Co. Lecture Series #4
080 LEC 4
Alexandria Library Co. Lecture Series #5
080 LEC 5
Alexandria Library Co. Lecture Series #6
080 LEC 6
Alexandria Library Co. Lecture Series #7
080 LEC 7
Alexandria Library Co. Lecture Series #8
080 LEC 8
Alexandria Library Co. Lecture Series #9
080 LEC 9
Alexandria Library Co. Lecture Series #10
080 LEC 10
Alexandria Library Co. Lecture Series #11
080 LEC 11
Alexandria Library Co. Lecture Series #12
080 LEC 12
Alexandria Library Co. Lecture Series #13
080 LEC 13
Alexandria Library Co. Lecture Series #14
080 LEC 14
Alexandria Library Co. Lecture Series #15
080 LEC 15
Alexandria Library Co. Lecture Series #16
080 LEC 16
Alexandria Library Co. Lecture Series #17
080 LEC 17
Alexandria Library Co. Lecture Series #18
080 LEC 18

Processing Information

A reprocessing project begun in 2018 incorporated several boxes of previously unprocessed materials dating from the 1960s to the 2000s, with the bulk dating from after 1980. They included many short, overlapping sequences of correspondence, lecture, meeting, and member records which were merged into continuations of established series including primarily correspondence and lectures but also meetings and member correspondence. The "subject files" were added to the existing miscellaneous series.

Several other changes were also made. A re-examination of the catalog, subscription, and circulation books was undertaken and most were renumbered, described, and relabeled based on primary source research. The 1794-1861 minute book that had been donated back in 1922 was also discovered misfiled in Ms 98 (which covers the library proper since 1937) and was returned to its original collection. Some letters found in minute books were moved to the correspondence series, and their original locations were bookmarked with acid free paper. Photocopies of catalogs were removed.
Alexandria Library Company Records
Joel Horowitz
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Code for undetermined script
Language of description note

Repository Details

Part of the Local History and Special Collections Branch, Alexandria Library Repository

717 Queen Street
Alexandria VA 22314 United States