A-Z Challenge….. L is for …..



When I was a youngster a trip to the town library was a big adventure. About once a month, on a Saturday morning, my father would go into town to do “jobs”  one of which was to exchange the library books and I loved to tag along.

The library was in an old house with hard wooden floors – each room contained books except the kitchen and bathroom – it was dark and mysterious and efficiently run by Mrs Alderton.   All the books had grids drawn inside the front and back covers so borrowers could write their initials or a symbol inside a little square so as not to accidentally borrow the book more than once.

Of course nothing was computerized and Mrs Alderton would write our name on a little card drawn from a pocket inside the cover and which was then put into lovely old wooden file boxes on her desk.  She stamped the pocket with the date the book was due back and off we’d go.

This weekend I joined our library which has been closed for the last couple of years as it underwent a $12 million restoration. I joined up online and my card was ready by the time I’d walked the mile there from home.  Membership comes with a user name and password for electronic books – I wonder if Mrs Alderton is still alive and what she thinks of all this high tech stuff!

The building is a gorgeous Georgian-revival style designed by Nathan C. Wyeth who was DC Municipal Architect at the time the library was designed and built.  It was originally opened in January 1939.  This recent renovation included total window & door restoration, new cupola and balustrade and full restoration of the original interior finishes and furniture.   

The new cupola: Petworth Library was the sixth neighborhood library to open in DC and was built on land donated by the DC School board. Final construction cost was  $180,000 which was provided by Congress after a public campaign to provide a library in the community. In 1927 this location was deemed ideal as it  was estimated the population in the community was 50,000 and 11,000 school children attended 11 neighborhood schools; the site was also accessible by streetcar service.

The citizens of Petworth originally obtained an appropriation of $150,000 to be included in the 1932 DC budget but these funds were never approved and in 1933 the DC Public Library Board of Trustees sent a request to the DC Commissioners to include funds for the library through the Works Progress Administration – but this was also denied.   In 1936 Congress finally approved $75,000 for construction of the library with another $75,000 promised for 1937 but the total funding was later raised to $180,000.

So once the money issue was settled Wyeth got busy with his drawings and had completed the design in the fall of 1937. But, then the DC Commissioners were forced to reject all contractor bids because they all exceeded the $180,000. The plans were modified to reduce construction costs and construction began December 7th 1937; the library was dedicated on January 27th 1939.   The first Petworth Library librarian is listed as being Charlotte H. Clark.

The building was embellished with a limestone water table and quoining, dentil molding along the cornice and ornate classically inspired door surround featuring Ionic columns surmounted by a wide entablature and crowned by two decorative urns.  The building’s design was intended to give the impression of a “substantial, comfortable home, rather than a formal institution.”

Wyeth included indirect lighting in the reading rooms, a specially planned entrance designed for functionality and easy surveillance of patrons entering and exiting, a built-in filing system in the staff offices and fireplaces in the reading rooms.    Within the first two weeks of operation the library circulated 17,950 books!  After 6 weeks the librarian issued stats showing that the branch’s 33,000 volume collection only provided four books for every registered patron!   At that time, more than 9,000 adults and children were registered as borrowers.    During WWII the library served as a civilian defense station holding air-raid warden meetings and first aid training  – it was the most active library and the second largest producer of Red Cross emergency sewing in DC.

During 1948-49   4,494 patrons registered as members of the library and 199,616 books were borrowed;  the lending collection was 51,738 books and the reference collection 1,420 volumes.   The library also housed 220 current periodicals and had a “Linguaphone Room”  that offered records in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Portuguese, Hebrew and English.  Pretty impressive!

I don’t have a photo of the building before the renovations started but this was taken in May 2010 …..   once the exterior was cleaned up there was extensive work to be done on the interior.    
The library was re-opened in March 2011 .  Click on any photo to see more detail –  I was really impressed with the restoration work.The entry foyer has a giant neighborhood street map on the floor:   

Books & computers this way: 

Looking towards one of the reading rooms: 

Another beautifully restored room: And for all you people who are late getting your books back you’d better watch out for the Library Police!  Who knew there was such a thing!   


27 responses

  1. What a great post!

    I have not let it slip, I essentially grew up in a Library. Like your childhood library, mine was in an old home on our main street. I did indeed like to read, but, I actually spent almost 8 hrs a day each summer at the library because my Mom was the Children’s Librarian, and I suppose she did not want to pay for childcare…

    I love that building. It had all sorts of places to explore and a lovely back yard along a small stream….
    Ahh memories!

    I had NO idea the library police existed. What exactly is their particular function. I can see Police inside of a Metro Library, but the squad car??

    Our local library is a lot more functional, and not as lovely, I am a bit jealous.

    • After I had the princess I went back to work part-time as the Admin Assistant/Personal Aide to the owner of a huge gym – during school holidays my kids spent their days in the childcare there. When they were sick they’d come to work with me and sleep under the desk. The boys especially are interested in exercise and body building, as you are in reading – there must be a correlation between where one has to spend (enjoyable) early years and what you enjoy in your past-time now.

      I think HG is correct – that the Library Police are used to escort homeless from the library. I don’t think there are many Library Police and they need the squad car to get between the libraries. It did make me laugh to see the car though – I’d never seen one before.

    • Mrs. Alderton was a widow who always seemed to be much older than my father though she had two boys around my age. If the library wasn’t busy she’d make a cup of tea for my father and we’d have biscuits (cookies) in the kitchen area with her. I think there might have been a cat or two lurking around the rooms also. It was a really “warm” place – selecting Kindle books online will never have the same feeling as running a finger along a line of book spines.

  2. I love libraries and try to visit them whenever I drive into a town that has one, though Olympia’s was just a 1950s glass and concrete bunker. The Petworth is a beautiful piece of architecture, even without the books inside! It’s hard to believe it was built in the 1930s.

    I’m guessing the Library Police are really there to escort the drunks and homeless people out of the library and make sure people aren’t trying to steal the rare books and CDs out of the collection. There was a book collector in Iowa who was arrested after it was discovered he had thousands of books stolen from libraries all over the country. It’s harder to do that now with electronic detectors, but to lend a book out to someone takes a huge amount of trust on the part of a community. When libraries first started, patrons had to pay a subscription fee to get a card. Now our library checks out e-book readers for free, and unbelievably people do return them intact. It’s a great institution, even in this age of Amazon and Kindles.

    • I really enjoyed finding the history of our library – especially all the information on the initial numbers of books, membership and lending rates. I love “stuff” like that. I love that the architect wanted to make the building homey (even if on a scale that most of use will never experience as a home!) – I’m looking forward to going back in winter and sitting by one of those fireplaces. In summer it would be wonderful to have an afternoon sitting beside one of the large windows with the natural light.

      Our library is offering free lunches to kids, 18 years and under, during the summer break – these kids would normally get a free meal at school – I hope that doing it in the library encourages some love of reading and books.

      I have a friend who is a librarian in a very remote disadvantaged area of Australia – she was somewhat sad when the library put electronic detectors at the exit because she wanted to believe that any child/teenager stealing a book really wanted that book to read and treasure.

      • I’m with your friend (having grown up in the middle of nowhere — and having NOTHING). As an adult, I’d be happy to see any child (or adult) steal a book to treasure. They’re not doing it out of meanness but “need.”

    • No you could check a book out as many times as you liked but this system was for people like me who don’t always remember if they’ve read something and waste their allotment on books they’ve read and don’t realise it until they’ve driven many miles home (and who might be looking at 3 or 4 weeks before getting back to swap it). I think the limit was 5 fiction and 2 non fiction at a time (per library card) and you had 4 weeks and one renewal to read them. These squares also helped if you were borrowing on behalf of someone else – as I got older I was allowed to help select books for my mother and I would look for her initials before getting a book. You could renew by phone – if you could get through on the party line! LOL.

  3. Nice to see such a lovely library in such a wonderful building. Did they have a library functioning during the rebuild at? I hope so, as it would be terrible to not loan books for a couple of years!

    • During construction they had a huge trailer in the car park – I think people mostly requested books online and then collected them from the trailer as the trailer was pretty limited in space for displaying books. This weekend was the first time I’d been to our library – shame on me – it was operating for the first couple of years of us moving in it did not look very appealing and I was a member of the library near my office. I am thrilled to have such a beautiful library now.

  4. Wowzers. I wish I had photos of the “library” in High Ridge from my childhood. They had it in a basement under a grocery store. It was only donated books–I stuck with the Hardy Boys and science books (non-fic). Living so far from it, I only got to go a few times a year (during summer) but I loved it!

    They took a different grocery store that closed (about 1 block away) and totally remodeled it. I could get photos of it but in comparison to yours, there’s no point. It’s just a building, almost like a shop. So much better than the dripping ceiling (from under the coolers) of the old library, though! I find it beautiful but it’s just well, relatively beautiful. Yours is amazing.

    • I think the beauty is in the books that a place holds but it is nice to have a pleasant place to sit and read. I think converting a grocery store into a library is cool. There is a great bookshop in a basement not far from where I live called Sisterspace Books – it’s not fancy but it’s a great place.

      Probably most of the towns-people thought the old “house” library was pretty dreadful but it seemed really special and exciting to me as a child. The entire outing was such fun. The trip to town with dad (especially without any siblings); the dark rooms filled with mysterious books; the lady offering biscuits, chit chat & a cat to pat and then going to visit my grandparents who lived in town before we went back out to the farm.

    • I noticed a lot of space on our library shelves…. more so in the adult section than the children and teens areas which were well stocked. It will be interesting to see how stocked things are by the end of the year.

  5. Thanks for bringing back some wonderful memories…occasionally I buy secondhand books that still have the old stamped library cards still in the cover pocket which take me back to the 1960’s.
    Your new library looks wonderful…..I just love all the new facilities available at libraries today.

    • They are wonderful memories aren’t they – and they get better with each birthday I pass. Yesterday we went to a garage sale and ended up hanging out for hours with two senior gentlemen (late 70’s) talking about records and how great it was to spend an afternoon just spinning vinyl. I doubt my kids would know what I was talking about – they barely know what a “real” book is (they read electronic or online) let alone a record or cassette!

    • Seeing my library all shined up (and air conditioned!) made me really happy. I was sounding so enthusiastic about it all that the manservant went on Friday and joined up too even though he has a beautiful library at his work.

  6. I love the map floor! Very cool beans. Good thing to spend money on is restoring a library. I remember the cards too, we are showing our age, Emjay. : )
    Over here they tried to shut some libraries to save money (they also cut bus service to villages; how about instead making the public service workers clean their own offices and politicians pay for their own lunches, etc?)…which was protested at every turn. Even normally sedate in his concern (on stoopid politicians – he feels they are inevitably always to be) Masha commented.

    • DC has restored/rebuilt a few libraries over the last few years – one of the better things they’ve done! Another library within walking distance, though further away than Petworth Library is the Shaw Library – it’s new though and I don’t think it has as much character as my restored one.

      Yeah, there’s a lot of money wasted in the “public service” sector. I remember in Australia (years ago) they used to get morning and afternoon tea. Tea Lady’s would bring trolleys around the floors with urns of coffee/tea along with scones, biscuits and sandwiches. It was *heavily* subsidized by tax payers!

  7. LOL I think I would be regularly visited by that police. Okay I wouldn’t. I would deliver the book back even though I wouldn’t have finished it yet, just to keep to the time restrictions. Though at this point of time I would deliver back a lot of half read books.

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