Miss Adeline Jessup Pratt visits a local school

The Beginning: First County Library

| Burlington County Library

Caroline LeConey, Alice Shreve and Margaret McLean saw the need firsthand. More than a century ago, the three “helping teachers” decided there had to be an easier way to get books into the hands of school children in Burlington County. At the time, some towns had their own libraries and the State Public Library Commission sent out small, traveling collections to schools and communities, but there were no county libraries in New Jersey. The solution, the teachers thought, could be found in Trenton. So they traveled to the Office of the Librarian of the Public Library Commission and asked a simple question: How could a county library be formed?

The rest, of course, is history. This year, BCLS is celebrating 100 years of excellence and we’re taking a look back to when it all began with three teachers who voiced their concern and discussed the need for legislation to establish the first county library in the state.

After the meeting in Trenton, efforts to garner support for the new centralized library moved quickly. Using other states as his guide, Burlington County Assemblyman Emmor Roberts drafted the new County Library Law. A member of the New Jersey Library Commission, Roberts was a graduate of Friends High School in Moorestown and Swarthmore College. He was also the owner and operator of five large fruit farms, including the Jersey Jerry Apple Orchard in Vincentown. The young assemblyman presented the bill to the legislature and on April 7, 1920, Governor Edward Edwards signed it.

The next challenge was convincing Burlington County voters of the proposed library's value; it needed to be approved by referendum before it could become a reality. The three teachers, assisted by prominent librarian Sarah Askew, head of the New Jersey Library Commission, took their message to the people. They appealed to local parent teacher associations, church organizations, YMCAs and other groups. One letter written by Askew, a farmer's daughter, was addressed to "My Fellow Grangers" and emphasized the value of books, insisting "...the chance to start on the same footing as the other fellow, that's what I know you want for your boys and girls, that's what a library means."

Fortunately for us, the intense community campaign proved successful. In November 1920, voters overwhelmingly approved the new library by a margin of nearly two to one. Soon after, the Burlington County Board of Chosen Freeholders appointed a five-member commission that would have the authority to administer county library affairs. The original members - all women - hailed from Mount Holly, Moorestown, Riverton, Bordentown and Columbus and the newly-formed group got right to work. On December 8, 1920, the commission hired Adeline Jessup Pratt, a graduate of the Columbia University School of Library Science, to serve as the first county librarian at a salary of $2,000 per year. She assumed her new role on Aug. 1, 1921 and approximately two months later, on Oct. 7 1921, Burlington County Library became the first county library in New Jersey.

At first, the fledgling library operated out of a building owned by the YMCA on Water Street (now Rancocas Road) in Mount Holly. But in November 1921, it relocated to a larger room on the second floor of another YMCA building on nearby Paxson Street.

The teachers must have been thrilled to see their idea come to fruition. The new library served as the central location for distributing books to sites all over the county. And since the library law had been championed by teachers, it’s no surprise that county library services placed an initial emphasis on schools. Rural schools, community libraries, homes, churches and post offices were among the designated county library stations. A specially outfitted "book truck" was used to transport the books and served as the first county bookmobile. The schools' "book rooms" would evolve into school libraries.

Clearly, the much-anticipated Burlington County Library was an early success! Records show that by end of the first year of operation, 101 library stations were being served and there were approximately 20,000 books in circulation, as well as Victrola records and prints. And, just three years after the referendum for the new library was approved, an article published in the Trenton Evening Times confirmed that residents were quite pleased to have it. The article quoted "a youthful student in the Willingboro rural school" who spoke for many residents of the county, young and old, when he said, “The voters did a great thing for us when they gave us the county library.”