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History of the Warren County Library, 1930-2021

Early Years

Imagine the year is 1931. One year ago, Warren County residents voted to establish a county library.  Within six months, the Warren County Library Commission formed, established a location to house the library, purchased materials and supplies, and appointed a county librarian. Now the library is making regular visits to dozens of locations in even the most remote corners of this rural area in northwestern New Jersey.

Originally headquartered on Mill Street in Belvidere, the Warren County Library conducted much of its work by bookmobile at schools and library “stations.” Stations were book collections supplied and selected by the county librarian but housed and lent by volunteers in their homes, churches, and businesses. In just the first year of its operation, the library was making regular visits to fifty-one stations and forty-five schools (Washington Star 2-25-1932). In this time before consolidated school systems, the Warren County Library served small, rural schools by supplying children with storybooks and teachers with reference material for school curriculum. In some cases, such as the Blairstown Library, a station was so well supported by the community that it developed into a fully-operational library. 

The early years of the library were characterized by resourcefulness and action. When the book truck was unable to make deliveries, the library mailed books to stations. In addition to the work of establishing and servicing stations, the librarian gave presentations at schools and attended meetings and workshops to increase her knowledge and skills in the profession.

It wasn’t all about books though. In 1937, the book truck found itself rushing a wounded hunter to the hospital, and in 1938, the librarian and truck were included in a moving picture made at the Allamuchy school.

In April 1941, the Warren County Library appointed Miss Margaret Zimmerman to be the librarian of the Blairstown location as an N.Y.A. (National Youth Administration) position. The N.Y.A. was a New Deal agency that helped young people to acquire jobs. It differed from the Civilian Conservation Corps in that it extended its services to women as well as men. 

The duties of the county librarian included selecting and purchasing books and supplies, establishing library stations, circulating books for the best interest of the people of the county, and seeking ways to promote the work and growth of the library.  Promoting the work of the library included 
providing support for community libraries like those in Blairstown and Oxford. After the Blairstown Library Association was formed, the Warren County Library continued to supply materials, hold story hour, and set up exhibits of new children’s books there. 

When the United States entered World War II in 1941, America’s involvement in the war affected the entire country, and the Warren County Library was no exception. Restrictions of materials like rubber and gasoline reduced the number of visits that the book truck could make, and the library faced closure if the librarian was called into service by the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.  Despite these setbacks from the war, the Warren County Library provided the best service possible, and in 1942 it even began loaning Victrola audio records. 

When the library first began serving Warren County, it stopped in even the smallest one-room schools. The villages where some of these schools were located have since faded from bustling communities to little more than road names and clusters of residences.  This change was most evident in 1950, when a reassessment of the library’s school services revealed widespread school district consolidation. Forty-seven small schools had closed, which sent students to larger regional schools and thus decreased the number of bookmobile visits. Following this change, the library contributed more resources into supplying books for school libraries. By 1957, the Warren County Library was serving 150 classrooms and one high school.

Located in the Mary Clark Building in Belvidere from 1932 to 1960, the library headquarters held a full collection of materials for loan, accommodated visits of school children and patrons to the library, set up book displays, catalogued and mended materials, and coordinated the book truck visits – all with only 969 square feet of floor space. The Mary Clark Building was located on the corner of 2nd Street and Hardwick Street in Belvidere before it was razed in 1961 to accommodate expansion of the Warren County Court House. 

Library on Wheels

The headquarters was moved in June of 1960 to slightly larger quarters within the Warren County Court House. At this time, the book truck began making “district stops” in areas that did not have library stations. District stops were scheduled visits in which members of the community could visit the book truck and check out or return materials. This was different than a station stop, as stations were always available to residents and the book truck would simply restock them and fill special requests at regular intervals.

District stop services were made easier with the purchase of the library’s first walk-on bookmobile in 1963. It fit 2,400 books, and the librarian reported that patrons loved the new “library on wheels” (The Express 9-19-1963).

In 1964, the Warren County Library Commission began discussing the need for larger and more ample space for the Library headquarters, which could not permanently remain in the Court House. The subject of finding a suitable permanent location would be an issue of debate for decades. By 1968, the conditions were so severely cramped that books had to be stored in the attic of the Court House, and space barely allowed for staff to work while visitors browsed for books. The director’s year-end summary report remarked that in 1968, the library circulated a total of 100,134 books, which was “an amazing feat considering the hampered, crowded conditions under which the library staff performs their duties…This is really a major endeavor on the part of our patrons when one sees the piles of unshelved books and general confusion due to lack of space.” About 85% of the books circulated at this time were through the bookmobile, which was truly a mobile branch and was integral in providing library services while the headquarters was so restricted by lack of space. 

Despite crowded conditions at the headquarters, the library continued to promote literacy in communities across the county.  In the summer of 1967, the Warren County Library held reading programs in several towns, and in 1969 it supported a presentation by Hope resident and Newbery Medal-winning author Joseph Krumgold about his children’s novel Onion John. The presentation was attended by 400 people.

A 1970 study evaluating library service needs called for a headquarters with 14,310 square feet of space.  A tract of land located along Route 519 near the County Road and Bridge Department Building was suggested as a building site, but the high cost of constructing a new facility resulted in a move to an existing building. In June 1973, the library moved its headquarters to the former Presbyterian Home on the corner of 2nd and Hardwick Streets in Belvidere. This location was not suited for a library, but the increased space it afforded provided shelf-space for materials. A plan for the development of library
service that was published in 1974 declared that the new facility “still falls far short of meeting any reasonable standard for a library of this kind.” Although it was supposed to be temporary, this location housed the headquarters for 40 years.

Bookmobile services boomed in the 1970s. A map of bookmobile stops from 1971 listed 57 locations, but by 1978 the program had expanded to 94 locations (Daily Record 7-6-1978). If materials were needed in between stops, those items were supplied by mail (Star-Gazette 11-1-1973). 

In 1977, an additional bookmobile was purchased to increase the number of trips to some of the busier stops. The original bookmobile made monthly trips, and the new vehicle was used for bi-weekly routes (The Forum 4-19-1978).  Without the bookmobile, residents who were unable to travel to the headquarters would have been without a library.

Rapid Expansion

As the county grew, residents required greater services than the bookmobiles and one permanent location could provide. This need for increased services led to the establishment of three branches in a 6-year span.

In the late 1980s, Warren County was still a rural area with a scattered population, and town libraries were not geared toward serving large areas. A 1987 study recommended branch libraries for various areas in the county so patrons did not have to drive a great distance to be served.

The study also revealed an important cultural change in the lives of residents. It showed a decline in bookmobile use, which was believed to be a result of more women entering the workforce and not being able to visit the bookmobile during the workday. The library needed to adapt to the changing needs of the community, not just the size of the population.

As a result of the study’s findings, Library Director Thomas Carney outlined specific objectives to expand the library. His short-range plan called for the immediate establishment of service outlets in the towns of Phillipsburg and Blairstown, which had existing libraries that could be expanded with aid from the county, and in the township of Independence, which had an active community volunteer group that wished to establish a library there.

Discussions began quickly with the Phillipsburg Library and the Blairstown Library, which had been renamed after benefactor Catherine Dickson Hofman in 1970. By April 1989, the county library entered into a contract with the Catherine Dickson Hofman Library to provide services to county library patrons from its facility.

In October 1989, the Warren County Library “developed the existing library at the Warren County Vo-Tech School into a joint library serving the needs of the school and the general public.” This venture produced the Franklin Branch, the first official branch of the Warren County Library, which was located on Route 57 in Franklin Township.

Providing library service to residents in southern Warren County through a partnership with the existing Phillipsburg Free Public Library had been discussed since the 1960s, but such a partnership did not come together until 1990. In this year, the Warren County Library and the Phillipsburg Free Public Library formed an agreement similar to that in Blairstown, which gave funding to the Phillipsburg Library in exchange for free library service to residents of the 17 townships that belong to the Warren County Library System.

The residents of Independence Township who had worked to establish a library there were rewarded in February 1993, when the Warren County Library opened the Northeast Branch on Route 46 in Independence Township. The location of a branch in the Independence/Allamuchy area gave complete library service to an area that had previously been served only by the bookmobile. 

After several years of contractual partnership with the Warren County Library, the Catherine Dickson Hofman Library opened its doors in a new location as a branch of the Warren County Library in January 1995. This new branch offered accessibility, a meeting room for events, and a modern layout. Its opening concluded the 6-year flurry of expansion. 

Bookmobile service had once been the lifeblood of the library, but the establishment of branch libraries removed much of the need for neighborhood stops. As a result, bookmobile stops were condensed into areas that were not served by a branch. Eventually, the services were instead directed exclusively towards preschools, homebound residents, and nursing homes.

The Digital Age

The first hints of a new era were seen in the late 1980s, when the library commission discussed placing inventory information on CD-ROM instead of a card file. The holdings on CD-ROM would be necessary for a library networking system, and that system made it possible in 1989 for the Warren County Library to join the state-wide inter-library loan program. In that same year, reference services opened up beyond encyclopedias and print journals when the reference department began using a pay-per-search computer database to retrieve scholarly articles.

The library, having grown into a system with 4 locations, truly entered a new era in 1996.  After a year of preparation and a cost of $230,000.00 (Free Press 5-9-1996), the Library retired its card catalog and debuted an online catalog on Tuesday, May 7, 1996 (The Express 5-6-1996). The new catalog made it possible for a patron to use one library card at every branch of the Warren County Library, bringing together the branches into an integrated system.

The digital age rapidly produced new types of material to loan as entertainment and education extended beyond the pages of books. Borrowing movies on VHS from the library became a popular alternative to renting, and as technology advanced, VHS cassettes gave way to DVD and Blu-ray movie formats. Books on tape, and later books on CD and downloadable audiobooks, changed the act of reading by allowing readers to listen to books. As new devices and media emerged and became important in the lives of library users, the library also lent CD-ROMS, music CDs, and video games. In the late 2000s, electronic books hit public markets, and the popularity of e-book readers prompted the Warren County Library to offer e-books as part of its collection in 2006. 

Public Internet access not only became a popular library service, but it changed the way the library interacted with the community. The reference department began subscribing to more online databases, and ease of searching for information on the Internet changed the way people conducted research. Librarians found themselves teaching library users how to find reliable information on the Internet, and the reference department even created lists of recommended web-sites for various subjects. Library users gained the ability to sign up for library programs from home, and readers enjoyed receiving emails with personalized book recommendations based on their interests.

The Warren County Library introduced its first website around 2002. In its early form, the library website was largely an online list of locations and hours of operation. It developed in 2005 to include history, community information, and notifications about events and services. In the following years, remote database access made it possible for library patrons to conduct scholarly research from home, and online accounts enabled users to search for and place requests on items. 

Some feared that the digital age, with its technological replacements for paper-based industries, would sound the death-knell for libraries, but by 2007, statistics showed that circulation of materials was the highest it had ever been even though more people used the library’s computers than ever before.  In spring 2015, the headquarters began offering self-check-out with an inclusive system that also provided loss-prevention. 

Changes in media formats encouraged the Warren County Library to seek new and different methods of providing education and entertainment to the community. Rather than leaving libraries behind, technological advances have provided new ways of continuing library services.

Continuing the Legacy

Following the Warren County Library’s rapid developments of branches and services, the library’s leaders were tasked with not only maintaining existing conditions, but also with bringing the facilities up to library standards for space and accessibility.  When most of the locations were first established, space and size were sacrificed in the interest of providing service. The continued development of those services, however, necessitated expansion into adequately-sized facilities.

Current Library Director Maureen Baker Wilkinson entered into her position at a point when several projects were ready to be realized, and the Warren County Library soon saw a number of much-needed advancements.  In 2009, a new bookmobile rolled into preschools sporting bright colors and images consistent with a new library card design that would be introduced in 2010.  

Previous Library Director Richard Moore had set the stage for the Northeast Branch to move in to a new facility. In 2011 it opened in a beautifully renovated barn, formerly Bests' Farm Market, just east of the former location on Route 46. The new space offered a meeting room, increased space for materials, and was designed with a farm theme as a nod to the physical space of the building and the agricultural history of the community.

In April 2013, the Headquarters moved to a brand-new building on Route 519 in White Township, complete with a spacious meeting room and enchanted children’s room forest. After 40 years in the previous location, and a long history of cramped and unsuitable locations before that, the Warren County Library’s headquarters finally had the facilities to properly administer the library system.

In a post-9/11 world, concerns about student safety have raised uncertainty over housing a public library branch within a school. This situation presented a challenge to the Franklin Branch, located in the Warren County Technical School, but it also presented the opportunity to explore other methods of service and possible ways of reaching under-served areas.

Nevertheless, the county continued to seek out a potential new location for the Franklin Branch. In June of 2016, the Board of Chosen Freeholders authorized the purchase of a building in the southwest corner of the county. The Franklin Branch would find its new home on Route 519 in Stewartsville and would be now known as the Southwest Branch. Construction began soon after purchase and doors opened to the public in August of 2018. In it's roughly 14,000 square feet of space, it boasts a large children's activity center, a teen section complete with a media wall and exercise bikes, and a quiet reading area with an electronic fireplace. The new location also features the system's first Makerspace, a collaborative workspace that facilitates making, learning, and exploring through the use of a wide range of technology.

In October 2021, the County Commissioners renamed the Headquarters building the Richard D. Gardner Branch. This name change was made in recognition of former Freeholder Gardner's service as the Liaison to the Warren County Library for many years, and his advocacy for library funding and the building of new and improved library facilities. 

Programming has become a valued service of the library, with a dedicated meeting room facility at all but one of the branches. Events range from early literacy programs for children to social and educational events for adults. Weekly story times prepare little ones for school, maker workshops encourage creativity in older children, and adults can enjoy free musical performers, craft programs, book clubs, and lectures. The annual summer reading program encourages children to enjoy reading and engage their minds while they’re not in school. The library prides itself on having transformed through the decades into a community center for activities that facilitate learning and collaboration.

Whether mailing books when road conditions were snowy or campaigning for a headquarters large enough to store all of its holdings on site, the library has faced different types of challenges over the decades. In recent years, it has welcomed upgraded facilities, but the library is also faced with adapting to advancements in technology, improving its offerings, and providing more complete services to areas not yet served by a branch. Just as in the early 1930s, the staff still seeks in every way to promote the work and growth of the library. The Warren County Library welcomes you to visit any of its locations to see what your library can do for you!

Warren County Library Directors:

    Dorothy Varian (McGeorge):     May, 1931—June, 1933
    Dorothy Russell:             July, 1933—September, 1934
    Kathryn Inman (Pursell):         October, 1934—March, 1940
    Evelyn Bergh:             March, 1940—April, 1943
        Doris Perini:         (Acting Librarian) May, 1943—October, 1943
        Library Closed:         October, 1943—December, 1943
    Martha L. Johnson:         January, 1944—July, 1957
    Nancy Harding:             December, 1958—October, 1987
    Thomas Carney:             October, 1987—2007
    Richard Moore:             December, 2007—June, 2009
    Maureen Baker Wilkinson:    July, 2009—present

Sources Consulted:

Archival documents from the Warren County Library Local History Collection
Internet Archive, http://www.archive.org
Minutes of the Warren County Library Commission