The rich history of libraries in DeKalb County had its genesis in Lithonia in 1907 when Miss Lula Almand gathered books in her home and invited local citizens to freely read and borrow. Later the local Woman’s Club, where Miss Lula was a charter member, founded the Lithonia Public Library which today serves as a branch of the DeKalb County Public Library (DCPL).
In 1925 the Decatur Library, which was the forerunner of the DeKalb County Public Library, was founded when a group of citizens led by Mrs. William Saywood and Mrs. William Alden met to form a Public Library Association. The first Board of Directors was, besides Mrs. Saywood and Mrs. Alden, Charles D. McKinney, Mrs. John DeSaussure, William Jones, G. W. Glausier, and J. A. Hall. Part-time Decatur librarians, who served until 1930 when Mrs. A.B. “Maud” Burrus was named the first full-time librarian, were Mrs. W.Z. Paulie, Miss Anna Harwell, and Miss Grace Kehrer.
Commenting on the work of Mrs. Burrus and early library leaders, Murphey Candler, prominent local lawyer and editor of The DeKalb New Era, wrote, …”Besides the work of Mrs. Burrus who is literally devoting her life to the cultural advancement of our county, and who through her efforts has placed the Decatur Library Association high in the ranks of libraries throughout the state, the work of Mrs. Alden, Mrs. Sayward, and Dr. D.P. McGeachy has been outstanding.”
The DeKalb County Public Library has a history of strong, capable directors, beginning with its first bona fide librarian in 1930, Mrs. Burrus, who served for 31 years. She was succeeded by her assistant director Louise Trotti in 1961, and in 1982 Barbara Loar, who had served as assistant to Miss Trotti, was named to succeed her. When Mrs. Loar retired in 1991, assistant director Donna Mancini was appointed to succeed her. She resigned in 1995 to accept another position, and Darro Willey was named as library director.
The Decatur Library began operating a “county-wide division” in the 1930s, and supported 25 book depositories in private homes around DeKalb County. In 1938 the Lithonia Public Library was added as a branch and a major milestone in 1940 was the operation of DCPL’s first bookmobile, funded by the Roosevelt administration’s Work Progress Administration (WPA). The idea for a bookmobile was born when Maud Burrus began taking books in the back of her car to readers in the small towns and farms throughout the county. The first supervisor of bookmobile services was Mrs. Burrus’ later successor, Louise Trotti. In 1952 a new “Library on Wheels” was purchased, and the older 1940 vintage vehicle was reconditioned to serve African-Americans in rural DeKalb County.
The Library’s original home was in the Decatur Bank & Trust Company building, and it was later moved to City Hall where it remained until a new library building, following separate Decatur and DeKalb bond issues, was built at a cost of $180,000 on Sycamore Street in 1950. The site of the new library was bequeathed to the city by Mrs. Annie Scott Cooper as a memorial to her father, George Washington Scott, founder of Agnes Scott College and to her husband, Thomas L. Cooper, who had served on the Board of Directors of the Library. The Library was renamed the Decatur-DeKalb Library. The building quickly became too small and an addition was built in 1954 to house an auditorium and the Fine Arts and Cataloging departments. In 1962 the building was renamed the Maud M. Burrus Library following Ms. Burrus’ retirement.
From 1938 to 1962 in then segregated DeKalb County, library service to African-Americans was provided through the Carver Branch Library operated in the Herring Street School as a cooperative effort with the Decatur Board of Education. This segregated library service quietly came to an end in DeKalb County in 1962, when Elizabeth Wilson and her daughter registered for and received library cards at the Decatur Library. Mrs. Wilson later became the first African-American to be elected Mayor of Decatur and second woman, the first being Ann Crichton.
In 1951, the Decatur-DeKalb Library became a regional library with the affiliation of Rockdale County, and Newton County joined the system in 1953. In 1962, it was renamed the DeKalb Library System. Later in 1989, DeKalb County withdrew from the regional library effectively dissolving it. By this time the populations of both Rockdale and Newton counties had grown to the point where they could operate as separate county libraries. The DeKalb Library System then became the DeKalb County Public Library, as it is known today.
The library system received considerable notoriety in 1983, when it became the first library in Georgia, and possibly the nation, to adapt the national blue-and-white library symbol into a series of directional signs on state and national roadways in DeKalb County directing drivers to nearby library branches.
From its first city and county bond issues in the late forties which built the original 1950 building, funds from bond elections have been vital to the Library’s growth. None was more important than the 1986 bond issue, which funded expansions or replacements of four (4) existing county library facilities, including the Decatur Library, as well as eleven (11) new library branches. Commenting on its importance, Barbara Loar, Library Director at the time, said, “We were almost overwhelmed by the thought of an expansion that would nearly double the size of the library system and more than double the number of books we had.”
When the Library was reopened in 1992 after being in temporary quarters on the Decatur Square, it was renamed the Decatur Library as a City of Decatur requirement for its site donation; and the fourth floor of the addition was named the Maud M. Burrus Administrative office. However, many long time residents still affectionately refer to the building as the Maud Burrus Library. The original 1950 building remains incorporated in the present Decatur Library.
Among those instrumental in passing this watershed bond issue were DCPL Library Trustee Thurbert Baker, now Georgia’s Attorney General, and Library Trustee Jenny McCurdy, who were co-chairs of the effort. Library Trustees Jane Norcross and William C. Brown also played vital roles in the bond issue. Worthy of special note, both Ms. McCurdy and Ms. Norcross were awarded the American Library Association’s highest citation for library trustees for their work both in DeKalb County and nationally on behalf of public libraries.
The library system is now undergoing a similar expansion in the wake of a 2005 County bond election which authorized $54,540,000 for the construction of five replacement library facilities, four expanded and renovated libraries, and three new libraries, bringing the number of DCPL facilities to 25. Library Board Chair Herb Sprague led the 2005 campaign for the library system, which resulted in the library bond proposal receiving the highest vote count of three bond proposals on the ballot, the others being Parks and Transportation.
The DeKalb County Public Library has long been a state and national leader in the development of innovative programs, and that tradition continues today. One of the Library’s most visible and popular programs is its Georgia Center for the Book (GCB) operation which supports Georgia’s rich literary heritage. The Center, as the state affiliate of the Library of Congress, has been hosted and funded by DCPL since late 1997. Under this banner the library system has supported a number of statewide literary programs, including the Georgia Literary Festival (held in a different Georgia community each year), the All Georgia Reads program (which selects one book every two years for all Georgians to read and discuss), and the sponsorship of every major literary award given in the state. The Center for the Book program has made DCPL the largest literary program presenter in the southeastern United States, with over 100 author programs currently being presented annually. Through its GCB operation, the library system was also a co-founder of the Decatur Book Festival which has recorded annual attendance of over 50,000 people.
For those residents who have a need for literacy skills, DCPL’s unique Project REAP (Reading Empowers All People) has been invaluable. This innovative program, utilizing Library resources and personnel, has taught hundreds of immigrant families, adults, and children basic English skills since 1999. Its impact has affected the lives of thousands, sometimes in unexpected ways. It started with a private donation to the DeKalb Library Foundation to help promote immigrant and refugee family literacy. Since its inception, it has grown, expanded, and changed, yet never lost its focus on helping people develop skills to improve their lives. DCPL offers classes outside the Library and hosts class visits at local libraries where parents and their children can obtain library cards and browse collections, including materials in their first language as well as attend special programs.
In addition to Project REAP, the Library has partnered with literacy providers for English as a Second Language (ESOL) classes in county libraries and has developed special literacy collections in many branches to support other literacy provider programs. DCPL currently partners with Literacy Volunteers of America, Literacy Action, the Latin American Association, and DeKalb Technical College in ongoing literacy efforts. The Library’s literacy program has received significant attention in Atlanta, and DCPL was presented with the Susan Constantine Literacy Award from Project READ.
DeKalb’s diversity, stemming from the second largest increase in immigrant population of any metropolitan area in the nation over a 10-year period (according to the Center for Immigrant Studies), has added to the richness of the county’s culture. Providing library services for that kind of diversity has proved a formidable, continuing challenge.
Because DCPL’s multicultural population includes a majority of African-American residents, the library system features many programs directed toward that clientele. Among the Library’s most widely praised and anticipated programs is its annual Kwanzaa Awareness Festival. Such programs were relatively rare in the 1980s, when longtime library manager Doris Wells introduced it at DCPL. Today, this ever-growing series of programs, author visits, and activities commemorates a holiday central to the lives and culture of many Library patrons.
Of special note is DCPL’s groundbreaking “Building Blocks” program, an informal recreational and educational project that began in 1992 at the Redan-Trotti Library. Initially the program focused on low-literate, at-risk young adults 15 through 18 years old, as well as parents of children from birth through 36 months of age. In 1994, “Building Blocks” was recognized by the American Library Association in its listing of “Excellence in Library Services to Young Adults.” This popular program continues today, introducing all parents and their children to activities and materials which enhance the development of infant languages and motor skills.
DCPL currently operates 23 libraries spread across the County’s 268 square miles. The library collection exceeds 1,000,000 material items, and over 200,000 county residents have active library cards. Annual circulation in 2007 was 3.5 million with library visits reaching a record 3.3 million people. Nearly twice as many people used DPCL facilities in 2007 as attended Atlanta Falcons, Thrashers, and Hawks home games combined in the same year. Since 2000, the circulation of library materials has risen 48%, belying predictions that public libraries are an endangered species.
A random public telephone survey conducted by outside consultants in 2000 revealed that DeKalb County citizens believed that among county agencies, the library provided the best value. Quarterly surveys since then repeatedly show 98% satisfaction levels among regular library users. Accompanying DCPL’s spring 2005 nomination for the Georgia Governor’s Award in the Humanities (which it subsequently received), many library patrons eagerly took up pen to proclaim their feelings about the organization: “The DeKalb County Public Library has demonstrated vision and commitment,” wrote State Rep. Stephanie S. Benfield, D‑Decatur.