Catherine Roche: Hall of Fame to honor librarians
Braswell Memorial Library is honored that, this month, two former head librarians will be inducted into the Twin County Hall of Fame.
Nell Battle and Ruth Jeffreys were library leaders who were passionate supporters of reading and literacy in our area.
The Rocky Mount Woman’s Club organized the city’s first library in 1916. In 1921, with the Chamber of Commerce and the Woman’s Club in the lead, members of all the local civic groups were brought together for the establishment of a library to be supported by the Rocky Mount Library Association with the aid of a municipal appropriation. Nell Gupton Battle was elected the city’s first librarian and was paid a salary of $100 per month. After her husband’s death, she also ran the Battle family’s “Cool Springs” plantation in Edgecombe County.
As Rocky Mount’s first and only librarian for 22 years, Battle was an outstanding public servant, serving as a fierce advocate for libraries and literacy until her retirement in 1943. Over the course of her career she urged the Board of Trustees to see the need for a bookmobile to provide services to rural county residents. She stressed the importance of library services during the Great Depression and was outspoken about her displeasure at the lack of library services for African American residents of Rocky Mount. In 1934 she wrote, “This is a democratic government ‘of the people, for the people and by the people.’ The free and equal access to good books for every citizen of America is a right to citizenship ... Our government cannot function, cannot survive without the self-education of its citizens ... which depends on the of the recorded experiences of the race, and this is contained in BOOKS which should be, and are accessible to everyone thru the Public Libraries.”
During the early World War II years, she served as the Collector of War Records for Rocky Mount. In 1938, Battle quoted Henry Van Dyke, “’A good library in the midst of a community is like a spring of living water, and the librarian, like those givers of a cup of cold water, upon whom Christ gave a special blessing.’ These words have, during my 16 years of service, been my inspiration.
In 1929, Jeffreys was hired as a cataloger and secretary for the Thomas Hackney Braswell Memorial Library at a salary of $50 per month. In 1944, Jeffreys assumed the role of head librarian upon the retirement of Battle and continued an illustrious career that provided library services to the people of Rocky Mount for 50 years.
In the World War II era, Jeffreys continued her predecessor’s efforts to keep the public informed about war news, as well as documenting local war efforts. She prepared scrapbooks and created a card index of every man and woman from Rocky Mount in the service. Under her direction, the library participated in the 1942 Victory Book Campaign, collecting 3,755 books for service camps. Although a bookmobile was purchased in the early 1940s, outreach services did not begin right away due to the war. Jeffreys sought to overcome this by encouraging each community to appoint its own ‘librarian’ who gathered and returned books in a sort of “exchange collection.” Under her leadership, bookmobile services were finally extended into rural Nash County in 1948.
Also in 1948, Jeffreys began a service to local children confined indoors due to the polio scare by reading stories over the radio as “The Story Book Lady.” The program, meant to be temporary, was so well loved it continued until 1959. Jeffreys oversaw expansions to the library building in the 1950s and launched a capital fund drive to enlarge the library building and update its facilities again in the 1960s.
Although she technically retired in 1970, Jeffreys continued to serve as an interim library director and library assistant throughout the 1970s. She officially retired for good in 1979.
Battle and Jeffreys dedicated their careers to establishing the tradition of progressive library services that continue to this day. The citizens of Rocky Mount and the Twin Counties collected $1 million as seed money to fund the beautiful library at 727 N. Grace Street that opened in 2002. We still face the challenges of wars and difficult economic times, and the library still provides the resources to connect people to information and opportunity.
Traci Thompson, local history librarian and certified genealogist at Braswell Memorial Library, nominated Nell Battle and Ruth Jeffreys to be recognized by the Twin County Hall of Fame. She is credited with the research for this article.