The year was 1885, Grover Cleveland had just been inaugurated the 22nd president of the United States. Mark Twain had just released his classic novel, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” And in Spartanburg, South Carolina, the Kennedy Library opened its doors with a grand total of 900 books and a $3 per year subscription fee for access to its volumes.
Thanks to a gift from Mrs. Helen Fayssoux Kennedy of the lot where her husband's office once stood Spartanburg's first “public” library opened on October 17, 1885, on the top floor of a two-story building facing Kennedy Place in the central business district. Her gift honored her husband, Dr. Lionel Chalmers Kennedy, a well-known and respected physician who had died five years earlier. Among the library's first holdings was Dr. Kennedy's 600-volume medical library and some 300 other books collected by the citizens of Spartanburg.
It was unheard of in those days to collect taxes to support libraries, so the Kennedy Library kept its doors open by charging annual and monthly membership fees. The facility soon was adopted by the Ladies Auxiliary Association, which kept it stocked with books and furniture. By 1899, the ladies realized that Spartanburg was on the verge of outgrowing the little library. They took it upon themselves to write a letter to the famed philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, asking for a contribution to help build a new library. After four years of correspondence, the Kennedy Library Board was notified in June 1903 that Carnegie would donate $15,000 if the city would purchase the land and contribute $1,500 annually in support of the library.
Assured that Spartanburg could afford a new library, the building committee chose a site on Magnolia Street, right on the trolley line, and construction began on the Kennedy Free Library. When it opened on January 15, 1905, it was called “one of the best and most modern libraries in South Carolina.” Despite its fame, the new library struggled financially. Librarian Mary Baugham often worked without salary, and evening hours were discontinued in 1908. By 1934, the situation was so dire that no new books were bought at all.
On the initiative of the Spartanburg County Foundation, a group of citizens began a campaign to make the library a tax-supported institution. In 1947, the Spartanburg County Legislative Delegation approved the creation of a true “public” library, and a one-mill tax was levied on all property in the county in support of the facility. Hours were extended, and the library reached out into the black community for the first time, opening branches in the South Liberty Street Recreation Center in 1947 and in the Bethlehem Center in 1950. As a demonstration project by the Junior League of Spartanburg, a bookmobile went on the road in 1947 and became a permanent service in 1948. The library's first Children's Room also opened in 1948.
In the mid-fifties, Spartanburg began outgrowing its library again, and the local Jaycees began a concentrated drive to convince residents to support construction of a larger, more modern building. Their successful effort won them a National Jaycees Award. Bonds were sold, and construction began on South Pine Street in 1960. When the building opened on May 15, 1961, Spartanburg again had one of the best and most modern libraries in the South.
The library then began an explosive period of growth. Between 1969 and 1979, Landrum and Woodruff branches moved to permanent buildings and new branches were added in Lyman, Inman and Chesnee. An automated circulation system became operational in 1979, making Spartanburg the first public library in a four-state area to do so. A year later, the library system loaned half a million books for the first time. During the eighties, branches were added in Boiling Springs and on Spartanburg's Westside. Realizing the county was once again outgrowing its main library, citizens, community leaders and the Library Board began laying the groundwork for the new headquarters. In 1992, an $11 million bond referendum was approved by voters, setting the state for construction of the South Church Street Headquarters.
During this same period, between 1991 and 1996, the library system which was lending over one million books per year, saw rented facilities in Inman, Boiling Springs, and Lyman replaced with permanent buildings and new service in a new building in the Pacolet area.
Then on April 27, 1997, the new Headquarters Library opened to the public. The larger building also made possible the Kennedy Room of Local History and the Cleveland Genealogical Collection.
Following shortly, in 1999, the H. Carlisle Bean Law Library came under the management of the Spartanburg County Public Libraries. Spartanburg County Council officially named the Law Library as the 11th branch of the Library's system. This special collection, housed in the county's courthouse, allowed the Libraries to provide new services to the citizens of Spartanburg County.
By 2002 the library system celebrated new library buildings in Cowpens, Landrum, Westside and Woodruff. This would complete a 10 year plan to construct a library building for each of its locations.
Today the Spartanburg County Public Libraries operates with a staff of 196 in an effort to deliver the best service possible to the citizens of Spartanburg County. The Libraries offer 10 full-service local libraries, a Law Library location at the county courthouse, and a Bookmobile. Each location (not including the Law Library) provides a variety of programming for children, teens and adults and is equipped with meeting room facilities, free internet access, and shelves full with books, magazines, movies, music and more. For those who are not able to come in to a library, Homebound Services delivers books to shut-ins almost every day.
Since 1885, library service in Spartanburg County has grown into the vibrant, important system that continues to impress its citizens and its visitors.