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Constance Alexander: Exploring history of local libraries offers look into the hearts of communities

“Our Towns” by Deborah Fallows and James Fallows, does not take long to get to the importance of the local public library in the community. On page 6 of the account of the couple’s 100,000-mile journey into the heart of America, Deborah Fallows declares unequivocally that in any town the library is her “favorite institution.”

Ms. Fallows goes on to explain why: “You see the people, programs, problems, and answers that offer a genuine look into the heart and soul of a town.”

Learning the history of any local library offers a peek into a community’s values and vision. Thanks to Margaret Trevathan, guest speaker at the November meeting of Calloway County Genealogical and Historical Society, the audience learned about people and policies that led to the construction of the current Calloway County Library.

Mrs. Trevathan, long-time head of the library, retired from her post in 1990, but her history in Murray goes back to 1951 when she moved here. Her commitment to, and appreciation for, libraries developed in her hometown, Alexandria, Indiana, where her Great Aunt Matilda had helped start the library there.

Margaret has vivid and happy girlhood memories associated with the Alexandria Library. “That’s where I spent most of my time,” she said.

As a newcomer to Murray when she went looking for the local library, she learned about a couple of rooms of books behind a local dental office.

“There were a lot of Golden Books and World Book Encyclopedias, and there was a little green bookmobile,” she explained.

In the days when schools did not have libraries, Miss Mary Hamlin drove the bookmobile from school to school around the county, and also did her best to keep the library open, all for $50 a month.

Margaret eventually got involved, and she ended up commandeering the bookmobile around Calloway County and Marshall County. “I never loved anything like I loved taking books to children and to adults too,” she reminisced.

Even when the community got a bigger bookmobile, the need for an established facility was clear. As Mrs. Trevathan tells it, Judge Waylan Rayburn formed a library board in 1957-58. “Ruth Paschall was the first board president,” Trevathan remembered, “and from there things got into action.”

Support from Murray Woman’s Club and Murray State University, along with other individuals and civic organizations, helped things move forward. An old Bell Telephone Building on 6th Street was made available, rent-free. Volunteers pitched in, and Murray State University’s head librarian helped set things up.

“And then at the state level, they asked if we’d become a regional library,” Margaret Trevathan said.

That offer brought more books and more support.

The route to the library’s current home on Main Street was not without bumps in the road. In 1961 and 1964, the request for a library tax was on the ballot, and it failed. Although disappointing, that was a temporary obstacle because the State Department of Libraries and Archives noticed the level of public interest and support for a Murray library.

Calloway County got an offer they could not refuse. The way Margaret Trevathan remembers it, if a stable location for the library could be identified, the state would pay the salary for a director and two staff, and allow 3 years for the operation to prove viability.

“We had photography workshops, homemakers meetings, cooking lessons, whatever we could to let them know the library was a source of education, entertainment, and information,” according to Trevathan.

In 1967, with HB 325, a community could pass a library tax if more than 51% of those who voted in the last election approved the move. “It passed overwhelmingly,” Margaret said.

Land for the library was purchased in 1969 at 710 Main Street, and the library was completed in 1970. Office space, a meeting room, and other improvements were launched in 1975. The community had a lot to be proud of.

Despite past accomplishments of the library, Mrs. Trevathan described the Calloway County Public Library as “currently under a dark cloud” regarding plans to renovate and expand the facilities.

“You’ve got to listen,” she told the audience. “I’m telling you something important. This is the beginning of a new era. We need an enlarged and enhanced library.”

She went on to talk about the $3.1 million already saved for the project. “That’s a good start on the most expensive enhancements that would serve for years to come. The board is there to secure and support the current staff and the community, to promote the library, NOT day-to-day activities,” she remarked.

Her advice was based on a solid foundation of years of involvement in the establishment and promotion of the library, as well as participation on an array of boards and councils at the local, regional and statewide level.

“The Calloway County Public Library is in a prime spot on Main Street,” she declared. “We could fulfill the needs for the next 20 years and we don’t have to raise taxes or move to a new location either. I’d like for you to hear that,” Mrs. Trevathan concluded, “because I’d like you to tell other people.”

A C-SPAN interview with the authors of “Our Towns” is online at www.c-span.org. A Brookings Institution article on the importance of libraries in communities is available at www.brookings.edu. A link to services and events at the Calloway County Public Library is www.callowaycountylibrary.org.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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