Jeffersontown Free Public Library Dates Back to 911
Writer / Beth Wilder,
Director Jeffersontown Historical Museum
One of the most popular spots in Jeffersontown is the Free Public Library on Watterson Trail. It has long been part of the Louisville Free Public Library system, but its roots go back to 1911 when it was founded by the Current Events Club of Jeffersontown.
The Current Events Club was formed in 1906 by a group of Jeffersontown ladies who wanted to gather socially to discuss not only the goings-on in the world at the time but literature as well. These women were all very well-read, and their love of literature even extended to the desire to write a mystery novel themselves, which became a popular serial in The Jeffersonian newspaper at the time. Since the women were such avid readers, they created a library for the club, but in 1910, they decided that everyone should have access to books and that Jeffersontown should have its own free public library.
The Current Events Club appointed a committee to solicit subscriptions to raise funds for a community library, and they also enlisted the help of the Jeffersontown Commercial Club, which was something like a Chamber of Commerce at the time. Together, these two groups quickly amassed both money and books for the new library that would be housed on the freshly painted and papered second floor of the popular Bruce Building, which once stood on the Watterson Trail lot to the right of what is now Gaslight Square Animal Hospital.
The formal opening of the library was held on Friday, May 19, 1911, at 3:00 in the afternoon and the entire town was invited to attend. The library was to be open to the public on Tuesdays and Fridays, from 2 to 9 p.m. Fannie Bell Snively volunteered her time as the town’s first librarian until a more permanent arrangement could be made.
Like Jeffersontown’s Post Office, the library had a tendency over time to move to various locations on or near the town square, including private homes. A 1920s photo shows women gathered outside of a small rented structure clearly marked “Jeffersontown Free Public Library,” although the exact location of this building is unknown. At the time, Mary C. Stucky was the librarian. The Current Events Club, and later the Jeffersontown Woman’s Club, raised funds throughout the year to help pay for library expenses, as well as new books, but the library remained free to the public, including those not living in Jeffersontown. Often, the library was staffed purely by volunteers, although Miss Stucky was paid by the Woman’s Club until late 1942.
In 1939, the library moved into the top floor of the Municipal Building, which stood on the southwest corner of the town square and housed the Fire Department – a contemporary photo shows the words “Public Library” in the top left window above the engine house. During, World War II, however, the space the library occupied was turned over to the women of the town for patriotic endeavors, such as sewing and rolling bandages. In 1943, the library moved to Jeffersontown High School on College Drive and was sponsored by the Jeffersontown PTA. Rebecca Daniels served as librarian until that library closed in 1944.
In 1948, Betty Elswick reopened the library in her home at 3508 Maple Road. The library of 200 books was originally housed in her dining room, but since patrons had access to the entire first floor of Betty’s house, they soon began trying to check out books from her personal collection. Because of this, Betty moved the library out to her back porch instead. Many local residents still have very fond memories of walking to her house to check out books.
While the library was housed in Betty Elswick’s home, it was considered a branch of the Louisville Free Public Library. An August 1960 Jeffersonian newspaper article made reference to the fact that the Jeffersontown Community Center was offered as a location to house the library, but was rejected because “the local library is a part of the Louisville Free Public Library and is subject to its rules and regulations.” According to the main library, the Community Center was not within walking distance of the majority of the people it would serve. The growing library was eventually moved to Dr. Bishop’s medical office, which was then located in an annex of the Jeffersontown Presbyterian Church on Taylorsville Road.
In October 1962, the library was moved further down the road to the J-town Shopping Center. A 1967 newspaper article noted that 1962 was the year that the Fiscal Court appropriated money to the Louisville Free Public Library for the Jeffersontown agency to become a part-time county branch. At that time, the library was open Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays 1 to 8 p.m., Wednesdays and Fridays 1 to 5 p.m., and Saturdays 9 till noon. Betty Elswick’s voluntary status ended when she was appointed branch librarian, and she was assisted by Mrs. Sam Smith.
In 1969, grand plans were in the works to open a full-time library branch in the old firehouse where the current Chamber of Commerce is located since a new firehouse was constructed further down Watterson Trail. Property transfers with the City of Louisville were in the works, and multiple local organizations were banding together to raise funds for more books and equipment for the new library, but nothing seems to have come of that particular effort, except to prove that the City of Jeffersontown and its residents were extremely serious about opening a full-time library branch in town.
In August 1970, the library moved to Colonial Manor, which was originally the Jefferson County Poor House, at the corner of Watterson Trail and Bluebird Lane. The two-story building had recently been remodeled for the Jefferson County Parks Department, so it was newly refurbished and ready to accommodate the expanding needs of the library. Emma Lou Pritchett was the librarian at the time.
In 1972, Dr. Rhoda Peters, a local resident who had been head of the library committee when the Jeffersontown branch was moved from the J-town Shopping Center to Colonial Manor, was enlisted by Mrs. Pritchett to find a way to encourage community participation in trying to accumulate funds for more new books, since there had been a $70,000 cut in the Library budget. Dr. Peters suggested the formation of a group tentatively to be called the “Friends of the Library,” which would air their views to the City of Louisville to let them “know our feelings” about matters regarding the way the county libraries were run. Dr. Peters intended the group to be a “long-term arrangement” because “we need some kind of group all the time” to oversee the library’s activities. So, Jeffersontown became the first, and at the time, the only branch to have a “Friends of the Library” organization to help raise funds and combat any problems that arose.
By 1975, the Jeffersontown branch was showing an unprecedented amount of growth, as there was an increase in the town’s population and more people were making use of the library. Some remodeling was done that year to expand the facilities to create double the amount of usable space, with more shelves and reading areas.
Buildings age, and by the late 1980s, Colonial Manor was badly in need of repair, with the first floor of the building being the primary space used by the library. Although the second story was still used for staff offices and storage, the upstairs entrance had been nailed shut to keep the public out because the sturdiness of the floors had been called into question. The library continued to do a huge amount of business, so it was kept up and received improvements as much as possible. In 1992, the City of Jeffersontown presented the library with a $26,000 check designated for physical renovations to the building, but it was not long before it was decided that a new building would benefit the library and the community more than constantly trying to repair the aging Colonial Manor. In addition to this, at the time, many libraries throughout the Louisville system were threatened with closure if they could not provide permanent, state of the art facilities to house their branches.
In April 1994, ground was broken just a few yards from Colonial Manor for a new Jeffersontown Library branch, complete with its own Museum. January 29, 1996, then-Mayor Daniel Ruckriegel dedicated the new, modern and spacious Jeffersontown branch of the Louisville Free Public Library with the intent that it would prove “that we will always have a library in Jeffersontown.” Time will no doubt prove him right, as the citizens of Jeffersontown remain proud of their library, which is one of the most heavily-patronized branches in the Louisville Free Public Library system.