A Library Changes a Town

By on

By Charlene McDonnough, Adult Services Librarian, Darlington County Library System

The sleepy town of Lamar, South Carolina was slowly dying. Businesses that had been there for generations were either moving away or just simply closing their doors. Stores, roads, and homes were beginning to have that run down look and feel that one might see in a ghost town out west. The community was becoming concerned; they didn’t want to lose their town to that little thing called “Indifference”. A school administrator along with these concerned citizens came together and organized the “Friends of the Lamar Library” group in the late 1990’s to help secure a larger facility. This group began raising funds to build a new building. This movement began a revitalization that would bring this little town back to life.

In the 1950’s the community’s first library was a bookmobile from the Darlington County Library. The bookmobile, parked under the oak trees of a local church, and adults and children would gather round. “I remember that bookmobile,” said one library patron. “I couldn’t wait for it to come to town so I could get some more books. The bookmobile came every two weeks and I would pick out an armload of books that I could barely carry. I couldn’t wait to read them and then hurry back for more.” A permanent library, organized and directed by a private citizen and housed in a small back room of town hall, was opened in 1962. It served the community for 10 years, opened on weekday afternoons and was staffed by volunteers. This one room library was incorporated into the Darlington System in 1969.

The collection was moved to a larger 500 square foot rented facility in 1972 and was called the Lamar District Library. This location gave them more room for additional collections and became the first library in Lamar with a paid staff. They stayed in that location until the late 1970’s when the collection was moved to a 952 square foot building further down the street. Despite the small size of the building, circulation grew and community programs were expanded. By the 1990’s, the library had outgrown the little building. A running joke at the time was “If there were two people at the Library, one person would have to wait outside until the other one left.”

In the late 1990’s roughly $800,000 in funds were raised through a variety of sources to build a new library. The State Legislative Delegation, Darlington County Council and the Town of Lamar provided the largest portions of the funding. The Friends also secured funding from two local foundations, several corporations and members of the Friends Group. Coming full circle geographically, the land across the street from the library where the original bookmobile parked in the 1950’s, was purchased in 2001 and construction began in late 2002. “This new library has been the most successful project I have witnessed during my career,” stated Sue Rainey, Library Director. “It has virtually changed the community. There is so much interest and civic pride. People who had never been inside a library are discovering an interesting resource that will enhance their lives. With this rejuvenation, new generations will reap the benefits. The value of the library is immeasurable.”

The present library opened its doors with a Dedication and Ribbon Cutting Ceremony on October 26, 2003. The square footage of the new building is about 4,200 square feet – a big increase from the small building they once occupied. “The library is one of the places I go to for a great conversation. It is one of my favorite places to visit. The librarians here are extremely helpful and friendly” said Geraldine Britt, a long time patron of the library. With the new building came the space to provide more public use facilities and computers. A small 40 person meeting room provides space for summer reading activities, children’s programs, weekly movies for children and bi-weekly movies for seniors. Weekly laptop computer classes are now held in the meeting room. There are now eight internet-accessible computers, two dedicated children’s computers, and wireless internet access for personal laptops. Two computers are designated for the library’s card catalog. Prior to 2003, the library had two public use computers.

“As Director of Planning & Development for the Town of Lamar” said Victor Pizzurro, “it is my job to secure projects and assist with plans that bring about positive changes for the public. As part of the economic development and community development strategic initiatives that benefit all residents, there must be uniform services provided and quality of life support systems in place. The Lamar Library is an extremely important part of that quality of life sustaining the service structure for the citizens. The library provides an array of services that support education, information exchange and social advantages for everyone. It is critical for the community at large to have a facility as complete as the library. The staff, the Friends of the Library, and all the community volunteers are wonderful, and I can count on them to assist me in my daily activities for all of the general public.”

The new Lamar Library building.

The new Lamar Library building.

When the building was complete the collection was expanded from approximately 4,900 items to 20,316 items. Before moving, the library saw approximately 4,500 patrons per year. This has increased to about 36,000 patrons per year in the short time they have been in the new facility. For a small community, this large increase in patronage has helped justify adding additional space to the facility. As the town grows the needs of the library grow as well. The Friends of the Lamar Library are currently in the process of raising funds for this much-needed expanded space. They are currently about 20% of the way towards their funding goal. Planned additions are a new children’s room and an addition to the meeting room to accommodate larger groups.

The library also participates in the Palmetto Polaris Consortium and has loaned out approximately 200 books and movies to people in other counties through their Inter-Library Loan program. In addition to adding the new collections, the library was able to increase staffing to accommodate the many changes. The old library was only open 21 hours a week and the two individuals worked alternating weeks. The larger staff of six individuals also works alternating schedules so that at least three people work each day.

In 2006, after raising $100,000 dollars, the Friends of the Lamar Library added “Library Park” with a wishing fountain and seating area to the facility. At least once a week, the President of the Friends Group wades in the fountain collecting the coins that wishes are made of. This addition was accomplished without the use of any tax dollars. Monies came from a grant from the Drs. Bruce & Lee Foundation matched by private donations. Open to the public from dawn till dusk seven days a week, with an annual “Art in the Park” series featuring local artists, the park is maintained totally by volunteers. This Friends Group is the most active in the county with 124 currently paid members, no small feat for such a rural community. According to the 2000 Census there were 1,015 people living in Lamar with about 10,000 people in the outlying communities.

The impact this library has had on the community is amazing. The downtown area that had empty buildings and fading paint work has been revitalized. New businesses have opened their doors. Dollar General and Family Dollar came to town, new restaurants and several specialty shops have opened. The stores and other municipal buildings downtown have been repainted and new awnings placed over doors and windows. New neighborhoods are being built on the outskirts of town. Historic homes are being restored. School enrollments are growing, and the students are exceeding South Carolina’s Progress Standards. There are approximately 1193 students in this district.

Lamar is still a small southern town; however, their small town pride is coming back. Determination and hard work on the part of many concerned individuals are bringing the dreams of a better community to fruition. Faye Griffin, President of the Friends Group, had this to say, “From the rear of the old Lamar Town Hall at 211 West Main Street to the present Lamar Library at 104 East Main Street, is only a few short blocks geographically; however, the improvement in library services that those two sites represent is huge. The original library site in Lamar was very small and housed just a few hundred volumes. It was opened only two hours on weekday afternoons and staffed by volunteers. Today’s library with greatly expanded space, current technology and an exciting collection of materials has become the center of community life and is open six days a week. The library and the surrounding park are a tremendous asset to Lamar and have been the springboard for other improvements in the town.”