The story of the Neuse Regional Library System began in Kinston near the turn of the twentieth century. In January 1896, Kinston resident Mrs. W.C. Fields placed an advertisement in the Kinston Free Press looking for potential partners in starting an organization to promote the study of quality literature. She received responses from Mrs. H.E.A. Peebles, Mrs. W.M. Pane, and Mrs. H.O. Hyatt, who met in her home to discuss the creation of this organization. The result of these meetings was “The-Up-to- Date Club,” formed on February 4, 1896 with a goal stated as “to stimulate a carefulconsideration of Up-to-Date topics.” The club quickly grew to eighty members under the leadership of President S.M. Harding.
The group was instrumental in the creation of a new library, as was Dr. T. H. Faulkner, a local dentist who became the area’s first librarian when he donated a room in his office on Queen Street. This library and its materials were available to all Up-to-Date Club members. The Library was well used, but the initial high level of interest waned quickly, and by July 1897 the officers could not gather a quorum of six members. The officers of the Up-to-Date Club wished to keep the library open despite the dissolution of their organization, so they opened the library to the public, renamed it “The Kinston Library,”and issued tickets for a $1 fee per year. The initial Board members of this organization were Mrs. J.T. Midyett, Mrs. H.O. Hyatt, Mrs. W.C. Fields, Mrs. A. Oettinger, Dr. H.D. Harper, Dr. T.H. Faulkner, and Rev. A. Greaves.
The year 1899 saw several milestones for the Kinston Public Library. Former members of the Up- to-Date-Club and library subscribers were invited to help incorporate the Library as a public institution, and on February 20 forty individuals joined in this endeavor. In May, the Library was relocated to a space above the Bank of Kinston with Dr. Faulkner moving his practice in order to continue his role as librarian. As the collection grew to a thousand volumes with a collective worth of approximately $2,000, the Library hired its first paid librarian, Dora Miller. The Library quickly outgrew its revenue from subscribers, as the $94.50 total received annually from 63 people was not adequate to pay the librarian’s salary of $10 per month, let alone other expenses. After an emergency meeting of library supporters, Judge G.V. Cowper suggested requesting the funding from the City Board of Aldermen, who eventually agreed to subsidize the Library with $12.50 per month.
In order to make room for its growing collection, the Library moved again in 1916 to another location on Queen Street owned by R.C. Blow and later purchased by W.T. Hines, while the City of Kinston doubled its support to a total of $25 per month. The Library continued struggling to make ends meet, until a meeting was called in 1926 to discuss the abolishment of the library and the assimilation of its materials into the public schools. However, the public rallied to support the Library’s continued existence. The building’sowner at that time, W.T. Hines, offered its use rent free, and after hearing the supporting statements of several townspeople, the Board of Aldermen agreed to continue their support.
The Great Depression saw more challenges arise that threatened the Library’s ability tocontinue serving its community. Library supporters attempted to convince Lenoir County officials to provide additional funding for the Library and to waive sales taxes on new materials, but the County refused several times until the persistence of a few prominent citizens persuaded them on July 1, 1933 to provide $20 in funding per month on the condition that the Library become a free public library open to all. This was followed by a massive publicity campaign to promote the Library’s services to the community and the result was a large number of new members as well as donated materials.
The Library continued to grow until damage caused by the weight of the 7,000 volumes on the second floor of its current home led to the building being condemned. The Kinston Women’s Club came to the rescue, renting rooms at the Old Peebles House at Harmony Hall to house the Library’s collection. A federal grant in 1937 allowed the Library to begin providing a bookmobile service throughout Lenoir County. As segregation was still common in the south at this time, the Library opened up a second location on North Independent Street to provide services to black patrons, and Laura Washington Hardy was hired as the librarian at this location.
The Library continued to change locations as it grew. In 1952 it held 19,409 volumes and relocated to 515 North Queen Street. Sensing the continued need for larger facilities, library supporters sought a bond issue in 1955 for $100,000 for the construction of a new library. The bond referendum failed by 78 votes, but seeing the need for action, the Lenoir County Board of Commissioners and the Kinston Board of Aldermen purchased the Old Sitterson House on Atlantic Avenue and moved the Library there on July 25, 1957. The Library would move once more to a former United State Post Office facility located at the corner of Queen and North Streets in 1965, where it would remain until the 1980s.
The late fifties and early sixties were a time of rapid expansion for the Library. In 1959, the Library decided to pool resources with the Greene County Library, created in July 1934 by the Mother’s Club of Snow Hill, and expand into Jones County, creating the blueprint for what would become the Neuse Regional Library System. Branches were opened in Maysville, Pollocksville, and Trenton in Jones County by 1962. The East Branch Library, a 6,000 square foot facility that was the first building constructed specifically for the purpose of being a library in Lenoir County, opened in September 1961. Over the next twenty years, additional branches would be opened in Pink Hill, La Grange, and at the Kinston Plaza Shopping Center. In 1962 the governments of Lenoir, Greene, and Jones Counties, as well as the City of Kinston, developed a regional agreement and the Neuse Regional Library System was officially incorporated with Louella Posey as its first Director of Libraries. Through resource sharing, patrons in these three modestly sized counties had access to over 150,000 volumes that circulated throughout the three counties.
In 1967, Hollis Haney became the new Director of Libraries. In 1976, Jones County decided to open a fourth library in the small community of Comfort, and allocated funds to construct new facilities for all four locations in Jones County. Greene County followed suit in 1978, dedicating 6,800 square feet of a new office facility to the Library in Snow Hill.
In July of 1980, John W. Jones became the new Director of Libraries and quickly became engaged with constructing a new Library in downtown Kinston, a process that had been in the works since 1978. During that time, a group of concerned citizens began meeting to form a Friends of the Library organization to help raise money for the new building. The Friends of the Library organization was incorporated in November 1978 and began meeting regularly in 1979 to begin planning for the necessary fundraising. In 1981, Warren G. Hargett was contracted to design the 20,000 square foot building. The subject of whether the selected site at 510 North Queen Street was large enough for the foreseeable future was a hotly contested one, but the location was ultimately settled on as Jones stated that the library “will have enough space for a 30 percent expansion if necessary.” The project moved forward and opened to the public in 1983 at a total cost of $1,120,000.
The next few years saw several other developments for libraries in Lenoir County. The town of Pink Hill gained a new library when a building and parking lot were donated in memory of resident Etta Jones Turner in 1984, and a 15,000 square foot building in La Grange was remodeled as the town’s library branch and opened on May 2, 1991. Meanwhile, patrons flocked to the new library facility on Queen Street in Kinston, and the Library eventually closed the East Branch and Plaza Branch to focus on providing more services at the Headquarters facility. On February 25, 1994, Agnes W. Ho became Acting Director of Libraries for the Neuse Regional Library System, and then became the permanent Director on June 1, 1994.
The 1990s saw the rise of personal computing and the Internet. The Library’s computer hardware, formerly limited to Children’s computers and a few reference-oriented computers, rapidly expanded to include dozens of public access workstations located across the region. The Library received additional equipment through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and by the early 2000s, the floor space that this additional equipment required made expansion an inevitability again.
Over the course of the 2000s, the Library and its supporters undertook a major expansion and renovation project. On April 22, 2002, the Kinston-Lenoir County Public Library and the Friends of the Library pooled resources to purchase property adjacent to the Library’s grounds and began preparing for expansion. A $2.6 million bond referendum was presented to the community as an opportunity to make the project a reality, and on November 2, 2004, Lenoir County voters approved the referendum by a two to one margin.
In December of 2004, a federal planning grant administered by the State Library of North Carolina was awarded to the Library to hire a consultant and develop a building plan for the expanded and renovated Library. In January of 2005, the Library formed a Building Committee, who would select Patrick Deaton of J. Hyatt Hammond Associates of Greensboro as the architect for the project and, after a competitive bidding process, Group III Management as the contractor. In order to keep the Library open and serving patrons during the project, construction was divided in three phases and took place over two years. During the entirety of the project, the Library was only closed to the public for one full day due to electrical work. The Library held a groundbreaking celebration on June 10, 2006 and Phase One of construction began in July. This first phase was the most construction-intensive of the phases and included all of the additions to the Library’s square footage. Phase One was completed in September of 2007, and at that time the new entrance, covered walkway, circulation area, gallery, and Brody Conference Room were opened to the public. Phase Two began immediately and was completed by March 2008, and the Children’s Room, the new little bank Computer Center, the Teen area, and the Periodical area were opened to the public. Phase Three, the shortest phase, was completed by May 2008, and the remaining areas of the Library, including the Reference Desk, study rooms, Local History Room, and Schechter Auditorium, were opened. On October 8, 2008, the Library held a dedication ceremony to celebrate the end of construction and to provide a showcase of the new facility to the community.
Since the renovation, the Library has continued to embrace new technologies as information retrieval methods and reading material formats have evolved. At the end of 2008, the Library implemented a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) System to increase the efficiency of circulation transactions and to allow self-checkout for patrons. In 2010, the Library introduced eBooks through 3M cloudLibrary, and over the next few years it would also introduce eMagazines through Zinio and eAudiobooks through RB Digital. Since the late 1990s, the Library has participated in NC LIVE, a statewide consortium that enables access to a wide array of powerful online tools. The Library also began offering access to other online databases that provide resources such as genealogy research and free online courses.
In 2011, the Library was awarded funding from the Golden LEAF Foundation to expand the Greene County Public Library by 2,985 square feet at its current location. The new facility, designed by architect John Farkas of Greenville, was dedicated in September of 2012 and provided amenities such as a computer center, a dedicated meeting space, and a modern open floor plan that places a larger emphasis on service and technology.
In 2015 the Library joined NC Cardinal, a statewide resource sharing consortium that provides access to over 6.4 million items across the state. In 2016 the Library introduced 3D printing for the public. This exciting new service provides a new way for patrons to explore new creative possibilities using technology. In 2017, through an LSTA federal grant, the Library began renting wireless hotspots and iPads that patrons can take home, providing new opportunities for access to online resources. The Children’s Room also acquired a wide variety of STEM kits and activities that give young patrons ways to explore how they can create through technology.
In 2018 after nearly 25 years as Director of Libraries and 45 years of service to the Neuse Regional Library System, Agnes Ho retired. Melanie U. Morgan became the new Director of Libraries on November 1, 2018.
What is now the Neuse Regional Library System has changed quite a bit over the past 120 years. It has moved from a modest room in a dentist’s office to a system of eight locations headquartered at a 25,000 square foot state-of-art facility. It has transformed from a collection of 1,000 books to a multimedia collection where patrons can access millions of volumes from across the state as well as massive amounts of information online. It has evolved from a subscription service for wealthy patrons to a free service for citizens of every age, race, religion, and background. The Library will continue to evolve to serve local citizens and to pursue its mission statement of meeting their informational, educational, economic, recreational, and cultural needs.