Old Finance Building

This building (now known as the Old Finance Building), just down the hill from the Executive Mansion in Capitol Square, housed the Virginia State Library from 1895 through 1940.

In the fall of 1905 when State Librarian John Pendleton Kennedy and his staff issued an invitation to library leaders across Virginia to attend a meeting to discuss forming a statewide library association, the small group of librarians and educators who traveled to Richmond to explore the idea must have had some inkling that they were about to make history. Not history as in a “first,” for in the 1890s several states had already heeded urgings from the American Library Association and had established state organizations to promote libraries. The group that met in the Virginia State Library building in Capitol Square on the evening of December 6, 1905, however, did launch “a new era in the Virginia library field.” They proclaimed publicly what they had been discussing among themselves for some time: first, that “libraries are as important as any branch in the great system of public education,” and second, that Virginia’s citizens could never enjoy quality library service unless librarians and educators throughout the state joined forces to advocate the cause. 1

The charter members of the new Virginia Library Association selected the State Library as the most appropriate institutional home for the fledgling organization. The Richmond Times-Dispatch , which covered the December 6 meeting, explained to its readers how this designation would expand the library’s responsibilities: “The State Library will be the center of the work in Virginia, will give the benefit of its counsel and experience to smaller libraries and, when requested, will generally assist in the conduct of library affairs in any section of the state.” The opportunity for an effective and enduring partnership between the state’s premier public library and the state’s growing library community was thus born. 2

Virginia’s citizens could never enjoy quality library service unless librarians and educators … joined forces to advocate the cause.

The Virginia State Library, the oldest publicly funded library in the Commonwealth, was well positioned in December 1905 to take the lead on behalf of Virginia’s libraries. Then about to mark its eighty-third birthday, the library had been founded in January 1823 when the General Assembly first provided funding for the purchase of books and materials for a reference library at the state capitol. It took state government several more years to work out the details of an administrative structure, but by 1830 the responsibility for the library had been placed in the hands of the Secretary of the Commonwealth, who used the title “state librarian” when conducting library-related business. The General Assembly also created a Joint Committee on the Library, a group of legislators who oversaw the library and approved new purchases for its collection. The Secretary of the Commonwealth was given custody of all the books and papers that the officers of the colonial and state governments had accumulated over the years for their reference. These materials formed the nucleus of the new state library—a collection that included seventeenth- and eighteenth--century works of law, religion, science, geography, natural history, and politics, as well as thousands of manuscripts and government records generated by the governor, the legislature, the treasury, and the state courts as they conducted their routine business on behalf of the public. Although the state library dates its official beginning to early in the nineteenth century, its collections extend back much farther and include rare volumes and unique holdings of great significance to Virginia and American history.

The library’s collections grew steadily through the ensuing thirty years, and gradually the rooms set aside for the library near the governor’s office in the capitol began to overflow. In 1856, the shelves held about 17,000 carefully arranged volumes, while the state’s official documents and publications were jumbled together in no discernable order and had begun to fill up tables, hallways, and a large portion of the capitol’s attic. Researchers complained about the unorganized condition of the archives, but the Secretary of the Commonwealth had little free time to impose order on the chaos. The library was burglarized twice during the Civil War and lost many valuable books and documents at the war’s end when vandals and souvenir hunters made off with whatever struck their fancy. Fortunately, the library was spared complete devastation in April 1865 when the fire that destroyed Richmond’s commercial district stopped short of Capitol Square. Many irreplaceable state and local judicial records that had been stored in city warehouses for safekeeping, however, did perish in the evacuation fire. After the war, the state began to address its neglected archival records and hired local historian William Price Palmer “to take charge of the manuscripts in the state library, … to assort, index, and prepare the same for preservation … with authority to publish such of the same.” 3 Palmer’s efforts culminated in publication of the Calendar of Virginia State Papers , an eleven-volume work listing all the documents in the state archives dating from 1652 onward that had survived the ravages of time. Published between 1875 and 1892, the Calendar became an indispensable resource for students of early Virginia -history.


This distinctive bookplate is found in many of the volumes that once belonged to Virginia’s colonial Council. The volumes are now housed in the Library of Virginia’s Special Collections Department.

By 1890, the state library’s collection comprised more than 35,000 volumes and approximately 200,000 manuscripts, as well as thousands of maps, scores of portraits of notable Virginians, and a substantial flag collection that had been donated to the state. With citizen use of the library’s collections increasing, the General Assembly decided to build a new facility to house the library, and in the summer of 1895 the library moved into a suite of rooms in a large government office building in Capitol Square, just down the hill from the Executive Mansion. The library shared its new quarters with a number of other departments of government. Several years after this move, the General Assembly followed the lead of other states in reconstituting the library as a separate agency, governed by a board of directors with the power to hire a professionally trained state librarian. The first meeting of the new library board took place in July 1903, and three months later the board enticed John Pendleton Kennedy to leave a position with the Library of Congress to serve as state librarian. With a staff of four, Kennedy began to transform the state library into a modern entity with a firm focus on public service. The library expanded its hours to include evenings between October and May, with an eye to attracting those whose jobs did not permit them to use the library during the day. The Richmond News Leader encouraged citizens to visit the library’s reading room, calling it “one of the most delightful places in the city.” 4 The library made its collections more accessible by cataloging its printed holdings using a new classification system developed by the Library of Congress and by joining with other lending libraries to establish a rudimentary interlibrary loan system. The library also followed the Library of Congress’s lead by beginning to publish Virginia’s most important state papers, making them more readily available to researchers. Between 1905 and 1915, the library published a thirteen-volume edition of the Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia , which was followed in subsequent years by editions of the legislative and executive journals of the colonial council, the journals of the Council of State, and the surviving letters of Virginia’s revolutionary-era governors. Bibliographies, checklists, monographs, editions of early parish registers, and other scholarly works also appeared under the library’s imprint. In 1940, when historian Lester J. Cappon surveyed the literature in the field of Virginia and Southern history, he praised the library for its outstanding contributions, stating that no other organization had done as much to promote the study of Virginia’s past.

Reading room

The reading room in the first Virginia State Library building shortly after the library’s move from overcrowded rooms in the Capitol in 1895. This may well have been the room in which the December 1905 meeting that created VLA took place.

Kennedy also kept his promise to the founders of the Virginia Library Association and worked assiduously to improve library service across the state. The library staff collected and published statistics about Virginia’s libraries and produced a directory of Virginia Libraries (which sadly fit on three typewritten pages), including the names of their directors, the dates of their founding, and the sizes of their collections. Kennedy also proposed a traveling libraries project intended to bring small circulating collections to citizens in Virginia’s rural areas. When the General Assembly failed to fund this initiative, he moved forward anyway. He convinced Virginia’s railroads to carry boxes of books from community to community free of charge and secured donations of books for the traveling libraries from women’s clubs and other civic groups. By 1934, demand for the traveling library service had become so great that ninety-seven of Virginia’s one hundred counties used the service. Popular as they were, these small boxes of books could not possibly fill Virginians’ growing education and information needs, and in 1922 the library created an Extension Division whose mission was to assist communities in establishing their own libraries. The state library had only limited resources to devote to this monumental task, however, as Virginia (as did most of the rest of the South) lagged far behind the nation in the availability of public library service. When the Extension Division began, only six Virginia cities and no counties had publicly financed circulating libraries. In 1922, library service in Virginia ranked thirty-second out of the forty-eight states.

To help make its case for libraries, in April 1928 the State Library’s Extension Division launched a quarterly journal titled Virginia Libraries , which also served as the unofficial organ of the Virginia Library Association. Soon its pages reported a major step forward in the campaign to improve library service in Virginia with the announcement of a resolution passed by the Virginia Federation of Women’s Clubs committing that organization to a coordinated lobbying effort on behalf of statewide public library service. Budget cuts during the Great Depression forced the state library to curtail publication of Virginia Libraries, but the concerted campaign to expand library service in Virginia continued. The first major victory occurred in 1942 when the General Assembly, responding to citizen pressure, approved a state grant program to support the creation of local libraries. This first state-aid appropriation of $50,000, administered by the state library, marked an important milestone in library history. It was the foundation of the current state-aid program that is as vital to the welfare of Virginia’s public libraries today as it was when it began more than sixty years ago.

Children in Orange County

In the 1930s and 1940s, the State Library’s Extension Division sent bookmobiles to rural areas across the state without library service. These children in Orange County are delightedly exploring the contents of one of these bookmobiles.

The state library grew quickly in the years following its move into a separate building in Capitol Square and its creation as an independent state agency. The collections in particular expanded by leaps and bounds, and by early in the 1910s space was at a premium again. Henry Read McIlwaine, who had succeeded Kennedy as state librarian in 1907, alerted state officials to the inadequacy of the library’s space, especially the cramped quarters in the archives reading room, which he described as “fearfully congested.” McIlwaine reminded the governor and the members of the General Assembly in 1911 that the library contained “probably the most valuable manuscript collection in the United States outside of the Library of Congress.” He added that “its value could be very greatly increased by the addition of material in the various executive departments of the State,” but that there simply was no room for further acquisitions. 5

McIlwaine was also concerned about the library’s ability to protect the collections placed in his care, as the building that the library shared with the auditor of public accounts, the state treasurer, the adjutant general, and several other government departments was not fireproof. The gravity of the situation came home to legislators in February 1916 when a fire broke out in the basement of the building, causing smoke and water damage to historical records from the auditor’s office. The state built a small fireproof annex on the south side of the library building and replaced the library’s wooden shelves with metal ones, but these were only stopgap measures. By early in the 1920s, McIlwaine had begun a public campaign for another library building. Among those who threw their support his way was Virginius Dabney, editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch . By 1936, the pressure for a library facility that would have room for collection growth and provide proper storage conditions for Virginia’s priceless historical records had become so intense that the General Assembly relented and created a State Library Building Commission to prepare for construction of a new building.

The groundbreaking ceremony on a site donated by the city of Richmond between Eleventh and Governor Streets adjacent to Capitol Square took place in December 1938. The new structure offered five times as much space as the old building, special stack areas for rare books and archival materials, and a distinctive Art Deco interior. When the library opened in December 1940, it had a staff of thirty-two professional librarians and archivists and thirty-one support staff.

Early traveling library box

An early traveling library box, which held between forty and fifty books, stationed in E. G. McGehee’s store in Abilene, Charlotte County.

Under the leadership of state librarians Wilmer Lee Hall (1934–1946) and Randolph Warner Church (1946–1972), the library made the most of its new home and continued its growth and expansion. Following World War II, the library established a publications program staffed by historians who produced documentary editions and books about Virginia history based on materials in the archives; and in 1951, the library launched the popular quarterly history magazine Virginia Cavalcade . The library also began to accept large collections of older records from state agencies and localities, so that by 1971 the manuscript holdings reached fifteen million items—more than five times the number that had been moved into the building in 1940. Given the age of many of the printed and archival items in the collection, the library had a strong interest in (though extremely limited funds for) conservation and preservation. By establishing a relationship with the internationally renowned restoration and paper expert William J. Barrow and allowing Barrow to operate a restoration laboratory in the new library building, the library won a reputation for being at the forefront of the conservation field.

The library also took responsibility for the state’s records management program, advising state agencies on retention procedures for government documents and guiding them in the appropriate disposal of nonessential records. To mark the 350th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, the library entered into an ambitious partnership with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the University of Virginia, and the Virginia Historical Society to send an agent to Great Britain to identify records in British repositories relating to Virginia’s early history. Many of these records no longer survived on the American side of the Atlantic. The more than 900 reels of microfilmed documents that constitute the Virginia Colonial Records Project are available today at the library and its partner institutions, facilitating the study of Virginia from Jamestown in 1607 through the American Revolution.

The gravity of the situation came home to legislators … when a fire broke out in the basement….

Of all the initiatives launched within the library in this period, none was more significant than the library development program made possible through the pathbreaking Library Services Act passed by Congress in 1956. With this landmark program, the United States government declared that citizen access to libraries was essential to the survival of democracy and that financial assistance for libraries ranked among the nation’s top priorities. LSA funding, administered through the state library agency in each state, transformed libraries (including state libraries) across the country. The Virginia State Library was no exception. With funds to hire library development consultants and to award grants to localities to establish public libraries, the library was able to move much more aggressively toward fulfillment of one of the most important goals expressed by the founders of VLA. By 1970, more than half of the state’s ninety-six counties and all but one of its independent cities had local library service. By the 1980s, Virginia boasted more than ninety public library systems serving every city and all but three counties. The last locality to establish library service signed on in 2004.

The LSA evolved into the LSCA in 1964, adding the word construction to the name of the legislation with the creation of a separate grant program to assist localities in erecting modern library facilities. In 1996, the federal program evolved further with the Library Services and Technology Act, which reflected the revolution that technology had brought to the library and information profession. The LSTA program (recently reauthorized by Congress) has been vital in enabling state libraries as well as public libraries to take advantage of rapidly changing technology. Using state funds, the Virginia State Library entered the technological age in 1975 when it joined the Southeastern Library Network (SOLINET) and began employing computers to catalog its holdings. Soon thereafter came the inauguration of a union catalog for Virginia libraries (CAVALIR), retrospective conversion of the library’s entire card catalog into electronic form early in the 1980s, and the creation in 1990 of the Virginia Library and Information Network linking Virginia’s libraries to each other and to the Internet for the first time. State funding for technology, however, never kept pace with the need. LSTA funds made a crucial difference that allowed the library to begin a program to digitize unique Virginia documents and photographs for widespread use. Today, LSTA funds are devoted primarily to Find It Virginia , a website containing databases of reference works, encyclopedias, newspaper and magazine articles, health and business information, and much more, all accessible twenty-four hours a day to all Virginia library cardholders. Find It Virginia ensures that all citizens of the Commonwealth have equal access to essential information and opportunities for lifelong learning that would be impossible without the federal LSTA program.

Virginia State Library

The reading room in the second Virginia State Library building on Capitol Street, adjacent to the north side of Capitol Square, circa 1970.

Technological and environmental concerns prompted yet another move for the Virginia State Library. In 1997, the library moved into a modern five-and-a-half-story building prominently situated on Broad Street, just north of the Capitol Square complex. With 316,500 square feet of office and storage space, the equivalent of fifty-five miles of shelving, and state-of-the-art environmental controls and computer technology, the new building was designed to meet the collection’s needs in the twenty-first century as well as to increase the public’s awareness of and access to the library’s holdings and staff expertise. In preparation for the move and to enhance the library’s visibility and stature as an educational and cultural agency, the General Assembly in 1994 changed the library’s name from the Virginia State Library and Archives to the Library of Virginia.

The Library of Virginia has come a long way in the past century, but the challenges that lie ahead look as daunting today as they did to the founders of VLA one hundred years ago. All Virginians now have ready access to library service, but the quality and comprehensiveness of that service differs widely from place to place. There still are libraries with serious space, staffing, training, equipment, and resource needs. Technology costs are rising faster than local, state, and federal budgets. Expensive electronic resources are vying with traditional print materials for scarce acquisition dollars, forcing library staff to make excruciating choices. Increasingly, information is generated exclusively in digital format, posing as yet unresolved preservation challenges. How can we ensure that readers and researchers have access to today’s digital-born material one hundred years from now? How will libraries look and how will they be regarded by citizens and governments as the age of the Internet and Google moves forward? These are only a few of the many issues that all libraries face today. Just as it was important for libraries and library advocates to work together early in the twentieth century to find solutions, it is even more vital today.

The Library of Virginia is proud of its long association and many partnerships with the state’s public, academic, and special libraries. We are delighted to have played a special role in the creation of VLA and are honored to serve as the institutional home for the association’s papers. We salute all those who contribute their time and talent to continuing VLA’s outstanding record of accomplishment, and we look forward to working with the leadership of VLA during its second century as together we chart a future course for our profession and the citizens we serve.


1 Richmond Times-Dispatch , 7 December 1905; preamble to the Virginia Library Association constitution, Virginia Library Association Records, Organization Records, Acc 32434, Library of Virginia, Richmond.

2 Richmond Times-Dispatch , 7 December 1905; unless otherwise noted, historical information in this article is taken from Brent Tarter, “A Rich Storehouse of Knowledge: A History of the Library of Virginia,” in The Common Wealth: Treasures from the Collections of the Library of Virginia , ed. Sandra Gioia Treadway and Edward D. C. Campbell Jr. (Richmond: Library of Virginia, 1997), 3–64.

3 Tarter, 17.

4 Richmond News Leader , 27 May 1904.

5 Annual Report of the Virginia State Library (1910–1911), 23–25. VL


Sandra Gioia Treadway is Deputy Librarian at the Library of Virginia. She can be reached at STreadway@lva.lib.va.us .