The Early Years: 1895-1922
In 1893, three women from Johnson City visited Chicago’s Columbian Exposition and were inspired by the art and culture displays they saw. When these women returned to Johnson City, they formed the Monday Club to educate themselves in art, history, and literature.
The Monday Club soon realized they needed reference books for their studies and decided that Johnson City, population 4,500, needed a library. From that point on the women were dedicated to establishing a library.
By 1895, the Monday Club had 20 members and Ida Potter Harris was president. Thanks to these women, Johnson City Public Library opened its doors for the first time on May 1, 1895 in an upstairs room of the Reeves Building in downtown Johnson City.
The Library was not free to the public, but was subscription-based. Forty-five subscribers paid $1 per year to be members. In 1904, the Monday Club began paying one of its members to be the librarian rather than relying strictly on volunteer help. After moving the Library several times, the club started a building fund in 1905 for the eventual establishment of a permanent location. In 1912, the City of Johnson City began contributing to the support of the Library and the subscription fee ended.
In 1913, after many years of struggling to raise enough money to keep the Library open, heated, and stocked with books, the Monday Club received a generous donation from Samuel Cole Williams, a Johnson City judge who had recently been appointed to the Tennessee Supreme Court. Judge Williams gave a parcel of land on Roan Street for the establishment of a permanent library building and $10,000 toward its construction in memory of his young son, Mayne Williams. The Mayne Williams Library Association was incorporated in April 1913 and the Monday Club began more vigorous fundraising efforts.
By 1920, the women had over $29,000 in the building fund and began work on a new library. The local architect D.R. Beeson was hired to draw the plans and the building was constructed by the Janes Construction Company. An elaborate cornerstone ceremony was held in February 1922. The cornerstone contained a metal box with a Bible, an American flag, the Library’s history and charter, U.S. coins, and newspapers of the day. The stone was anointed with wine to signify pleasure and joy, corn to signify plenty, and oil for religious significance.
Mayne Williams Public Library: 1923-1981
Mayne Williams Public Library opened to the public on January 1, 1923. Florence Wofford was president of the Monday Club at the time. The 8,000-square-foot building cost $38,000, held 6,000 books on opening day, and was open 40 hours a week.
The building consisted of two floors, with the library and club room upstairs and the auditorium in the basement. The auditorium was used by many organizations, including the Wednesday Morning Music Club that purchased a Steinway grand piano for the Library’s use. The Steinway has been refurbished and is still used in the Library today. Other groups that used the auditorium included the American Legion, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Red Cross, and the Little Theater Guild. The Library became a central community gathering place.
Hard times followed. During the Great Depression, the Library was closed for a year, from September 1931-September 1932, at which point it reopened on weekdays. By 1938, the Library’s annual budget was about $100 per month, with the Monday Club and the City of Johnson City each contributing about $50.
By 1948, the Library was receiving $5,000 annually from the City. That year, Dr. Carroll Long was elected to the Johnson City School Board. He asked the Monday Club to change the Library’s rules and allow Black students from Langston School to use the building. The Monday Club agreed, making the Library one of the first institutions in Johnson City to integrate.
The Library began receiving support from Washington County in 1967, and joined the Watauga Regional Library System to gain additional support and services.
By 1972, the Library was in need of more space and parking. As a temporary measure, the children’s area was moved from the first floor to the basement auditorium. A new building fund was established and a fundraising effort began with Louis Gump as chairman. The site of the original Science Hill High School was chosen for the new building, with Frank Knisley as the architect.
Johnson City Public Library: 1981-1999
The new $1.6 million, 24,000-square-foot Library opened its doors on May 15, 1981. The City owned the building, which was constructed by Calloway Construction Company. About 45,000 books were moved into the new building. Kathryn Jones was Monday Club President when the club relinquished its ownership and management of the Library. At that point the Library took on its original name: Johnson City Public Library. Ultimately, it became an independent 501(c)(3) organization under the governance of a 7-member board appointed by the City of Johnson City.
New technology came to the Library with a computerized catalog and circulation system in 1991, followed by public internet access in 1996.
The building began experiencing structural problems and was becoming overcrowded with equipment, materials, patrons, and staff. Because of this, the Library once again began a fundraising campaign, this time with Nita Summers as chairwoman. A new downtown site was chosen and the McCarty Holsaple McCarty architectural firm was chosen to design the new building.
Johnson City Public Library: 1999-Present
The current Johnson City Public Library, located at 100 West Millard Street, opened to the public on August 10, 1999. Polly Peterson was Library Board President at the time. The building was constructed by the Barker Building Company for $9 million, and it is 42,000 square feet.
As of 2023, the Library’s physical collection stands at over 136,000 books, audiobooks, magazines, and DVDs. It circulates over 455,000 items per year in the community. An average of 12,000 people visit the Library every month to check out items, attend events, use study spaces, and access vital services.
Johnson City Public Library continues to be a testament to the spirit and determination of a small group of women who labored for many years to make it a reality.
In 1904, when the Library was located in an upstairs room of the Hart Building with unpainted pine shelves, a small cast iron stove for heat, and split bottom kitchen chairs as seating, Monday Club President Mrs. Walter H. Harman stated in her annual president’s report: “Any story…must start at the beginning, so perhaps our humble efforts, while sometimes ludicrous and sometimes a little pathetic, may at least serve as a small part of the beginning of a story of real accomplishment in later years, one in which we all feel a sincere and justifiable pride, humbly claiming a small part of the honor because we were a small part of the beginning.”
*Johnson City Public Library history written by Gail Campbell.