- Associated Press - Saturday, February 6, 2016

TUPELO, Miss. (AP) - Lee County Library begins a yearlong 75th anniversary celebration at its monthly Lunching With Books event, featuring a scholarly lecture and dedicatory remarks for two major collections and rededication of the Helen Foster Auditorium.

Margaret Gratz, who coordinates Lunching With Books and is a longtime library advocate, noted, “More than 800 people come into the library every day, and it is a busy place with all sorts of activities and programs. It is, because of its computers, the jobs center of Lee County, and I believe it is the community’s intellectual center.”

Gratz said she believes library supporters have the same passion for improvement and learning as when the library first started.

The library, as a system, and with its landmark building at the corner of Jefferson and Madison streets in Tupelo, is emblematic of Tupelo/Lee County’s progressive spirit.

Tupelo, however, had been incorporated for 71 years (1870 to 1941) before the tireless efforts of multiple generations of community leaders finally obtained funding from the Lee County Board of Supervisors and the Tupelo Board of Aldermen for a free, circulating public library.

Repeated efforts to establish a library started in 1890, when U.S. Rep. John Allen, known universally as “Private John,” bought five aces adjacent his residence on Madison Street, with the land having frontage on Main Street, and offered a lot to the city for a library facing Main.

Funding wasn’t available, so the offer became moot.

It is ironic that almost a half-century later the Allen residence, which had passed out of the family’s ownership, would become a permanent home for the library, and it was on the site where the current library sits.

After Allen’s initial offer, the library issue was mostly silent until 1915 when Emma Edmonds, identified by Elizabeth Boren Green in the master’s thesis for the University of Mississippi as an “esteemed English teacher at Tupelo High School,” took up the issue and pushed it forward.

Edmonds, for whom the still-elegant Emma Edmonds Auditorium at Milam School is named, gained permission to use a room in the high school as a free library during summer vacation months.

It is important in the longer story of the library that Edmonds asked “a few active club women” in Tupelo to join the effort, plus the School Improvement Association, and the library flourished for two years before rising enrollment required its room for classes.

Club women from that point forward became critical to efforts for a permanent library. When the school became unavailable, the club women persuaded the city to use a room in City Hall, then to a room in the court house.

The Tupelo Federated Club Council, a power to be reckoned with, approached the city about using the soon to vacated hospital on the corner of Main and Green streets when the new hospital was completed (North Mississippi Medical Center today), and the effort had editorial backing from the Tupelo Daily Journal. Editor/Publisher George A. McLean wrote, “Ladies, get that library.”

The library, which had migrated from place-to-place in the city, gained a permanent home in 1948-49 when the city purchased the former Allen residence for $25,000, plus provided $5,000 for converting the spacious, once-elegant home to library uses.

By the late 1960s, the library’s programs and increasing patronage had outgrown the “Allen house,” and in the summer of 1971 it moved into a new, two-story modern building on the same site.

The “new” library was built with state, local and federal funds (through the Appalachian Regional Commission).

Use has continued to climb, and the library has moved into the digital age with computers augmenting to its still-growing printed book collection.

“If you stand out here on the balcony overlooking the main floor, you can hear the library working - people typing on the computers, children in their activities, and people talking about research,” said Jeff Tomlinson, director of the Lee-Itawamba Library System. “It is the sound of a modern library.”

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Information from: Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, https://djournal.com

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