Henderson County, Kentucky

The Henderson Public Library and Its Founders

Most citizens leave public school at 18 or younger, but one institution of learning is available throughout their lives -- the public library. Henderson residents are indebted to Edward Asher JONAS, an early publisher of the Henderson Journal, for meeting Andrew CARNEGIE on the golf links and convincing him that Henderson would welcome a library.

JONAS found CARNEGIE easier to convince than the Henderson officials. CARNEGIE'S gift was conditioned on the city providing a suitable lot for the building and enacting a special tax to pay the maintenance and operating cost of the library. JONAS started the fund for the lot by giving lectures and enlisting other forms of entertainment. By 1902 enough money had been secured to persuade Mayor J. H. POWELL and the city council to approve a board of directors, and purchase a lot on the corner of Main and Washington Streets.

In 1903 the board chose Miss Susan TOWLES to become librarian and, with her customary thoroughness, she went to the Library of Congress to learn techniques of classification and cataloging, before taking up her duties in 1904. For this reason, the library books were classified by the Cutter method, instead of the more usual Dewey system.

Miss TOWLES' contribution to the culture of Henderson was so varied, so intense and so-long-lasting, that a short biography is in order. A descendant from the original Transylvanians, she was born during the Civil War and lived past the middle of the 20th Century. She could remember the Union troops marching out of Henderson and leaving her father, a wealthy man in pre-war days, with only two cemetery lots, a collection of books and family chronicles going back to his Scottish origins. A quiet, dignified lady she seems, at times, to be immersed in historical traditions, but her eyes were firmly fixed on the future.

In her father's collection were two sets of Audubon's books, his "Birds" and "Quadrupeds", and she knew the naturalist had been a friend of her grandfather, Judge Thomas TOWLES. She set herself the task of keeping Audubon's memory alive. She joined the Henderson Audubon society when it was organized in 1898 and became president of the state society; borrowed $1,000 and ordered prints from the Elephant folio which she sold to pay for the fine collection still housed at the library; and when she was in her seventies, she went back to Washington to appear before a joint committee of the U.S. House and Senate, asking for an appropriating for an Audubon material.

She organized the two historical societies, The Transylvanians and Henderson Historical Society, and provided a meeting place for them in the library. She was president of the Transylvanians when they placed the six historical plaques on the walls of the Courthouse and published the writings of Archibald HENDERSON concerning the Transylvania Company. When the state asked her to write a history of the town of Henderson and to report historic buildings in west Kentucky, she compiled; but the book was published by W. P. A. and her name was omitted from the title page.

She became president of the Civic Improvement Society in 1903 and led its members in demanding that the city fathers make all the river front from Washington to 12th Streets into parks and playgrounds. Two parks survive today. Many of the books and manuscripts that she collected on the Transylvania Company and placed in the museum, have also disappeared over the years, but anyone who visits the Audubon Museum, relaxes in either of the river front parks, or uses the public library, feels the influence of Miss Sue TOWLES.

When the library opened 01 Aug 1904, 500 books were on the shelves in the main library and 100 in the branch for colored users. At that time, only city dwellers had free use of the books, but in 1942 Fiscal Court started making an annual appropriation to the library and it was opened for county residents.

Miss TOWLES retired in 1949 and the board elected her assistant, Miss Sara WINSTEAD, as head librarian and she remained until her retirement in 1973. In 1954 service was extended beyond the building when the first bookmobile was placed in the county. The two collections had been integrated, and growth was so rapid that a major renovation was necessary in 1960. The lower floor was opened with a new inside stairway to reach a brand-new children's department and adult stocks, and records and audio-visual equipment were added. This was just in time to serve the students in the new college before its library was adequate. In keeping with accepted library practice, Miss WINSTEAD reclassified the entire book collection into the Dewey system.

Contributed by Lisa Hallmark Pounders, HCH&GS
Copyright 1996 HCH&GS