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Unpacking Pack's History: A Q&A with Pack Librarians

As you know, Pack Memorial Library is celebrating its centennial as a public library this year. But did you know it originally opened as a subscription library? Or that its namesake has fingerprints all over the rest of Asheville and Buncombe County. In honor of PML celebrating 100 years as a public library we wanted to learn more about how it got here. The following questions are answered by PML Librarian Erin Makara and North Carolina Room librarian Zoe Rhine.

When is PML’s official 100-year anniversary?

On Jan. 2, 1919, after 40 years as a subscription library, its doors were opened as a free public library. The property was donated by the Asheville Library Association to the City of Asheville. 

How many locations has PML been since its inception?

Beginning on Jan. 25, 1879, the initial subscription library had no home of its own and moved many times in its first 15 years. In March 1894, it moved into its first intentional home on the corner of Church and Aston streets. In 1899, the library moved into the building donated by George Pack where it stayed for the next 27 years until that building was replaced at the same site by a new building designed by Edward Tilton. That location opened on July 9, 1926. Finally, after being located at Pack Square for 52 years, PML would move into its current location at 67 Haywood St. The design was created by architect Bertram King and the official dedication was on Nov. 18, 1978. The previous building PML occupied is now the Asheville Art Museum.

How did PML get its name?

George Pack came to Asheville in 1884. He is known for being one of Asheville’s greatest benefactors. In 1885, construction was completed on his large mansion dubbed as Manyoaks which sat on the property now occupied by Harris Teeter and Trader Joe's. Soon thereafter, he began his program of gifts to the city, and over the next 20 years his contributions of land and money would aid many needy causes that provided educational, cultural, and welfare benefits for the people. He donated several parks including Montford, Aston, and Magnolia Parks. He also gifted to the Free Kindergarten Association, helped with the creation of Vance Monument and Mission Hospital, and donated money for black teachers in the public school system. However, many of his contributions were never made public, and his benefactions showed great foresight with many still evident in Asheville.

In 1899, he purchased land and buildings on the site of Court Square to house the Asheville Public Library. The following year, Pack gave land on College Street with the stipulation that the existing Buncombe County Courthouse be torn down and a new one constructed. The remaining land was to be made into a public square. In gratitude, local officials changed the library's name to Pack Memorial Public Library and the previous Court Square to Pack Square. Both sites still bear his name.

How has PML affected downtown Asheville and Buncombe County at-large?

Pack originally was not a free public library. It took many years to become one, hence our 100 year celebration of being a free public library this year, allowing resources for all and not just people who could afford subscriptions. 

Another important factor is that during the 1980s many businesses left downtown. The library, banks, and churches were anchors during this time as they waited for better days. Meantime, PML also established a bookmobile so librarians could drive out to rural county areas to provide free books and host story times for young children.

PML still provides free public programs and resources for everyone of every age. Due to the needs of the County and success of Pack Memorial Library, there are now 12 library branches throughout Buncombe County. 

What are some interesting facts about PML’s history?

  • On Aug. 20, 1936, F. Scott Fitzgerald visited and signed the guest registry noting, “A fine library, and a staff that makes one grateful.”
  • In 1919, PML started evening hours.
  • Bookmobile service to the County began in June 1939. The library bookmobile was decommissioned 66 years later and was transferred to County Emergency Services for use as a mobile emergency response center. It was a quiet end to the bookmobile service to the County.
  • The library system integrated Sept. 29, 1961. Before desegregation, there was a library opened for black people in 1927, and it's name was Market Street Branch of City Libraries. That branch closed in 1966, a few years after the library system desegregated.
  • In 1994, the Buncombe County Library system moved from card catalogues to an online database.
  • Pack Memorial Library is built in the style of brutalist architecture.  Brutalist architecture is a style which emerged in the mid-20th century and gained popularity in the 1970s, although the style was only en vogue for about 20 years. It is characterized by simple, block-like structures that often feature bare building materials.

How has the library evolved to meet the needs of the community over the decades?

Libraries are embracing community needs by listening to their constituents. We work with local partners, go into the community by bringing the library to markets, set up tables at comic-cons and conventions, make library cards at breweries with our outreach team, and more. We aren't stagnant, and we strive to be versatile.

Libraries keep up-to-date with technology by providing free computer access, offering an extensive digital collection, and boasting modern-day programs like classes focusing on drone flying, fitness, drawing, language, free musical performances, and more.

We've dismissed the days where librarians are asking people to be quiet and where programs are only about books. We strive to be a community hub for every single person, and we keep that as our goal. 

To celebrate 100 years, some breweries in Asheville are making a bibliobrew for the occasion. Join librarians from the outreach team for tap release nights at Zillicoah (tap release announced on Facebook and Instagram), Catawba Brewing Co. on the South Slope July 11, DSSOLVR, Wedge Brewery, Buchi at the Whale on July 28, and Highland Brewing on July 31.