Celebrate a Community Milestone at the Library

by Bill Peak

In 1925, “Silent Cal” Coolidge began his second term as the 30th president of the United States, John Scopes went on trial for the crime of teaching evolution in the public schools, Rogers Hornsby batted .403 for the St. Louis Cardinals, and here on the Eastern Shore an institution dedicated to the proposition that all people, being equal, deserve equal access to knowledge, opened its doors for the first time: the Talbot County Free Library.

Let's think about that for a moment. Here's a small, rural community, set off from the rest of the world (some would have said from modernity itself) by a large, unbridged body of water frequented by sailing vessels and steamboats, and the citizens of this backwater have the temerity to believe—at a time when the Ku Klux Klan rules large swaths of the country and Adolf Hitler is about to introduce the world to “Mein Kampf”—that they can create a library, a place where everyone can come together as equals to learn and better themselves. And what is more, they propose that the materials contained within this library be made available to its patrons free of charge. To make such a radical, unexpected notion clear to one and all, they decide to make “free” an important part of the place's name.

Now you have to remember, this is 1925. For years now Vladimir Illyich Lenin has been telling the world America is a place where money rules, the poor are enslaved by the rich, and everyone—from president to chimney sweep—bows down before the great god Mammon. And Lenin isn't alone. Ever since de Tocqueville, there have been those that have complained of the rapacious nature of American culture. Yet here we find a group of these supposedly materialistic Americans—patriots one and all—proposing to share that most valuable of assets—knowledge—with anyone and everyone...absolutely free of charge!

And they did. The Talbot County Free Library opened its doors on October 15, 1925, with a collection of 800 books in two ground-floor rooms in the Tred Avon Building on South Washington Street. Rent was $15 a month. The librarian received a salary of $900 a year.

And this radical, revolutionary experiment in social equality first begun by the people of Talbot County almost a hundred years ago continues today. In 2010, despite a national economic downturn that threatened to sink all ships, the people of Talbot County not only continued to support their library, they committed themselves and their treasure to expand and improve it. Today, the collection contained in both the beautiful new Easton library that resulted from that commitment and our St. Michaels branch consists of over 112,000 items. There are 37,931 people living in our county—28,917 of them are card-carrying members of the Talbot County Free Library.

On Thursday, October 15, we will give the Talbot County Free Library a birthday fit for the distinguished nonagenarian she is. There will be a reception, there will be food and drink, there will be entertainment. But truth be told, what we will really be celebrating is not so much the 90th anniversary of a remarkable institution as the spirit of the people who began the experiment in democracy that institution represents, the spirit of the people who, to this day, regularly risk some portion of their substance to make that experiment a success. On October 15 we will celebrate the good people of Talbot County...we will celebrate you. Won't you join us?