Column – Volunteers worked hard to bring libraries to IW

Published 7:38 pm Monday, February 20, 2023

Our nation’s libraries, both public and school, are frequently ground zero for the culture wars that our country’s politicians seem determined to wage in wave after wave these days.

In that environment, it might be helpful for us to remember that there was a time when there were often no libraries at all, either for the general public or for public school students. In that era, little more than a century ago in some communities, civic leaders united in a determined effort to make certain that books were made widely available to all who wanted to read and thus advance their personal knowledge.

Isle of Wight County was not a leader in the library movement, but went along with those who were and, as a result, libraries today are a vital resource for residents throughout the county.

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The movement here began humbly, in 1924, when members of the Smithfield Shakespeare Class asked the Town Council to help in establishing a public library. The Smithfield Library Association was created and, with donated books, a modest library was established in the old Town Hall, a frame building later replaced by the present-day Town Hall.

Three years later, in 1927, the Woman’s Club of Smithfield was chartered and took up the cause of the library as a primary project. 

In 1928, the Virginia Federation of Woman’s Clubs adopted for their slogan “A County Library in Every County.” These folks were serious.

The Smithfield Library grew by simple weight of demand. People wanted access to books, and the more books the library acquired, the more it needed.

Then, in 1944, Mrs. Cora Chapman, one of the library’s earliest promoters and volunteers, died and left her dwelling on Church Street as home to the Benjamin P. Chapman Memorial Library.

Fourteen years later, Southampton County entrepreneur Walter Cecil Rawls founded the Rawls Library in honor of his mother, a move that would have far-reaching ramifications for the library movement in Isle of Wight and Surry, as well as Southampton.

Rawls, who later retired to a home he built just outside of Smithfield, appeared before the Isle of Wight Board of Supervisors in 1960 to propose a means of bringing library services to the county’s rural areas. He planned to create a bookmobile under the auspices of the Rawls Library. The vehicle would travel throughout Southampton and Isle of Wight, offering books to the general public.

It took two years, but in January 1962, the supervisors approved a contract with the Rawls Library to have the bookmobile serve Isle of Wight residents at an initial annual cost of $5,100. The bookmobile was immediately popular and would continue serving the county for at least the next four decades.

The Rawls Library was a part of the Virginia State Library system and, as such, had access to vast resources that a private library could not match. By the 1970s, the Benjamin P. Chapman Library Board began to realize that, to grow, it would need to affiliate with the state, preferably through Rawls. In 1974, the board voted to do so.

The Smithfield Town Council and the Isle of Wight supervisors agreed to share the cost of the merger, and the Smithfield Library became a branch of the Rawls Library.

Betty Delk, a relatively new resident to Smithfield at the time, was president of the Library Association and instrumental in pushing for the merger with Rawls. Recently, she reflected on the importance of the town and county’s decision to move ahead with that merger.

“It was just huge,” she said. “The merger gave opportunity to the entire county to be involved with the library.”

That initial merger further whetted the appetite for expanded library services throughout the county. The Carrollton Woman’s Club began efforts in 1980 to establish a Carrollton branch and the volunteer-operated library was opened in the former Carisbrooke sales office in 1983. By 1999 the county, assisted by private donations, had constructed the current Carrollton Library on New Towne Haven Lane.

The old Benjamin P. Chapman building had long since become insufficient to handle the Smithfield Library’s needs, and so in 1989 a portion of the former Smithfield High School was renovated and committed to use by the Smithfield branch.

Meanwhile, a library had been established in 1995 in Windsor. Students from the P.D. Pruden Center built the facility, which also became part of the Rawls system.

The Rawls Library, meanwhile, had become the Blackwater Regional Library, with branches in Southampton, Isle of Wight, Surry and Sussex.

Today, thanks to the efforts of generations of book-loving volunteers, the Virginia State Library ably serves Isle of Wight and Surry County residents. Competent and professionally trained librarians see that reading materials, printed and electronic, are available to all residents.

Libraries will always be a lightning rod whenever authors chart new paths with the books they choose to write, but libraries hold steadfast to the principle that the dispersion of knowledge should be universal — and bless ’em for it.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is