In 1874, St. Augustine opened the oldest library in Florida as a “subscription library.” The library was called the St. Augustine Free Public Library. Patrons gave money to help buy books for the library, and there was no charge to check out items.
By the 1970s there were three independent libraries in St. Augustine, Hastings and Mill Creek serving the residents of St. Johns County. Through the hard work and dedication of many supporters, especially the members of the Association of American University Women, a Library System was born.
On September 27, 1977, the St. Johns County Board of County Commissioners voted to establish a Library System for the County, along with a Library Advisory Board. Within 10 years a new 15,000 square foot Main Library would be opened, followed in coming years by the construction of five more branch libraries and the addition of two bookmobiles. The growth of St. Johns County has been mirrored by the growth of its Library System!
A timeline of our growth:
The Main Library
The Northeast Corner of Florida was dubbed “The First Coast” in the 1980s to pay tribute to the place where Europeans first set foot on U.S. soil in St. Augustine (the new name was also a marketing ploy to attract more tourists). However, new name aside, St. Augustine continued its tradition of being a leader by opening a subscription library in 1874 – the first library in Florida – thanks to the efforts of Francis L. Wilson, who negotiated with the U.S. Government to operate the library in two rooms of the U.S. Customs house (now Government House). In 1895 the Wilson family purchased a home on Aviles Street, which was the birthplace of Confederate General Edmund Kirby-Smith, and relocated the library to this location. The house served as the public library until the construction of the current library in 1987. The library struggled for several decades as the country faced war and poverty, but thanks to the efforts of its patrons, including author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who served as president of the library association from 1942 through 1943, it continued to serve the community. The later efforts of the American Association of University Women and the Junior Service League led to the establishment of a county library system. Today the Main Library continues to serve the community at its present location on Ponce de Leon Boulevard next to the Davenport Park.
Hastings Branch Library
The Town of Hastings’ first free-lending library was started in 1906 by the St. Johns Methodist Episcopal Church until the building was torn down in 1930. Fortunately, a group of 17 women, known as the Hastings Home Demonstration and Women’s Club, created a new library in June 1928. The club insisted that the library collection include books which would appeal to children – a progressive attitude, as at the time, many libraries did not serve children whom they believed to be a distraction for adult readers. Continuing the tradition of encouraging young children to read, Branch Librarian Margaret Stevens began offering programming for all children in the community in 1969 regardless of race, ensuring the library’s role as a community center for all. The library continued to operate under the club’s direction until it was incorporated into the St. Johns County Public Library System in 1997 and it is located in the former Hastings High School, which is part of the National Registry for Historic Buildings.
In 1980, the Hastings Branch Library started a Books-By-Mail program as part of the Library Service Construction Act by the United States Congress. It operated in Hastings until 2010, when it relocated to the Southeast Branch. In the early years of the program, a circular was mailed out to those areas of St. Johns County not supported by a branch library. Patrons used the form in the circular to check off items they wanted and then sent in their requests by a special mail bag that guaranteed free postage to and from the library. The Books-By-Mail program evolved to serve patrons all over the State of Florida and items are now sent as far south as Vero Beach. The program returned to operation in Hastings in 2018 and is still free for patrons who are not able to come into the library for medical reasons. Patrons who use the program for convenience may pay return postage or return their items to any library branch.
Ponte Vedra Beach Branch Library
In answer to the demand for increased library services across Saint Johns County, the Ponte Vedra Beach Branch Library opened in 1985 as a volunteer library in the County Annex Building. Thanks to the Friends of the Library and an exchange of donated property to the present site, the building on Library Boulevard was dedicated in May 1993. An addition to the structure opened in 2002, once again due to the efforts of the Friends. In addition to the attraction of the Friends of the Library bookstore, Seymour’s Books, and large number of program offerings available to patrons, Bird Island Park is a beautiful destination right outside the back door of the library. It offers library visitors a chance to observe migrating bird species as well as the local flora and fauna.
Bartram Trail Branch Library
The other library branch opened by the county in 1985 was the Bartram Trail Branch Library, which at that time was called the Northwest Library, and was located across from Wesley Manor, now Westminster Woods. The Bartram Branch was able to open thanks to a large number of donated books (many of which came from the Main Library in St. Augustine). The County paid the rent, electricity and the salary of one branch manager, Nancy Tanzler and was only open about 20 hours a week. As the library’s collection grew, so did its need for space and it re-located to the Food Lion Shopping Center. At that time, the County was able to pay two full time employees (Nancy Tanzler who continued to serve as branch manager and Betsy Gill as her assistant). In 1997, the branch moved from the shopping center to its present location, and in 2006, the library was expanded to the present configuration.
Bookmobile and Extension Services
The St. Johns County Public Library System established a bookmobile outreach program in 2000, with the support of a Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) Grant. The service initially sought to assist the elderly, and was officially titled Library Elderly Outreach (LEO). Over time, the department and the services have grown. In 2008, a second bookmobile was added to expand outreach services to young people and the general public. The department has grown from two to five staff members and its focus has expanded to include youth services programs, as well as providing library service to a large portion of northern St. Johns County that is without a free standing branch library. The Bookmobiles also make appearances at many community events throughout the year and eventually the LEO acronym changed to reflect its dedication to the community at large by calling itself the Library Express Outreach. Bookmobile and Extension Services continue to grow, adding public stops in Nocatee and northwest St. Johns County.
Southeast Branch Library
The Southeast Branch opened its doors to the public on October 1, 2003, in response to a growing need for library services in the southern part of St. Johns County. Administrative Headquarters and Support Services, which were critically overcrowded at the Main Branch, relocated to the Southeast Branch at that time, followed by the Library Extension Services (Bookmobile) several years later. In addition to a welcoming staff, patrons are greeted by two decorative items that enhance the interior of the Southeast library – a giant quilt designed and graciously donated by the St. Augustine Piecemakers, which hangs directly above the entrance to the library, and a group of six historical St. Augustine photographs, given to the library by local photographer Betsy Lee.
Anastasia Island Branch Library
The Anastasia Island Branch is the newest of the St. Johns County Libraries, celebrating ten years of operation on August 11, 2017! Since its opening, the Library has experienced growth far beyond the original expectations for this small Library. At only 8,000 square feet, the Anastasia Island Branch Library consistently leads the Library System in community programming and attendance. This is due to its proximity to the beach, which attracts a large number of long term visitors from other states and countries. As a result, the Anastasia Island Branch Library has a uniquely diverse clientele not seen at other branch locations. Located in a business center, the library has also become the local St. Augustine Beach Community Center. This was especially evident after Hurricane Matthew, as many came to the Library for emotional support, a free meeting place, and for recovery information.