As with many states, the first libraries in Mississippi were those of the private citizens. These were in no way considered “public.” In 1818 (when Mississippi was a new state) the Mississippi Literary and Library Company of Gibson-Port was chartered as a subscription library. This was the first organization in Mississippi to be called a “library.” Located in Yazoo City, the Manchester Library Association, chartered in 1840, offered a circulating collection to members. Between 1900 and 1919 citizen groups formed public libraries in Hazlehurst, Brookhaven, Columbia, Greenville, Port Gibson, and Laurel.
Development of Public Libraries in Mississippi
In 1926, 83 percent of the state was still without free library service. By 1970, all 82 counties in Mississippi were supporting, to some degree, free county-wide library service. The following are significant steps in the development of public libraries in Mississippi:
- Carnegie Libraries (1908 -1916) Mississippi, like many other states, benefited from the philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie. The Carnegie Foundation gave more than $185,500 to establish libraries in Mississippi. Eleven public library buildings were erected in ten communities across the state in eight years. Libraries were built in Houston, Mound Bayou (which never functioned as a library), Meridian, (a main branch and a Negro branch were created), Greenwood, Clarksdale, Jackson, West Point, Okolona, Vicksburg, and Gulfport. Today only Clarksdale, Houston and Okolona utilize the Carnegie buildings as libraries.
- Federation of Women’s Clubs (1925 -1975) Without the support and steadfast resolve of the women in the various women’s clubs in Mississippi, public libraries would have taken a back row seat to many other community projects. However, in 1925, the state federation of women’s clubs determined to ask for library service in every county in the state. In 1926 the Mississippi Library Commission was established and adopted the same goal as the women’s clubs. It would take more than 50 years to accomplish this goal.
- Emergency Relief Act (ERA) (1933) Although Mississippi and the country suffered through the Great Depression, several good things resulted. One was the ERA funds that helped to establish libraries in Liberty, Pike County, and Walthall County.
- Works Progress Library Project (WPA) (1934 -1935) In 1934, the WPA Library Project also helped provide jobs for the unemployed and also established library service for the first time in six areas: Bay St. Louis, New Albany, Noxubee County, Pontotoc, Sunflower County, and Winston County. Funds from this project reinvigorated the public libraries already established in Attala County, Bolivar County, Greenville, Holmes County, Leake County, Marshall County, Natchez, Port Gibson, and Yazoo City. In 1935, with the additional aid of WPA and community groups, libraries were established in DeSoto County, Long Beach, Osyka, Aberdeen, Batesville, Lee County, Meridian, Montgomery County, and Oktibbeha County.
- World War II (1939-1945) Until the outbreak of World War II, the development of libraries in Mississippi was well underway. During the war, some were forced to close; others had little development; and no new libraries were established.
- State Aid (1948-present) Public libraries continued to struggle with funding from local sources. In 1950 the Legislature passed a law allowing the counties to levy a one mill tax for library support. With the passage of $45,000 for “state aid for libraries” in 1948, legislators recognized the need for assistance from the state level. In 1969 the Legislature adopted a unique state aid program – the Personnel Incentive Grant Program. The purpose was to upgrade public library personnel and bring salaries in line with salaries in other Southern states. In 1988 the program became a block grant distributed per county/per capita basis to accredited public library systems. In 2004 more than $5.2 million in the Personnel Incentive Grant Program and an additional $3 million for health and life insurance for public library employees was distributed to qualified public library systems.
- Multi-County Library Systems (1950-present) The establishment of the original multi-county library system in the state occurred with the formation of First Regional Library in 1950. By 1973 there were 16 multi-county public library systems in the state and by 1998 there were 18.
- Federal Aid (1956-present) Libraries in Mississippi also benefited from the Library Services Act, passed by Congress in 1956, which has evolved over the years. By 2004, the Library Services and Technology Act grant program generated more than $1.6 million in direct and indirect benefits.
- Gates Library Foundation (1998-present) In 1998, all public libraries were offered computers and software under a statewide grant according to the needs of the local public service area. Gates returned a couple of years later with a training grant that was used to develop an intensive, multi-tiered program designed to offer appropriate, convenient, no-cost technology training for public library personnel.
- MAGNOLIA (1997-present) In 1997 the Mississippi Legislature funded Mississippi Alliance for Gaining New Opportunities Through Library Information Access (MAGNOLIA), a statewide online database consortium for all publically funded libraries, schools, universities, colleges, and state agencies. MAGNOLIA was the first consortium of its kind to provide online database access to an entire state and remains supported by the Legislature.