Seaboard Airline Railway Free Traveling Library System

From 1898 until the early 1940s, Upcountry South Carolina shared with communities in five other Southeastern states the services of the Seaboard Airline Railway Library System, a unique library and one which must have developed the first regional library extension program in this country.

The library was begun at Rose Hill Plantation near Middleton, Georgia, in 1898 by Mrs. Eugene B. Heard. Sally Heard was a famous hostess and a real Georgia belle. She had married Eugene Heard who inherited a 2,000 acre plantation given to one of his ancestors, an early governor of Georgia. They had two children, a son and a daughter, but the son died soon after his twelfth birthday. He had loved books, and Sally Heard, hoping to share his books and love of books with other children, began to loan them to the children in the neighborhood. The response was far greater than she had anticipated. Children and adults were hungry for books and soon exhausted the Rose Hill collection as well as the books Sally Heard was able to gather from her friends. People still came however, and Sally Heard resolved to do all in her power to see that not only her own neighbors but rural people elsewhere had access to books and reading.

About this time Everitte St. John, Vice-President of the Seaboard Airline Railway, was in Elberton near Middleton in connection with an expansion of the railway system. Mrs. Heard invited him to Rose Hill and while there he heard Sally talk about a library for everyone along the length and breadth of the Seaboard. In the children coming to Rose Hill for books, he saw the need demonstrated and before he left Rose Hill he made Sally Heard the offer of the Seaboard's services in distributing the books in all of the states in which its system operated. If she could get the books the railroad would take them, free of charge, to anyone or any community, wherever the railroad ran. This offer remained in effect from 1898 until 1955 when the library finally closed.

With a means of distribution assured, the next step was to get books and more books, and magazines and more magazines. Sally Heard visited every publishing house and editor in the East and came home with promises of free books and magazines—promises that were kept long after her death.

With the assurance of a continuing supply of books and magazines and with the means of distributing them, Sally Heard's next step was to arrange with communities along the Seaboard for handling circulation of the books which would be sent to them without any charge whatsoever. She rode from one end of the Seaboard to the other, through Georgia, Virginia, Alabama, Florida and the Carolinas, securing the cooperation of women in the villages and hamlets in taking over the operation of the "circulating library" boxes.

By 1912, 18,000 books and 38,000 magazines were being distributed to individuals in each of the six states.

The library grew of its own momentum. Andrew Carnegie made a grant to the program and contributions were received from many other prominent business and social leaders. In 1907 the library won a gold medal award at the Jamestown Exposition.

The library did not close until 1955. By that time its mission was being carried on by the other county and regional libraries and state library programs developed in each of the six states which it had served. In the last few years of its existence service was largely limited to the Elberton neighborhood and in 1955 the remaining books were turned over to the Elberton schools.

For fifty-eight years the Seaboard Airline Railway Free Traveling Library System, operating from Rose Hill Plantation, provided a vital community service to the communities along its extensive railway system. The lives of thousands of men and women, boys and girls were enriched and expanded through the books that came to them from this unique library which had been founded through the vision of a woman who believed in the value of good books. In all its years of existence no fines were ever charged for overdue books nor charges made for lost books. There were no regulations, no State aid, no Federal aid and no local funds. The librarians who donated their time for the operation of the library were neither trained nor certified but their knowledge of books, love of people and devotion to a cause, were as effective as any graduate library degree could have been. The standards of service were simple good will and a concern for others. Its history was a miracle which can be attributed to one woman's vision, the generosity of publishers, a level-headed businessman and the tracks of the Seaboard Railway System.

Estellene P. Walker,
"So Good and Necessary a Work": The Public Library in South Carolina, 1698-1980
(Columbia: South Carolina State Library, 1981), p. 52

A note on the text

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