When the Sylacauga Public Library was founded in 1936, Alabama was just climbing out of the Great Depression. Alabama had suffered even more than many other states, but amazingly the citizens of Sylacauga were thinking of starting a library. The New Deal was in place, the state had strong leadership, and in this climate the Sylacauga Rotary Club and twenty-three civic, church and fraternal organizations met to talk about “the time being ripe for the creation of a library.” That important initial interest of the clubs, organizations, and citizens in public library service has continued down to the present time.
The City of Sylacauga immediately supported the new library. They gave $250.00 startup money, $50.00 per month for operations, and they appointed an influential board of interested persons to run the library. The tradition of city support and a good board has been necessary in the blueprint for the success of this library.
The tiny library was moved from place to place, but in 1938, the Works Progress Administration set up the largest WPA library project in the state in Sylacauga. At that time, library service was extended to rural Talladega County, and the tradition of broad, free municipal library service to citizens outside the city limits was established. By 1939, a $28,000 WPA grant had built a new building to house the library. The Comer family gave $5,000 to furnish the library, and the name was changed from Sylacauga Public Library to B. B. Comer Memorial Library in memory of the late Governor Comer.
From the beginning, the B. B. Comer Library was part of the “big picture” of the Sylacauga community. Dr. F. H. Craddock was president of the Chamber of Commerce and the library board. The new library was dedicated on “March of Progress Day,” on November 21, 1939-a day set aside to celebrate several major happenings in Sylacauga. Thus the library began as an integral part of the city, and that tradition has continued.
By 1952, Ms. Dorothy Lee, a professional librarian, was hired to direct Comer Library. She organized and placed the library on a firm foundation. Even today, many small towns do not have trained librarians, so Sylacauga began their tradition of hiring competent, trained people to run Comer Library.
As the years passed, the WPA building became inadequate for the free service that Comer Library provided for a large area. During the early 1970s, the library director, Carolyn Bush Goff, persuaded the city to blueprint a 21,000-foot building, despite the fact that there was no money for a building. Mrs. Goff served the library for many years after her career as a nurse – working with her husband, Dr. William Hunter Goff. When the federal funds flowed into the state in the late 1970s, Sylacauga was ready, and in March of 1979, Comer Library moved into its present building. Being ready for opportunity made the difference for a small town that otherwise would not have qualified for such a spacious building. The federal grant provided $592,000; the city donated prime downtown property plus $218,314; and Avondale Mills gave $75,000 for furnishings. No other small town in Alabama built such a wonderful, spacious library from that wave of federal money.
The fully automated catalog was installed in January of 1996 to offer speedy, accurate access to the library’s holdings. In January of 1997, the 4-station CD ROM Information Center was installed. Internet access became a reality in April, 1998 made possible through a grant from the Gates Library Foundation. Then in June of 2000, Comer Library’s catalog became accessible online.
In November, 2002 the library moved to a temporary location at 109 North Broadway Avenue while the main library was being renovated and expanded. The library reopened December 1, 2003 in an expanded 39,000 ft. library and conference center.
To summarize the success of the B. B. Comer Library, the key ingredients seem to be: citizen and civic involvement; good city support; good boards given autonomy; mentors from business and industry; generous service to less fortunate; the library as part of the total community; high quality employees with vision; planning for the future and being ready for growth and change.