Celebrating 90 Years of Service in Norfolk, Virginia

Norfolk Public Library, Slover Memorial Main Branch, Location: Norfolk VA, Architect: Newman Architects

Celebrating its 90th year of public service, the Sargeant Memorial Collection (SMC) is the archives and special collections department of the Norfolk Public Library. The SMC is named in honor of William Henry Sargeant, the first librarian for the Norfolk Public Library. It is housed within the beautiful, state-of-the-art Slover Library in downtown Norfolk, Virginia, and is open seven days per week to local history and genealogy researchers.

The SMC began out of Sargeant’s keen desire to collect and provide access to historical materials such as newspapers and city directories to Norfolk’s citizenry. “If I am zealous in bringing the Public Library continually before the people it is certainly a zealousness in a good cause… a complete set [of city directories] ought to be somewhere easy of access, and where better than in the library?”[1]

Interior of the Sargeant Memorial Room in Norfolk’s Freemason Street Library.

It was opened in 1927 and named in honor of Norfolk Public Library’s first Librarian (Library Director) William Henry Sargeant, Sr. who loved local history. He was quoted as saying that a community needed a place to look up old local newspapers and directories. (Date of Photo: 12/14/1927).

Sargeant was the first librarian to be hired by the City of Norfolk in 1894 and remained in charge of the Norfolk Public Library from 1895 until his death in 1917. In the early days of the Norfolk Public Library, Sargeant contributed significantly to the collection that would later bear his name. His collecting scope grew from city directories and newspapers to include a selection of history materials from Virginia and across America. On November 19, 1909, a local newspaper known as the Landmark touted the value of the collection by reporting: “Truly the city is to be congratulated in having possession of such a magnificent collection of local historical records.”[2] By May 1927, the Library Board Room had been outfitted to house the growing collection as the Americana Room, and Mary Churchill Brown became the first Americana Assistant who oversaw the room at a rate of $125 per month.[3] One month later, the Board of Directors met on June 2, 1927, and renamed the Americana Room the William H. Sargeant Room “in memory of our late Librarian, who with unerring judgment despite the meagre funds at his disposal, secured the scarce items of Virginia historical material which form the nucleus of our collection.”[4] Mary Denson Pretlow, the second Librarian for Norfolk Public Library, listed the opening of the room as the “most important undertaking of the year” in her Librarian’s Report of 1927.[5] Ms. Pretlow commented, “The Sargeant Memorial Room is a quiet place for research workers, filling a long-felt need of the Library.”[6] Since that time, the staff of the Norfolk Public Library has continued to collect and maintain a historical collection of Norfolkiana, Virginiana, and genealogical research materials, growing from a small Sargeant Memorial Room to a 20,000 square foot facility, lovingly cared for by a fifteen-member staff.

The SMC has transformed Sargeant’s early collection of newspapers and city directories into a respectable regional archives and special collections of more than 24,000 books, 10,500 microforms, 150,000 photographs, and 2,500 linear feet of archival and manuscript collections. The non-circulating collection includes a variety of books and periodicals covering genealogical topics and local history, as well as maps, photographs, and high school yearbooks for the Hampton Roads region. Nearly 200 years of local and regional newspapers are available on microfilm. The archives and manuscript collections include local organizational records, family papers, and business records as well as architectural records of local buildings and landmarks. The SMC’s genealogy collection encompasses Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland, and neighboring states, with books, microfilm, and online databases to assist in family research. Today, the Sargeant Memorial Collection is one of Virginia’s finest local history and genealogy collections.

Furthermore, the SMC contributes to the Norfolk Public Library’s strategic goal of serving the lifelong learning needs of its local community through hosted internships, educational exhibits, and guest speakers, as well as teaching instructional classes in subjects like genealogy and local history research. The SMC hosts regular internships from local colleges and universities, generally for public history majors and library science students, including Norfolk State University, Old Dominion University, and Virginia Wesleyan University. The SMC also offers educational and ‘how to’ programs such as Genealogy 101, Genealogical Databases, African American Genealogy, and Historic Property Research.

For 90 years, the Sargeant Memorial Collection has provided historical information and resources to individuals from all over the world. The SMC continues to transform and grow. In 2010, the Sargeant Memorial Room changed its name to the Sargeant Memorial Collection “in order to more clearly describe all that our local history and genealogy collection has grown to be.”[7] What began as a small collection of newspapers and directories has evolved into a repository of manuscript collections, maps, rare books, photographs, microfilm, architectural records, and more. The Sargeant Memorial Collection continues to eagerly serve the public and provide access to its valuable resources.

— Tammy Woodward, MLIS, CA, Archives Coordinator, Sargeant Memorial Collection

and Sarah Osorio, MSLS, Archives Librarian, Sargeant Memorial Collection

Bibliography

Norfolk Public Library. Board of Directors Meeting Minutes. Meeting minutes. January 6, 1927. RG-12, Norfolk Public Library Records. Sargeant Memorial Collection, Norfolk Public Library, Norfolk, Virginia.

Norfolk Public Library. Board of Directors Meeting Minutes. Meeting minutes. June 2, 1927. RG-12, Norfolk Public Library Records. Sargeant Memorial Collection, Norfolk Public Library, Norfolk, Virginia.

Pretlow, Mary. Norfolk Public Librarian’s Report. Annual report. 1928. RG-12, Norfolk Public Library Records. Sargeant Memorial Collection, Norfolk Public Library, Norfolk, Virginia.

Sargeant, William Henry. “Norfolk Public Library Scrapbook.” Scrapbook. 1896-1932. RG-12, Norfolk Public Library Records. Sargeant Memorial Collection, Norfolk Public Library, Norfolk, Virginia.

Valos, Troy. “A New Chapter for the Sargeant Memorial Collection’s History.” Sargeant’s Chronicles, Vol. 4. Issue 4, Summer 2010.

[1]William Henry Sargeant, Norfolk Public Library Scrapbook, 1896-1932; RG-12, Norfolk Public Library Records; Norfolk Public Library Sargeant Memorial Collection, Norfolk, Virginia, 1.

[2]Ibid., 72.

[3] Norfolk Public Library, Board of Directors Meeting Minutes, January 6, 1927; RG-12, Norfolk Public Library Records; Norfolk Public Library Sargeant Memorial Collection, Norfolk, Virginia.

[4] Norfolk Public Library, Board of Directors Meeting Minutes, June 2, 1927; RG-12, Norfolk Public Library Records; Norfolk Public Library Sargeant Memorial Collection, Norfolk, Virginia.

[5] Mary Pretlow, Norfolk Public Librarian’s Report, 1928; RG-12, Norfolk Public Library Records; Norfolk Public Library Sargeant Memorial Collection, Norfolk, Virginia.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Troy Valos, “A New Chapter for the Sargeant Memorial Collection’s History,” Sargeant’s Chronicles, Summer 2010, 3.

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