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The Reverend Thomas Bray in 1700 organized a collection of books to be sent to St. Thomas Parish in Bath. The collection consisted of a variety of contemporary religious and general interest titles. Only one work from the collection is known to exist today, Gilbert Towerson’s Application of the Church Catechism. The book collection became the first public library in the American colonies. No other public library would exist in North Carolina during the colonial period.
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Bray was an Anglican clergyman who was sent to North Carolina from Maryland to recruit new clergy members. Upon his arrival, Bray found the people of North Carolina under-educated and without literary opportunities. When Bray returned to Maryland, and then to England, he enlisted the help of the newly formed Society of the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, chartered officially in July 1701, to gather three collections to be sent to the colony of North Carolina. Of these three collections, only one was officially established, that being at Bath.
St. Thomas Parish, the Anglican parish to which the books were bequeathed, did not exist until 1700. The library came to the parish before it had an active minister or a church building. The library included multiple copies of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. The collection was entrusted to Daniel Brett for delivery, but Brett proved unsuitable as a guardian of the library.
Brett arrived in the region between 1701 and 1702, officially establishing the library as part of the parish. He soon disappeared from the colony, leaving no one to administer the library. By 1715, the colonial government, under Governor Charles Eden, passed legislation guaranteeing the protection of the library and its collection, asking for “the more effectual preservation of the same.” Despite the government’s actions, the library disbanded before the beginning of the Revolutionary War. Only with the opening of the State Library in 1812 did North Carolina establish a truly public, state-funded library for its people.
Thornton Mitchell, The State Library and Library Development in North Carolina (1983)
William Powell, ed., Encyclopedia of North Carolina (2006)
Hugh T. Lefler and Albert Ray Newsome, The History of a Southern State: North Carolina (1959)
Walter Clark, ed., State Records of North Carolina (1904), Chapter 52, XXIII, 73-79, online at: http://docsouth.unc.edu/csr/