As with many institutions in the Lowcountry, the Charleston County Public Library has grown over the years to serve its growing community.
In the process, he acquired significant assets, large and small, from books to buildings. The John L. Dart Library at 1067 King St. began in 1927, when Susan Dart Butler converted her father’s press room in the old Dart Hall into a public reading room.
In doing so, Butler created the city’s first open-access library. Leaders of the progressive Julius Rosenwald Fund, which had a reputation for promoting education among African Americans throughout the South, noticed what Butler had done and helped fund a fledgling countywide library system. from 1931.
Eleven years later, the county purchased Dart Hall. Butler served as chief librarian until 1957.
Then came years of trouble. From these emerged a new Dart Library, in a new location on upper King Street, in 1968.
Next month it will temporarily close while the Charleston County Public Library makes improvements to the building.
This effort is part of a $108.5 million incremental initiative to create five new library branches and improve the rest. The money comes from a referendum passed by voters in 2014.
The Wando Mount Pleasant Library opened in June 2019; the Baxter-Patrick James Island Library opened in November 2019; St. Paul/Hollywood Library opened in June 2020; and the Bees Ferry West Ashley Library opened in November 2020. Construction of the Keith Summey North Charleston Library is underway with an expected opening in 2023.
The Dart branch will close at 5 p.m. on October 15 so it can be painted, carpeted, remodeled and reorganized. The designs were provided by Liollio Architecture. Customers can use the main library at 68 Calhoun Street to pick up items on hold. They can route or return materials to any other branch.
The closure, although relatively brief, will disrupt Keira Singleton’s routine.
Singleton, 30, lives in the neighborhood and visits her several times a month, sometimes bringing her young son so he can browse books that interest him, sometimes sitting at a computer to hang out on the internet. His wife, Jasmine Blake, 26, sometimes joins him — “to get out of the house,” she says. And to check various materials.
Kara Valtier, a caregiver and makeup artist who lives across the street, could also be inconvenienced. She comes to use the copier, usually asking for help from helpful staff, she said.
Some of the homeless and needy will also notice the locked doors. They will not be able to pick up donated products in the Free & Fresh pantry near the front door.
But it will be worth it, said branch manager K’Lani Green. Before long, the Dart Library will not only provide access to valuable materials in a more comfortable environment, but will also resume its outreach efforts, continuing a long tradition of community service.
Reverend John L. Dart, pastor of Morris Street Baptist Church, founded the Charleston Normal and Industrial Institute for Black children in 1894. In doing so, he laid the foundation for what would become Burke High School.
The initial effort was so successful that it led to Dart securing six lots at the corner of Bogard and Kracke streets on the West Side, where he had Dart Hall built. It was more than a school. It was a community center, event space and, from 1927, a public library. He became a cornerstone of Charleston’s black community. In 1952 Charleston County purchased the building, which became part of the county’s public library system.
In 1968, hundreds of properties on the peninsula, most owned by African Americans, were razed to make way for the Crosstown Freeway and the bottom of Interstate 26. The remarkable Dart Hall was one of them, replaced by a modest new building at the top of King Street. .
The Dart branch has never relinquished its role as a community institution, Green said.
The pandemic has disrupted much of her programming, but things are getting back to normal, she said. Management focuses on literacy and awareness. Its fall festival, scheduled from 4 to 6 p.m. on October 12, is a family-friendly event featuring food and crafts.
The Dart Library participated in the National Endowment for the Arts Big Read initiative, which this fall awarded “Homegoing” to Yaa Gyasi. From 3 to 5 p.m. on Thursdays, the branch hosts “Game On! which brings together teenagers around video and board games. On Tuesday mornings, the branch holds a “story hour” for young children, who enjoy picture books, short plays, sing-alongs and activities that encourage the development of literacy skills.
There’s also an adult book club, computer classes, after-school programs, and a financial literacy initiative called Dart Dollars, which rewards young people for reading books and writing short reviews.
Although the Dart Library is located in an area of gentrification, it strives to keep older residents engaged and educate new residents about the history of the branch and the neighborhood it serves, Green said.
“We have people who grew up in the library, and they bring their kids and grandkids,” she said.
Hanging on the wall are portraits of John L. Dart and his daughter Susan Dart Butler, two prominent Charleston leaders whose creativity and determination led to the establishment of a pillar of the black community. Green, who grew up in the neighborhood, looks at these paintings daily and identifies with Butler, she said.
She thinks of her own devoted father, who worked as a foreman at the old Meeting Street dairy. He died in 2014 at the age of 75. She thinks about her responsibilities as branch manager, how her library can enrich the lives of local families. And she thinks of the historic role that libraries like this have played in African-American neighborhoods.
The renovation effort could take several months, but the Dart Library will be back up and running afterward, better equipped and ready to serve, Green said.