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From Bookmobile to State-of-Art

By Jessie Havens l March 15, 2021

Before the Mary Jacobs Library in Rocky Hill, there was a bookmobile. Its twice monthly visits to schools, villages, and neighborhoods was made possible by a 1929 referendum whereby Somerset County voters agreed to a 1/3 mill increase in their property tax rate so they could have books to read. That “yes” was overwhelming. For hard pressed farmers of what was then a rural county, the prospect of books was too enticing to refuse.

The Somerset County Library System has evolved from a bookmobile to 10 branches across the county. The Mary Jacobs Library in Rocky Hill currently serves as the county library branch, but Montgomery is building its own library about a mile away that will open in 2022.

The Roaring Twenties had brought good times to cities and towns but agriculture was undergoing a protracted, grinding recession. It was driving people off their land. Books were costly and many homes had none other than a Bible and perhaps a dictionary. Not a few were still without electricity and telephone.

For them, the big annual day out was the Belle Mead Farmers Fair, and there in August 1931 was the first tangible evidence of referendum payoff: a maroon delivery truck with gold lettering, “Somerset County Library” and wide-open doors on both sides to show off shelves full of books. That September this book truck began jouncing its way over miles of dirt roads to 63 schools scattered from end-to- end of Somerset, its twice monthly visits eagerly anticipated by children who swarmed around it choosing books to borrow until next time, one each for lower grades, others two.

In addition, boxes of books were loaned to the school to sit on classroom shelves augmenting those books children had chosen and were swapping around among themselves. To put books into the hands of adults as well, a corps of volunteers was recruited to further what tax dollars could supply. Wherever self-help librarians could offer a place open to the public, a spare room, a barber shop, a gas station would do.

By 1933, the bookmobile on its rounds was servicing 37 library stations with rotating collections. How many books depended on space available. Of course, there was turnover, and continuing need to recruit replacements; but a remarkable number kept on volunteering for years. All through the Great Depression, World War II and the burst of suburbanization which followed, bookmobile service adjusted to changing circumstances.

Gradually houses took the place of cows and corn. Postwar ratables increased along with population, and townships found themselves able to afford rented space and library buildings. Some voted themselves out of Somerset County Library and became independent; others chose to build ample facilities and continue as branches of the centralized system.

Rocky Hill, population 500, could afford neither, but visionary volunteers enabled it to move up from bookmobile visits to shelves of books in the post office to a real library of their own. In the wake of an over-the-top celebration of the 1964 New Jersey Tercentenary they decided to use money they had earned to acquire the 150-yearold Amy Garrett house and make it into a community center.

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Vacant for years and badly neglected it needed repairs, restoration and re-purposing, most of the work they would do themselves. Incorporated as Rocky Hill Community Group, volunteers did indeed make it happen. Everybody helped however they could and work was still in progress when library books at the post office were moved to shelves on the ground floor of Amy Garrett’s east wing in 1966.

Next summer rooms overhead were ready for the children. Small fry climbed a little winding stair every Thursday for Gloria Mack’s story hour. A book collection enriched by donations and friendly, welcoming volunteers attracted more and more users from all around Rocky Hill six days a week. A team of nine volunteers struggled at times to meet the ever-growing demands.

When Mary Jacobs Memorial Library opened with county paid staff in 1974, larger quarters and respite were truly welcome. Fifty years on, library change is up for discussion and no one knows what will be next.


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