Alexandria Library Company - A Brief Historical Sketch

The Alexandria Library Company was founded on July 24, 1794, at John Wise's house. A week later the members met in Wise's long room -- upstairs in the smaller section of today's Gadsby's Tavern -- to elect officers. The Reverend James Muir was elected president, Samuel Craig, treasurer, and Edward Stabler, librarian. On January 9, 1799, the Alexandria Library Company was chartered by the General Assembly of Virginia.


The Company's first address is thought to have been Mr. Stabler's Apothecary Shop on Fairfax Street. Known subsequent locations included the second floor of the old City Hall, the Lyceum at 201 South Washington Street (now Alexandria's historical museum), Peabody Hall -- a girl's school on North Alfred Street and the Confederate Veterans' Lee Camp Hall at 806 Prince Street. The Company's first acquisition was the American Encyclopedia. Its rare book collection was begun in 1822 with Miller's The Gardener's Dictionary, which had been presented to Dr. Craik by General George Washington.


Through a century and a quarter, the Company flourished as a subscription library: annual fee, four dollars. Its successor today is the City's public library, with which the Company continues to maintain close ties. Three of its members are elected to serve on the seven member Alexandria Library Board. Three citizens and a member of the Alexandria City Council comprise the remainder of the Board. The Library's Local History/Special Collections division maintains the extant portion of the Company's collection of books. About one-fifth of the collection was lost during the Civil War.


In 1937, Dr. Robert South Barrett donated funds to erect a public library in memory of his mother, Dr. Kate Waller Barrett. The Society of Friends granted a 99-year lease for use of its old Quaker Burial Ground on Queen Street as a site for the new building. Also, the Company signed an agreement with the Alexandria City Council, turning over its collections to the city. The city agreed to include operating expenses for the public library in its budget.


Once a year, the Alexandria Library Company turns back the clock to a more tranquil time. During the days of the young America, lectures delivered by erudite men (and only men in those times) were a popular form of entertainment and enlightenment among Alexandrians. Records indicate such men as Benjamin Hallowell and John Quincy Adams as speakers. This pleasant tradition is carried on by the Alexandria Library Company. Its annual lecture, based always on some aspect of history, life or culture of the South, is presented by an outstanding scholar, historian or creative writer. The black tie event draws hundreds and is a highlight of the spring in Alexandria.


In 2008, Charles F. Bryan, Jr., President and CEO of The Virginia Historical Society, gave a lecture on the books that changed the course of American History. Click here for a list of the books recognized as those that changed America forever.


The Company Lecture Series and Records are indexed in Local History / Special Collections Archives. Here are two bibliographic titles on our online catalog:


William Seale's full-color history book of the Alexandria Library Company is also available as a reference item or for purchase. Nearly 150 pages, it is a must for those interested in Alexandria history.


A bibliography is also available of over 3,000 titles that were a part of the original collection comprising the Alexandria Library under the Alexandria Library Company. You can view the list online by author (*=represents multiple authors) or by date.