Soon after the opening of Central High School in 1838, a library was built for the use of both faculty and students. As early as 1841, that library contained 1,098 volumes covering the arts and sciences. A copy of the rare catalogue published that year as a forty-page pamphlet is preserved in the Library of Congress in Washington. The collection constituted one of the earliest public school libraries in America, but it languished because no funds were available in later years for maintenance and additions.
At the time of the Semi-Centennial celebration (1888) of the opening of the Central High School, the Associated Alumni established a Memorial Library of 1,010 volumes, which within the next few years grew to about 2,000. Professor Edwin J. Houston was appointed Librarian, and he in turn selected Assistant Librarians for each section. Students were permitted to take out one book a week on a designated day. That library continued in use until 1900, when the school relocated to its third building. For nearly a quarter century thereafter, the school did not have a library available for the students, although a fine Faculty Library was built up during that period largely through the personal interest of President Thompson. Dr. Lewis R. Harley, of the History Department, served as Librarian from 1900 to 1921.
In February 1923, the large room (122) on the first floor of the annex at 15th and Green Streets came into its own. Up to that time it had been used variously as a trophy room, an informal study hall, a storeroom for the unused Memorial Library of the Associated Alumni, formally designated as the Barnwell Library in honor of James G. Barnwell and was opened to the students under the direction of Miss Edith Brinkmann. Completely modern equipment was soon installed and the Memorial Library (now 1,183 volumes) was made available. Miss Brinkmann then began to assemble a large reference and circulating library, which was made possible by a generous appropriation from the Barnwell Foundation. As a result of careful planning and development the Barnwell Library became one of the busiest and most popular departments in the school. Upon Miss Brinkmann’s retirement in June 1943, Miss Ellen E. Yoder was appointed Librarian. In June 1954 when Miss Yoder retired, Miss Mildred V. Warner, who had been Librarian at South Philadelphia High School for Boys, received the appointment to the Barnwell Library. A fine portrait of Mr. Barnwell, painted by Tully Filmus (143rd Class), was hung in the library in February 1924.
On moving to the present building (February 1939), the Library was established in one of the finest rooms devoted to that purpose in any American high school. At that time the Faculty Library of 2,654 volumes was merged with the Barnwell Library. Approximately 1,500 volumes were left at Broad and Greens as a nucleus for the Library of the Benjamin Franklin High School.
Miss Warner retired the following year. Upon Miss Warner’s retirement the next Barnwell Librarian was Mrs. Anna Decter, who arrived in 1969. The next appointed Librarian was Mr. John Politis, in 1983, then Ms. Mary Gates from 2000 to 2001. With the opening of a new King Center in 2005 the position was held by Ms. Loretta Burton until 2016 when Mr. John Lobron assumed the librarianship responsibilities of managing Barnwell Library’s extensive print and digital resources.
In the beginning of the Fall Semester, 2005 the Library was being used by an average of 280 students a day. Today it is being used by an average of 800 students a day. It has quickly become the most popular space in the School.
In upholding and fostering free inquiry and expression, the library has sponsored meetings of groups within the school to discuss their stands on current issues. The library has also encouraged the graphic arts by providing space for exhibits of student work and work of other local artists. Individual students or clubs wishing to share their unique outside interests with the student body are welcome to request space for displays from the Librarian. The library has also hosted the after-school Library Concerts scheduled by the Music Department, and after-school poetry readings sponsored by “The American Poetry Review.”
By: Dr. Robert Sanders