On May 4, 1896, Olivia Cowper Raney, wife of Richard Beverly Raney, died suddenly after the couple had been married only a year and a half. Olivia Cowper and her family had moved to Raleigh when she was just 10 years old, first living in the Five Points area and later relocating to a home on McDowell Street between Edenton and Hillsborough. She had attended school at St. Mary’s, and was remembered as being diligent, cultured, and beloved.
Richard Raney was a successful insurance agent, a former president of the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, and the proprietor of the popular Yarbourough House hotel on Fayetteville Street. Richard Raney had grown up in Kittrell, located in what is now Vance County. He began working on farms, eventually making his way to Raleigh and landing a job as a clerk at the Yarborough House at age 18. In 1896, at the age of 36, Richard found himself a widower.
Also in the year 1896, the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce began holding meetings with the hope of establishing the first library in the capital. A soliciting committee was formed, and an effort to raise funds to buy books was under way. The committee figured it needed $2500 initially, and they worked towards that goal by selling $3 memberships and asking more well-to-do residents for a bigger chunk.
Despite the soliciting committee’s fund raising efforts, including benefit concerts, the process was moving along rather slowly. Josephus Daniels made an appeal to the public in his News and Observer, asking if there wasn’t a benefactor out there who wanted to erect a memorial library for a loved one. After a period of grieving, Richard Raney came forward to say that he would be that benefactor, and he would gift to Raleigh a library in memory of his wife, Olivia Raney.
In 1899, the Olivia Raney Memorial Library was chartered to serve “the white citizens” of Raleigh. The building, designed by Nicholas Ittner of Atlanta, was three stories of cream colored brick, topped with a terra cotta tile roof, and flanked by Corinthian Doric columns in brownstone at the entrance. The first floor included an apartment for the librarian, plus two storefronts to supply a rental income. The stacks were located on the second floor, along with a ladies’ reception room, while the third floor included a music hall and the gentleman’s reception room.
The library opened on January 24, 1901, and was lauded in the N&O as the “most notable event” in North Carolina in the early days of the twentieth century. Indeed, the Olivia Raney Memorial Library was praised as “beautiful”, “handsome”, and “unparalleled” in North Carolina and the South. It stood on the corner of Salisbury and Hillsborough Streets.
By 1927, the library’s charter was amended to include all white citizens of Wake County. But over the years, the library had been predominantly funded by Richard Raney himself, including an endowment he left after his death in 1909. The library focused those funds on acquiring books and paying staff, and barely had enough to do that. Repairs fell by the wayside, and by mid-century, the Olivia Raney library was far too small and the building was beyond repair.
In 1962, the libary was relocated to the old Kress Department Store on Fayetteville Street. Four years later, the iconic and beautiful home of the first library in Raleigh and Wake was razed. By 1985, the Fayetteville Street location closed as Wake set aside space in the courthouse for the downtown library branch. It was not until August 19, 1996, that the Olivia Raney Library reopened, this time in the Wake County Park on Poole Road, now dedicated to local history and genealogy.