The Olivia Raney library, Raleigh’s first

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The Olivia Raney Library. Image courtesy the NC Division of Archives and History.

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.

2 thoughts on “The Olivia Raney library, Raleigh’s first

  1. This is a wonderful history of a storied institution that has played a large part in Raleigh history. I’ve been putting off commenting because I wanted to research some items (which I haven’t), to wit: am I mis-remembering a temporary stay fior this library in the basement of the Revenue Building at Salisbury and Hillsborough? Whether that was the location or not, I have such fond memories of having my Dad, a downtown restauranter, arranging for me to have special privileges to check out the “grown-up books,” and spending large portions of my summer working my way down the long shelves (this would have been early sixties). The library in the Kress building was a mainstay for the studious of us at Enloe in the lat sixties: evenings down in the basement reference room were like a big study hall, as we gathered the information the hard way (hard to imagine now). Also, I so miss the North Carolina collection which was housed at the Fayetteville Street library, and thought part of it went to the Harrison Library on New Bern Avenue. My Dad, at 83, loves the Poole Road facility and went there regularly for a while researching Morrisville history. He is very concerned that old microfiche which held images of raleigh’s oldest newspapers are no longer available, and may have been destroyed. The Wake Library system over-all is a bit infamous for favoring popular public services over archival responsibilities, and I was genuinely mortified at the purge a few years ago, when it seemed like all books not checked out in 2 years were tossed into discard boxes for the Library sale. But I really admire and use the Cameron Village location, and I’m grateful for all the friendly support anf tireless efforts of our county librarians. Thank you, Kate, for an excellent addition to your magnificent series on Raleigh history.

  2. Kate, I love your articles that ‘dig’ into the more obscure aspects of Raleigh’s history. Like John, I too have childhood memories of the old Olivia Raney. Mom used to take my brother and me there to the children’s section on weekends. It was located in the space formerly occupied by the corner storefront. I was heartbroken when this beautiful Italian Renaissance palazzo was demolished in 1965. John, I don’t remember the library being in temporary quarters in the basement of the Revenue Building, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t so. Incidently, back in the ’60s the annual Christmas parade was held at night. My Dad always staked out the corner in front of the Olivia Raney for my brothers and me while Mom went Christmas shopping. I loved the high-stepping of some of the high school bands as they rounded that corner.