The Geneva Public Library in Geneva, Geneva County, is a local public library founded in 1904 as the “Geneva Library Association.” It has been commonly known by locals as the Emma Knox Kenan Public Library for its founder, Emma Knox Kenan (1860-1945), since her retirement in 1938. Originally located in a cloakroom of the local Geneva School, over time the library expanded under the guidance of Kenan and moved into a permanent facility in 1931.
Emma Knox Kenan Public Library The Geneva Library Association, founded in 1901 by a group of local women, was a subscription library that received private funding from both membership fees and endowments from private entities. Geneva school superintendent W. W. Benson wanted the library to be accessible to children and asked Kenan to become the first librarian in 1904. (Emma Knox was born in Dallas County and was the daughter of a cotton broker. She married William Kimbro Kenan, also of Dallas County, in 1882, and the couple moved to Geneva that year.) Kenan agreed to head the lending library on the condition that it would be open to the public. Originally begun in a small cloak room of the Geneva School, the library moved to Kenan’s home that same year. (Home libraries were not unheard of. As many as 14 early libraries in the state were begun in homes, according to one researcher.) While many of the library’s original books were donated, others were paid for through either membership fees or private fundraising events.
For its first 25 years, the Geneva Library Association operated out of Kenan’s home before it moved to the local Military Club. Kenan then spearheaded the effort to raise money to purchase a permanent building by hosting various fundraisers, such as street carnivals, fairs, fashion shows, Halloween parties, basketball games, dinner parties, and craft sales and even hosted Lyceum courses with famous speakers and entertainers. In 1927, she raised enough money to purchase the property upon which the future Geneva Public Library would be constructed. While she continued to raise money to fund construction of a permanent building, the library operated out of the local Military Club until that building was destroyed by a flood on March 15, 1929, and a fire in 1930. Until a more permanent structure could be erected, she hosted the library on her back porch.
With the support of Lee Ashcraft, former principal of Geneva School, Kenan was able to raise enough money to begin constructing a new permanent building. According to some sources, a son-in-law, J. P. Carter, personally supervised its construction and donated his company’s own equipment to erect the new building, which was officially completed in 1931. However, other sources list just one daughter who appears to have never married. The library opened to the public on January 15, 1932, and Kenan continued to serve as librarian until her retirement in February 1938. Afterwards, the Building Committee began calling the building the “Emma Knox Kenan Library,” and that name continues to be its unofficial and commonly used name today. Kenan’s daughter Rebekah Lamar Kenan (1896-1984) became the official librarian in 1943, serving until her own retirement in 1972. In 1975, the size of the library was doubled with a new addition and in February 1985, the library was listed on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage for its historic and cultural value.
The library holds more than 17,000 books, magazines, movies, and reference books, and it circulates approximately 8,290 items per year, serving a population of almost 8,400 residents. The library offers a summer reading program for children in grades K-5 that includes the “Summer Reading Challenge,” during which children read books and keep an active log, as well as a “Summer Activities” portion that includes a variety of games, projects, and new learning opportunities related to a yearly theme.
The library is located at 312 South Commerce Street and is open Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Nearby is Robert Fowler Memorial Park and Constitution Oak, believed to be the oldest and largest live oak in the state. The Kenans are buried in the Geneva City Cemetery.