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Thomas Balch Library Celebrates 90th Anniversary

Historic library continues to offer cultural and research opportunities to area residents.

Leesburg’s historic , located at 208 West Market Street, is celebrating its 90th anniversary this week. The Leesburg Town Council issued a proclamation on May 22nd in honor of this event.

“Balch Library is a superb example of a well-managed and globally connected historical and genealogical research library," said Leesburg Mayor Kristen Umstattd. "Outside of our university libraries, the Library of Virginia, and the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library, it would be hard to find its match in-state." 

Umstattd explained that the private nonprofit, Friends of Thomas Balch Library, has been one element of Balch's success. A second has been the Friends' Black History Committee, without which we probably would have lost some of our most inspirational history, such as the stories of the heroic individuals who operated, or traveled by, the Underground Railroad through Leesburg and Loudoun County, she said.

Town Council member Kelly Burk noted that the Thomas Balch Library has had a storied history from denying entrance to the black population during segregation years to today where it collects and holds important family and cultural records.

“It is only appropriate that today it is a history and genealogy library that attracts many different people from many different places to come to Leesburg to research and understand the past," Burk said. "We are lucky to have such a significant historic library in Leesburg and hopefully we will have it for another ninety years."

Library Director Alexandra Gressitt discussed some of the library’s history, explaining that the Thomas Balch Library was dedicated on May 13, 1922 as a memorial tribute to Thomas Balch (1821-1877). The library operated for fifty years under a private Board of Trustees as a subscription library utilizing funds from an endowment created by the sons of Thomas Balch.

Between 1907 – 1960 the library operated with volunteers and part time employees. In 1960 it became a free, though segregated, public library; in 1965 it was desegregated.

In 1974 Thomas Balch Library joined, as a full service library, the recently established (1973) Loudoun County Public Library system. On July 1, 1994 the county transferred ownership of the library to the Town of Leesburg to be operated as a history and genealogy library.

The original building was designed by noted architect Waddy B. Woods. In 2000 renovations and a sympathetic two floor addition, designed by Bowie Gridley and doubling the size of the facility, was added by the town.

Looking ahead to the future, Gressitt explained that the library is working to provide access to all their holdings. Researchers are able to find indices to collections on line, search catalogued books on the Loudoun County Public Library Card Catalogue and search collection guides on line.

The library hopes to expand their digital offerings and further develop their electronic resources, Gressitt said. With the assistance of the Friends of Thomas Balch Library, they have been able to expand the lecture series and hope to be able to establish a research grant program to enable researchers to travel here to use their collections.

“Leesburg is fortunate in having an institution such as Thomas Balch Library serving the educational and informational needs of the community," Gressit said. "The library preserves the history and sense of place for a region with historic roots subjected to rapid and ongoing cultural and institutional changes and population growth."

There will be a fundraising event for the library on Sunday, August 19 at 4 p.m. The event will take place at the Thomas Birkby House in the historic district of Leesburg located at 109 Loudoun St. SW.

The topic will be the Bicentennial of the War of 1812 when Leesburg Housed the National Archives. Noted author Anthony S. Pitch will discuss the British Invasion of Washington in the summer of 1814 and relate how the precious national archives were saved from the fires that destroyed Washington. The materials were sent to Leesburg and Loudoun County and stored until they could safely be returned to Washington.

Corporate sponsors and individuals interested in supporting this event are welcome to contact the Friends for additional information and an invitation. Email request to EVENTS@BalchFriends.org or leave a message at 703-737-2166. All proceeds will go toward the endowment for Thomas Balch Library.

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