Kevin Riordan: In Mt. Holly, a repository of history gets a new life

Children's librarian Barb Johns reads and plays with young visitors at the Mount Holly Library & Lyceum, housed in a Georgian-style plantation house on High Street built in 1829.
Children's librarian Barb Johns reads and plays with young visitors at the Mount Holly Library & Lyceum, housed in a Georgian-style plantation house on High Street built in 1829. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 03, 2013

What it lacks in cash, the Mount Holly Library & Lyceum makes up for in cachet.

Its founding predates that of the township, and for that matter, of the United States. Some volumes in the special collection were published in the 17th century. And the glorious Georgian-style plantation house it occupies on High Street was built in 1829.

Fittingly, the past will be the key to future of this venerable institution: Burlington County plans to take it over, and keep it open to the public, as a historical museum and research library.

"Otherwise we would be lucky to make it through the end of the year," director T. Michael Eck says.

Affiliated with the county library system, the Mount Holly landmark is owned by the Burlington County Lyceum of History and Natural Sciences. This nonprofit association spends about $120,000 annually to operate the facility with one full-time and two part-time employees.

Diminishing response to fund-raising letters and events, and the rising costs of maintaining the 15-room structure, led to several years of deficits; the association is currently about $15,000 in the red.

"We were going from one grant to one fund-raiser to the next grant, the next fund-raiser," Eck says. "Maintaining a historic building like this one is a big commitment."

On June 26, the freeholder board voted unanimously to accept the building from the association for $1.

"We have to execute an agreement, and we are still gathering information about what we need to do to the building to ready it," Freeholder Leah Arter says.

She says she expects the county will be able to pay for improvements out of its open-space and recreation funds, and absorb operation costs. Circulation and other services will be transferred to the county library's main branch in Westampton. Mount Holly will become a central location for genealogical research and books about county history and a showcase for artifacts from its and the county's collections.

Children's and adult programs will continue, but will shift focus to historical subjects. Card-holders will still have access to computers for general use.

Jason Reed, 47, a father of three whose entire family are cardholders, says the community has been worried that the facility would close. "I'm grateful it will continue to be something we can use," he said, "but I'm sorry it won't be a library library."

"It's still going to have aspects of a library, but we're kind of going back in time to one of our original missions," says Alicia McShulkis, president of the association board.

She notes that the original library company (founded 1765) merged in 1875 with the lyceum organization, which was established for public education in 1860. The library operated in successive Mount Holly Township buildings until the association acquired the former Langstaff Mansion in 1957.

"It still has the charm of a home, which attracts a lot of people," Eck says, greeting me at the entrance of the grand, if slightly shopworn, building on a recent sunny morning.

"It's awesome," says McShulkis, 50, a mother of three and self-described "avid volunteer" who fell in love with the library after moving to the township 12 years ago.

Outside, 2.5 lush acres provide an arboretum-like setting. Inside, shimmering chandeliers and painted glass panels deepen a visitor's sense of being in a special place.

Within the collection of about 13,000 books and 500 artifacts are a 1640 atlas of plants, a silk map of London from 1757, and a handsome piece of hardware from the Minerva, a tugboat that "plied the Rancocas from Lumberton, to the Delaware," Eck says.

Like McShulkis, Eck loves the place, and after spending the morning there, I'm smitten as well.

As a building and as an institution, the Mount Holly Library & Lyceum is a jewel. The county's plan will enable it to shine.


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@philly.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the Metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.inquirer.com/blinq.

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