Celebrating Centennial: Balch Library Turns 100

Leesburg’s history and genealogical library is turning the big 100, and town and library leaders kicked off the celebration last week.

The Thomas Balch Library will officially turn 100 on Friday, May 13. The celebration got off to an early start on Friday when local government leaders and library advocates gathered on the front lawn to take both a look back, and one forward, at a facility all regarded as a town treasure. 

Thomas Balch Library Advisory Commission Chairman Jim Hershman Jr. said the community owes a debt of gratitude to the sons of Thomas Balch, a native of Leesburg who is credited with being the father of international arbitration. Balch’s two sons sought to establish a library in the town in honor of their late father, who was born 100 years prior to its May 1922 opening. 

Hershman noted that having a local library was extremely rare in 1922. At the time, he said, 96% of Virginians who lived in towns with a population of less than 2,500 residents had no access to libraries. 

For the library’s first 38 years, it was a private, subscription-based library. It then was run as part of the Loudoun County Public Library system for 34 years, before the town took ownership and made it a specialized library of history and genealogical research, in which it has served the past 28 years. 

Hershman credited the town’s investment in Balch library as “an act of foresight,” with a renovation and expansion that doubled its size in the late 1990s. The library has been supported over the years by an active advisory commission, on which Hershman has served for 28 years, and the Friends of Thomas Balch Library, a support and advocacy organization formed in 1995. The Thomas Balch Library Endowment Foundation has also been critical to the library’s growth. The nonprofit was formed in 2015 to receive, maintain and administer assets in perpetuity to support programs and outreach services of the library. 

Circuit Court Judge Thomas D. Horne was recruited to help the library shortly after his retirement from the bench. He first served on the Friends group before joining the foundation, for which he serves as its chairman. Horne recalled the “unusual way” the foundation was formed. There had been no proper vehicle to dispense the substantial financial gifts that were bestowed on the library, so special legislation was put before the General Assembly to authorize Leesburg to create a nonprofit organization. 

Hershman credited Library Director Alexandra Gressitt for being key to Balch’s success. Since coming on board after leaving the Library of Virginia in 2003, the library has grown by leaps and bounds. Annual visitors increased from 6,000 in 2007 to more than 33,000 in 2019. Gressitt and her staff were also credited for their massive outreach effort in engaging with the public during the library’s closure or reduced hours during the COVID-19 pandemic, fielding thousands of phone calls and emails for research needs, even when its part-time staff had to be furloughed. 

The library’s holdings have also increased dramatically, from 7,000 items in 2000 to more than 98,000 in 2019.

Mayor Kelly Burk presents a proclamation to Library Director Alexandra Gressitt.

Mayor Kelly Burk recalled her initial sadness in 1994 when the announcement was made that Balch would be transitioning into a research library. She had loved the weekly story times with her sons when Balch was part of the county system.

“Now I realize the mistake I made,” she said. 

Donna Bohanon, chairwoman of the library’s Black History Committee, harkened back to her committee’s formation. In 2000 an anonymous $50,000 donation was given to the library, with the stipulation that a room in the library be named for a prominent African American in Loudoun County. A committee was formed to gather nominations, and ultimately Howard Clark Sr. was chosen as the room’s namesake. Clark earned the nickname of “Mr. Emancipator” for the pivotal role he played in founding the Loudoun County Emancipation Association in 1890, and his efforts in improving the quality of education for African American children in the early 1900s. Since its role in the room nomination process, the Black History Committee has since gone on to be a “fundamental resource for so many other organizations in the county,” Bohanon said. 

“When I think about a building I think about foundations,” she said. “Consider how much we all benefited from one donation.”

To commemorate of the historic anniversary, a lavender twist weeping redbud tree was planted on the library’s front lawn. The library’s centennial exhibit “Thomas Balch Library: 100 Years of History and Knowledge” is available for viewing during library hours throughout the month of May. In addition, a Sept. 11 fundraiser for the Thomas Balch Library Endowment Foundation is planned.

For more on the library, go to leesburgva.gov/departments/thomas-balch-library

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