How the North Baptist Church Created Community in Camden

The North Baptist Church Library

A Multi-Purpose Asset to North Fourth Street

By Tia Antonelli

From 1896 to at least 1950, the North Baptist Church Library stood at 317/319 North Fourth Street, and it made its presence known in a multitude of ways. The building served as a library, of course, but it wore many hats: it served as a meeting place for organizations and a venue for popular speakers, among other things. Most importantly, it was rooted in community, and it appealed to the changing demographic of North Fourth Street in Camden in the early 1900s.

The North Baptist Church, initially located on the corner of Second and Pearl Street, moved to Linden Street in January 1895. Almost exactly one year later, the church opened its library on North Fourth Street. From 1880 to 1920, Camden was a center of industrialization, with multitudes of factories in industries such as textiles and food processing, so the city became home to a growing working-class population. By 1902 — if not earlier — the library had its hours set from 7 p.m. to 9/9:30 p.m., with an annual subscription of $1. In doing this, the library made itself an open resource to the working class residents in Camden at the time; the hours were set in the evening, outside of typical working-day hours, and the subscription price was likely feasible for a working class person (in comparison, monthly rent in this neighborhood at the same time would be about $20 or more).

An advertisement for the North Men’s Club (Camden Courier-Post, Jan. 27, 1897).

The North Baptist Church Library also created a physical space for community-building. For example, the North Men’s Club, created in 1897, a year after the library took residence on North Fourth Street, held meetings on the second floor every Tuesday at 7:30 in the evening. This organization was created with the intention of helping the men develop, and live by, an ideal vision of manhood and to create a camaraderie. The club also aligned with the apparent goal of the library — to cater to the working class — because it had no mandatory entrance fees or dues.

Similarly, the library served as an area for performers and audiences to gather. In 1906 and 1907, advertisements in Camden newspapers called for musicians, notably those who played the oboe, tuba, bassoon, violin, and cello, to join an amateur orchestra that would rehearse at the library every Thursday evening. Performances by children in the church’s Sunday school included an April Fool’s performance in 1897 called “All Fools’ Day Kaffee-Klatsch.” These activities brought different groups of people together, either under the pretense of performing together or through the common desire to watch the performance.

Speakers came to lecture, one of the more notable being Russell Conwell, founder of Temple College of Philadelphia. In March of 1897, when Conwell spoke about Cuba at the library, one newspaper article stated that “every Cuban sympathizer” should be in attendance. During this era of tensions preceding the 1898 Spanish-American War, newspapers in the United States were highlighting Spain’s brutal occupation of Cuba and colonial rule. Conwell appealed to the humanity of Camden residents, posing the question: “Can any man with a heart stand by and see these brutes slash and murder defenseless men, women and children?” Conwell ended his speech by saying that if the United States government was not going to help Cubans, then the people should take matters into their own hands and put an end to the cruelty. This sentiment met with overwhelming applause.

First Library Day (Camden Courier-Post, Mar. 3, 1892).

A clear opportunity to uplift and directly include the community was exhibited by the annual Library Days. On these occasions, the library would accept donations of physical books or money. While the library worked for the community in being accessible and allowing communal gatherings, Library Day provided a chance for the people to contribute to the library and, therefore, give back to the community. Additionally, these days had a clear social aspect, as local residents were invited to attend literary-based lectures and discussions.

Eleventh Library Day (Camden’s The Morning Post, Nov. 8, 1902).

In a multitude of ways, the North Baptist Church Library opened its doors to the community. It was noted as a good library for its thousands of volumes and comfortable atmosphere, made even better by the fact that it catered to the community; still, it was more than just a library. It was a place for people to pursue the help and support of organizations; to engage in their hobbies within a communal context; to be witness to a popular lecturer; and so much more. Throughout the early twentieth century, buildings associated with the North Baptist Church slowly expanded to North Fourth Street (such as the Sunday school/gymnasium). However, the library, upon its emergence in 1896, immediately made its mark, and was immensely important to the Camden community.

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