Edith Lenora Foster was a pioneer librarian, writer and historian whose work in developing a regional rural library system became a model for the nation.
Edith was raised in Carrollton, Georgia. Her mother was a teacher and her father a medical doctor who died of pneumonia in World War l when Edith was 12 years old.
Graduating with honors from LaGrange College in 1926, Edith followed the example of her mother and became an English teacher. She served as head of the English Department of four schools in Alabama and Georgia before being chosen by state officials to participate in a new and experimental rural library program. The state wanted to develop library systems that would reach citizens in rural areas spread over multiple counties. Edith embraced the challenge, and she accepted a scholarship to study at Emory University.
In 1944, after completing a Masters degree in Librarianship at Emory, Edith returned to her hometown of Carrollton and founded what would become the West Georgia Regional Library system. Dr. Irvine Ingram, president of West Georgia College, provided space in the basement of Sanford Hall on the college campus for the library. There, Edith began the first library system to serve Carroll and Heard counties.
The eyes of the state and the nation were upon the experimental West Georgia Regional Library System. Edith went about the task of cataloguing books for the new library and developed a system for tracking books on loan.
With the library established, it soon became clear that a large portion of the West Georgia population was still underserved. Realizing the need to expand the scope of her library system to include rural patrons, Edith was inspired to innovate. Drawing plans to convert a Ford station wagon, in 1946 Edith Lenore Foster invented West Georgia’s first bookmobile.
Edith began delivering books throughout the region. Proud of her invention, she drove her converted station wagon to American Library Association meetings to promote her traveling book library. Many years later, she described this colorful period of her life in an autobiography titled “Yonder She Comes: A Once Told Li’bry Tale.”
By the early 1950s, Edith had a more conventional bookmobile. As the bookmobile service expanded, she continued to reach out to all members of the community. In Carrollton, she was instrumental in helping establish the first permanent library for African Americans in the state of Georgia. With her encouragement, Leroy Childs, a local African American, pursued a degree in Library Science. Leroy became director of Carrollton’s African American library and many years later succeeded Edith as director of the entire West Georgia Regional Library System.
In 1953, Edith was chosen to address the Public Library Association at the national conference of the American Library Association in Los Angeles, Calif. Her speech was well received and was later published in the ALA Bulletin. Edith served as president of the Adult Education section of the ALA’s Public Library Association, and on its executive board, for several years in the 1950s.
Over the course of her career, Edith received numerous local, state and national awards. In 1974, President Gerald Ford recognized her for 30 years of service to education and libraries. In 1977, Georgia Governor George Busby named her Director Emeritus of the West Georgia Regional Library System.
After directing the West Georgia Regional Library system for 32 years, Edith retired in 1976. She had developed the system into a network of eight branches with 190, 000 volumes and 72 deposit centers.
Along with her legacy as an innovator of library systems, Edith also left a legacy in print. She authored two books of poetry and three books on local history as well as an autobiography. She also wrote the “The Library in the Small Community” section of the ALA Manual for Librarians, describing how to set up rural libraries. Other writings included weekly columns for the Carrollton newspaper for over 30 years and articles published in various journals, periodicals and newspapers.
Edith Foster died August 18, 1996, at 90 years of age. She is buried in the city cemetery of her beloved hometown of Carrollton.
Byron, Dora. “30 Years as the Library Lady,” The Atlanta Journal and Constitution Magazine: 56-59 (2 June 1974).
Foster, Edith. “Yonder She Comes: A Once Told Li’bry Tale.” Autobiography.