In May 1928, the Mercer County Library Commission named Mary C. Oliphant the first head librarian of Mercer County Library System, creating the county-wide system that had been approved by voters the previous fall. Mercer was the eighth such system in New Jersey under a 1920 law allowing for county systems, following a nationwide trend to consolidate services and share materials from many smaller municipal libraries in a larger governmental area. Miss Oliphant was tasked with selecting 2,000 volumes for the initial collection, which was to be housed in the new county building next to the courthouse on South Broad Street in Trenton. Oliphant was also asked to select stations which would serve each participating community. A Bookmobile was purchased and staffed by Miss Oliphant and an assistant, who would make daily trips to one of the service areas to deliver books to the stations. Schools, granges, and community centers in East Windsor, Ewing, Hopewell, Lawrence, Princeton, Washington, and West Windsor were designated as stops and would have 50 books on display for a week, after which they would be exchanged for new material from the bookmobile.
The goal was to begin service on July 1, 1928 and that goal was met, with a January 1929 annual report of the system showing that over 7,000 books were circulated in the first four months of operation. Over the years, Miss Oliphant married and became Mrs. Besore and additional books were purchased to bring the collection to just over 30,000 volumes by 1946. Yet the bookmobile remained and county residents still visited local stations (about 60 in 1946) on their designated day to pick up new reading material. Although the 1946 annual report showed visits to the Hightstown, Princeton, and Hopewell community libraries by the bookmobile, the idea of a dedicated library branch was not considered until the late-1950s.
Robert Malone took over as director in 1957, following Mrs. Besore’s retirement, and helped oversee the transition of the library from a mobile endeavor to one operating out of fixed, dedicated library buildings. The growing number of stations and volumes in the collection led the county to purchase a second bookmobile in 1957, one that was dedicated to school deliveries from September to June. The headquarters of the system was also moved out of the South Broad Street location and into a juvenile shelter on Hamilton Avenue. While the rise in library usage helped the system reach the 1 million books circulated mark in 1957 (cumulative since 1928 – consider in 2019, the entire system circulated 1.8 million items in one year), the growing popularity underscored the need to find a permanent headquarters location. As designated bookmobile stations were now housing over 1,000 books each, the time had come to begin considering adding fully functioning branches to the system. The first of which was in Ewing Township, which opened on September 15, 1958 in the Ewing Shopping Center on Parkway Avenue. It was typical at the time to locate libraries in shopping centers and malls, as many were springing up in the suburbs across the county. The Ewing Branch moved to a new location on Scotch Road when a brand new building was constructed as the headquarters branch of the Mercer County Library System, opening on October 16, 1961. A second branch was added shortly after, with the Lawrence Branch opening in the Lawrence Shopping Center on Brunswick Pike on December 14, 1961.
Princeton withdrew from the system in 1960, and while Hamilton briefly had a reciprocating borrowing agreement around the same time, it never joined as an affiliate or branch. Trenton initially had a similar agreement in the 1930s but did not renew it.
It took five years for the next branch to open, with West Windsor opening in the old Dutch Neck Presbyterian Church education center building on Mill Road on November 16, 1966. 1968 saw the Lawrence Branch move to a larger space within the Lawrence Shopping Center and the county took over operation of the Hightstown Memorial Library, which was built in 1954 and had previously been an affiliate location. The Ewing Branch moved again in 1970, opening a new branch on July 25 in the Suburban Square Shopping Center. The same year, the Washington Branch moved to the basement of the Washington Township Municipal Building on Route 130, expanding from its previous location on the first floor. The library had now become a full branch of the Mercer County System, after having been an affiliate library since it opened on February 12, 1962. On July 29, 1972, the first Hickory Corner Branch (then called the East Windsor Branch) opened in a small blue ranch house at the corner of Hickory Corner and Dutch Neck Roads in East Windsor. A second East Windsor branch opened the following year, with the Twin Rivers Branch in a storefront of the Twin Rivers Shopping Center on August 18, 1973. The Hollowbrook Branch was added when the Hollowbrook Community Center opened in 1974.
The 1970s and 1980s were a time of political debate and transition for the library system, which was now led by Martin Winar following the departure of Robert Malone at the end of 1968. East Windsor, Hopewell, and Lawrence all considered leaving the system to form their own libraries as part of other municipal expansion projects. Hopewell did secede from the system between 1977 and 1979. In 1980, a temporary branch was opened in the Pennington Square Shopping Center on Route 31 while the current building on Pennington-Titusville Road was constructed as part of a planned expansion of the system in the early 1980s. The expansion included new buildings for all branches except Hightstown via a $10 million bond issue financed by the Mercer County Improvement Authority. The headquarters was moved as part of the expansion as well, centering it in Lawrence and the old Riis Trucking Terminal on the corner of Darrah Lane and Brunswick Pike. Built in 1953, the abandoned building was deemed to been in rather good condition and instead of replacement, was renovated and opened as the Lawrence Headquarters Branch of The Mercer County Library System on April 7, 1984. Prior to the headquarters opening, the new Ewing Branch on Scotch Road opened on October 29, 1983; the Hopewell Branch on November 5, 1983; the West Windsor Branch on November 13, 1983; the Hickory Corner and Twin Rivers Branches on December 10, 1983; and the Washington (Robbinsville) Branch on January 7, 1984. The expansion also spelled the end of an era for the library system, as the addition of the Hopewell Branch in 1980 made the beloved bookmobile that started it all an unnecessary tool of the past and it ceased operating in the late 1970s. Yet at the same time it ushered in a new era, with the system moving away from the card catalog and stamps in favor of a computerized catalog and check-out system. The computer system was introduced in 1988, after all of the new buildings had opened, with the newest branch, Hopewell, getting the first barcoded books and library cards.
Within ten years, a second expansion was needed by the system, including a total replacement of the West Windsor Branch. That branch had relocated to the West Windsor Municipal Complex (the building is now the post office) but within a decade was too small to serve the growing population of the township and the current building September 20, 1997. All other branches of the system were renovated between 1994 and 1996, funded by $14 million dollars borrowed by MCIA.
Over the years, the library system has changed greatly to meet the needs of residents. In 1930, James Corwin and his wife built their home on Mercerville Road themselves, bypassing contractors and using books borrowed from MCLS as their guide. A story about their work appeared in the February 1931 issue of A Woman’s Home Companion. Toward the end of the 1960s, the system sponsored bus tours, with the 1968 options including trips to Gettysburg, Mystic Seaport, and Washington, D.C. In 1969, the system provided patrons with free maps of the moon to help them better understand the Apollo 11 mission. Free piano lessons were offered in 1972. Pet shows and parades were also regular events toward the end of the 1960s and in the early 1970s. Ewing hosted both a horse shoeing event and dog show in 1974. The branch also gave away prizes of baloney and soap as part of a 1974 Liar’s Contest. 1974 was also the year the system sponsored Saturday outdoor exploration trips, including cycling Washington Crossing State Park and hiking the newly opened Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park. Since the turn of the century, under the leadership of Ellen Brown, who took over as director upon Martin Winar’s retirement in 2001, the system has seen an expansion into the virtual world, with the system adding new formats such as eBooks, streaming video and music, online magazines, live tutoring databases, and a host of other services available in person or online.