Birmingham Public Library
History Of Birmingham Public Library
High School

The Birmingham Public Library was established in 1886 as an adjunct of the city's public schools. John Herbert Phillips, then superintendent of the public school system, set up a library in a room adjoining his office, and this particular library grew over several decades. Finally, in 1913, a public library board was established, and the City of Birmingham assumed responsibility for funding the institution.

Jefferson County Courthouse
Birmingham City Hall Fire Of 1925
Courthouse Fire 1925
Outside City Hall
Library Fire 1925 view 1
Library View 1
Library Fire 1925 view 2
Library View 2

The library was later moved to City Hall, where both the structure and the collection burned in a great fire in 1925. An impressive neo-classical building of Indiana limestone was completed in 1927 and served as the central facility of the Birmingham Public Library for 57 years. To accommodate the growing collection and demand for services, a contemporary-style structure containing 133,000 square feet of floor space was completed in 1984 and connected to the original building by a crosswalk. This building houses most of the Central library's circulating and general reference collections, plus the technical services for the library system. The original 1927 building was extensively renovated in 1985 and renamed the Linn-Henley Research Library in honor of two of Birmingham's founding families. This facility houses the library's special collections, government publications, and administrative offices. Together these two buildings comprise the Central library of the Birmingham Public Library system.

In addition to the Central library, the Birmingham Public Library system includes 20 branches located throughout the city. Four of these are the regional branches that serve the four large geographic sections of the city--north, south, east, and west. Within each of these regions, smaller branches serve the city's communities and neighborhoods.

The branch system was born when the Birmingham library began to assume responsibility for the operation of the libraries in the independent communities that gradually became incorporated into Birmingham. The Woodlawn library was the first of these in 1911. Later in the same year, the 1906 Carnegie Library of Ensley was brought into the system. In 1912, the Carnegie Library of West End merged with Birmingham's library, and in 1913 the Carnegie Library of Avondale made the move. (Andrew Carnegie, an American philanthropist, funded several libraries throughout the country.) In 1914, the East Lake branch was organized. In 1918, the Booker T. Washington Library at Smithfield was established to become the first- and at the time the only-Negro public library in Alabama. In 1921, the Wylam and Pratt City branches were opened.

Story Time

The library continued to grow throughout the first half of the century, dealing with and subsequently recovering from the conditions of war and economic depression. By the end of the 1950s, with a central library, thirteen branches and two bookmobiles, the library had recorded the largest circulation in its previous history.

In April 1963 the Birmingham Public Library integrated racially after almost fifty years of constructing duplicate buildings, acquiring materials, and serving the community in a climate of segregation. Although the library system desegregated voluntarily, the prevailing legal and political pressure in the 1960s almost certainly factored into the decision. Gradually, segregated practices came to an end as facilities, services, and staff were integrated by use and not just in writing, and registration cards of all races were interfiled.


Despite the relative ease the library had in desegregating in the 1960s, the ramifications of segregated libraries resurfaced in the 1980s. By this time the board had adopted plans to build regional libraries that would serve large sections of the city, would have larger collections and facilities, and would be opened and staffed more hours. In 1981 in the midst of this expansion project, the library received a disastrous reduction in its operating budget. In connection with the expansion plan, the board had already reevaluated the redundant services, collections, and buildings that were in great measure due to the previously segregated library system. So to absorb the budget cuts, make better use of its resources, and reduce duplication of services, the library board voted to close six branches. The subsequent political conflict among the city council, the mayor, the library board and administration, neighborhood groups, and library patrons focused media and public attention on the library such as it had never seen. A compromise re-opened the branches, but with barely enough funding for them to survive. Difficult as these days were for the library, they made manifest how important the library is in the community. Once this fact was accepted, the library set a course to make the best of it and to grow collections where the seeds had already been sown. As Bill Crowe wrote about the library in The Birmingham News, June 24, 1981, "It is quite a remarkable place, really, and one of the few things you can feel good about, paying your taxes."

In the following year, the people of Birmingham voted their confidence in the library system by approving a five-year supplemental ad valorem tax to strengthen the library's book budget. In 1987 they extended the tax through 1997. Expansion efforts that had begun in the 1970s were boosted by bond referendum, citizen participation, and mayoral and council support. In 1982 a new branch with a "bookstore" concept opened in the Eastwood Shopping Mall. The new Central library was built in 1984, and by 1988 the old Central facility was completely restored. By 1987, renovation and replacement of many buildings throughout the system had either taken place, were underway, or were on the drawing boards.

East Building

During this period of expansion and rejuvenation of the physical facilities, changes also occurred in the library staff, due in large part to new opportunities and new programs sponsored by the library. With the accreditation of the University of Alabama's graduate school for library services in Tuscaloosa, nearby professional training became available for the first time. The board and administration encouraged and aided MLS training and eventually required the degree for the librarian job classification. Another important factor affecting the composition of the staff was the library's affirmative action plan. Through the use of training and educational opportunities, the plan was designed so minorities would be represented in each job classification on approximately the same ratio as they were found in the local population. The percentage of the staff that was black rose from 30% to 55% between 1977 and 1987. Today 58% of the staff is African American.

In the 1990's the administration focused on removing policy barriers to system-wide service. System-wide development occurred in the collection, the use of the collection, preservation efforts, and public services. Extensive emphasis was placed on programming, for which two efforts won national John Cotton Dana Awards for public relations. Technology became and continues to be one of the biggest players at the library table. It routinely affects day-to-day operations and occupies a prominent position in planning, decision-making processes, access issues, and policy. Since the library first converted its bibliographic records to machine-readable format in 1977, the catalog and circulation functions have undergone several major format changes from microfilm to CD-ROM to on-line circulation and on-line catalog and finally to a fully integrated system of cataloging, circulation, acquisitions, and serials control. The local area network, electronic resources, and the Internet have forever changed the look of the library toolbox.

In 1998 holdings amounted to more than a million books and non-book items including audio and video recordings and computer files, more than 2,500 current periodical subscriptions and over 3000 titles in periodical back files, more than a million government documents in paper and microforms, and system-wide access to the Internet in every location. Annual circulation of approximately 1.7 million checkouts is matched by an equal number of materials being used in the libraries and through electronic access. Birmingham Public Library accounts for 46% of the circulation in the Jefferson County Library Cooperative, which posts a combined circulation of almost 3.7 million items checked out annually. The challenge of the next decade will be to maintain and replace collections, equipment, and buildings that receive so much use.

From humble but hopeful beginnings in a room not much bigger than a closet, the Birmingham Public Library concluded the 20th century as one of the largest and most well-respected library systems in the southeast. Over the years, it has grown with the population and today serves a society diverse in interests, needs, and age. Scholars and self-learners remain drawn to the unique archival materials, the extensive genealogical materials, and the local and southern history resources, while students and other citizens expect current and broad-based reference information and up-to-date popular materials. The cooperative agreement that BPL shares with the other municipal public libraries in the county greatly increases the number of library materials available to any library member. In fact, the Jefferson County Library Cooperative is a model for how separate governments can work together to provide a public service across city boundaries.

Page Last Modified: 12/29/2014 8:26 AM