Established in 1886, the Birmingham Public Library has grown from a small collection of books kept in a room the size of a closet to the largest library system in Alabama, with holdings totaling almost one million books and more than 30 million archival documents. With as many as half a million visitors per year, the downtown library is Birmingham’s most visited cultural institution, surpassing all of the area’s museums and historic sites.
Birmingham Public Library Birmingham superintendent of education John Herbert Phillips established the city’s first library in 1886, setting aside books for teachers and students to use in a room adjacent to his downtown office in the Wright Building on Third Avenue North. In 1891, this facility became a subscription library for the general public, charging library users two dollars per year. In 1904, the library was relocated to the recently completed Birmingham City Hall on Fourth Avenue North. Occupying two rooms on the fourth floor, the library sat directly above the city jail. During the next two decades the library outgrew this space and librarians complained that the rants of intoxicated inmates could be heard coming up through the floor. The Birmingham News reported that children reading in the juvenile department would sometimes throw down their books and run to the windows to watch police unload prisoners from paddy wagons or butchers slaughter chickens in the City Market below.
Booker T. Washington Library, 1918 In 1907 a group of civic leaders, at the invitation of physician Thomas D. Parke, formed the Birmingham Public Library Association to establish a free public library. The association abolished user fees the next year and sold memberships to raise funds to “build and equip a library.” In 1909 the library entered a partnership with the Birmingham Association for the Recreation and Aid of the Blind to collect and make available books in Braille. Comprising hundreds of titles, this was one of the first public library collections for the blind in the nation. Through a partnership with the Birmingham Medical Association the library housed a special collection containing thousands of medical texts.
The city of Birmingham absorbed several adjacent municipalities in 1910, and four public libraries in the newly annexed areas of Woodlawn, Ensley, West End, and Avondale became Birmingham’s first branch libraries. The city created an independent library board in 1913. The original nine members, five men and four women, included Thomas Parke, business owner James W. Donnelly, and Grace Hankins, the wife of a local physician.
During the segregated Jim Crow era, Birmingham maintained separate libraries for blacks and whites. The Booker T. Washington branch library, the first public library for African Americans in Alabama, opened in 1918 in a small storefront in Birmingham’s old black business district centered around Fourth Avenue North. John Herbert Phillips provided the original funding for the Washington Branch by saving money collected from entertainment events held at African American schools.
Fire at Birmingham City Hall A fire in April 1925 destroyed the top floor of City Hall, and the central library was a near total loss. In response libraries from throughout the U.S. sent books to rebuild the collection. Local citizens raised funds to build Birmingham’s first free-standing central library, which opened on April 11, 1927. Considered a model facility at the time, the four-story Beaux Arts structure cost $750,000 and was designed by Birmingham architects Miller, Martin & Lewis. In 1929, nationally known muralist Ezra Winter installed 16 murals depicting figures from world literature in the library’s main reading room. A smaller mural in the children’s room depicts characters from fairy tales.
Desegregation of Birmingham Public Library By 1961 the Birmingham library system included four branch libraries for Black residents: Slossfield, which opened in 1940; Smithfield, which replaced the Washington Branch in 1956; Southside, which opened in 1957; and Georgia Road in 1961. These library facilities for African Americans were never comparable to those provided to whites, however, and the Central Library was a “whites-only” facility. In July 1962, Lola Hendricks, a young Birmingham civil rights activist, filed a lawsuit in federal court asking for the desegregation of Birmingham’s libraries. This suit was combined with other suits demanding the desegregation of all public buildings in the city. In the spring of 1963, while civil rights demonstrations were held almost daily in Birmingham, students from historically black Miles College staged two sit-in demonstrations at the downtown library on April 9 and 10. Birmingham mayor Art Hanes had pledged to desegregate the libraries only at gunpoint. But in response to the sit ins and the pending lawsuit, library director Fant Thornley asked the library system’s board to desegregate the city’s public library system, and the board did so at a specially called meeting on April 11.
Linn Henley Research Library A new central library building opened in 1984, and the old central library across the street was renovated by architects Kidd, Plosser, & Sprague and reopened in 1985 as the Linn-Henley Research Library for special collections. The facility, a rarity among public library systems, houses an extensive collection of published and primary material on local history, the history of the American South, and genealogy. The Tutwiler Collection of Southern History and Literature and the Southern History Department, named for civic reformer Julia S. Tutwiler, contain more than 100,000 volumes. The Government Documents Department collects local, state, and national government publications and the Department of Archives and Manuscripts serves as the archives for the City of Birmingham as well as for numerous local organizations, businesses, and religious groups. Other special collections include the James Bowron Rare Book Collection and the internationally recognized Rucker Agee Map Collection.
From the 1960s to the present, the library system expanded in size and in the services offered. A books-by-mail program provides books to elderly and disabled persons and a literacy center provides outreach to public schools and literacy programs for adults. New or replacement branch libraries have been constructed throughout the city, and Birmingham’s 19 branch libraries serve as community, educational, and cultural centers for their neighborhoods. In 2021, faced with budget challenges, Birmingham mayor Randall Woodfin initiated an effort to close some of the branches, citing a need to make the system more efficient.