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The Main Library Turns 20!

June 23, 2021

Why are libraries the tallest buildings in the world?

Because they have so many stories!

Bazinga! Sorry but I had to start with that. Now that you've had a laugh (come on, you know you did), let the celebrating begin! June 9th, 2021 marked the 20th anniversary of the grand opening of the Main Library Downtown, and this post is honoring that momentous occasion by taking a look back at the history of the downtown libraries. 

20th Anniversary of the Main Library Downtown
Slideshow of the opening of the Main Library Downtown and other early images.

First, allow me to mention that on top of this anniversary, there's something else notable to mention regarding the history of the library - the fact that Nashville's library system has been serving the citizens of Nashville (and beyond) for over 135 years now. That's a lot of checked-out books! 

Before I dive into more details about how the current downtown library building came to be, here's a little bit of history about the start of the library system in Nashville, and the previous library buildings that called downtown home.

Check out part II of this series that includes staff memories of the Church Street library opening! 

Howard Library Book List

First Library in Nashville (technically)

As I mentioned already, Nashville's library system has been around a long time - since 1885 to be exact. Maybe longer if you consider the fact that in 1813, the Tennessee General Assembly passed an amendment authorizing a lottery to raise $5,000 to purchase books for the Nashville Library Company. But let's fast forward about 70 years. 

The Howard Library was established October, 1885 and named after the man M. H. Howard, who donated $5,000 (or $15,000 - not sure since both figures were documented) for the establishment of a public library. 

Take a wild guess where that library was located - right where the Main Library Downtown sits today on Church Street (on the east side of the Library) in the Watkins Institute building. When Samuel Watkins provided the money to build the institute, he also asked that one of the rooms was furnished with bookshelves, and it was set apart for the use of a library. 

1889 City Directory with listing of Howard Library address
From 1889 City Directory, Howard Library listing
1897 Sanborn Map
1897 Sanborn map, showing the Watkins Institute where the Howard Library was located

For its first years, the library wasn't a free service as we know most libraries to be now. It was more of a reference library, with researchers primarily finding use of it. But this pay-to-use library system didn't last too long, and actually was a struggle for the library since they received little support from the outside.

One of the annual reports from 1898 talks about how the donation from M.H. Howard essentially ran out, and a crisis was reached in 1896. This is when the report goes into further detail about the process of converting the library into a city institution. This happened when a bill was prepared and passed in April, 1897 that required the following:

City annual report from 1898

With the city/municipality taking over the library and funding coming through (before municipal aid kicked in, the money came from various people including the directors and "public-spirited citizens"), the library saw several improvements such as:

  • "A thorough cleaning"
  • The walls, ceiling, and pillars were painted a "beautiful terra cotta"
  • The noise in the area was reduced by adding matting to the floor and rubber to the chair legs
  • Electric lights were doubled
  • Some of the most popular books of the time were purchased 
  • And last but also considered the most important aspect - a complete catalogue of books was completed

Since these improvements were made, the library stated that they'd seen a considerable increase in "daily attendance", mainly by pupils in the city schools. 

Wanna know what their hours were? It was open "continuously" from 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. 

Now we move on to the changes that occurred when Andrew Carnegie decided to put forth his philanthropic abilities. 

Andrew Carnegie Sends Money to Nashville

Most people recognize the name Carnegie, especially in reference to libraries, and if you're familiar with the NPL system - you know that we still have 2 of the original Carnegie buildings as branch locations (East and North). 

1901 was an important year for the library system. The reader's card fee of $2 (roughly $63 today) was abolished, making the Howard Library the first free circulating library in the city. 

It was also an important year because it's when Andrew Carnegie pledged to donate $100,000 for a new library building in Nashville, IF the city would continue to maintain the building every year, at the cost of $10,000/year. Obviously that was agreed to. 

The building was officially completed in 1904, at the corner of 8th and Union (on Polk Ave) where the Ben West building presently sits (more on that library later). Mary Hannah Johnson was the first Library Director, and served in that role until 1912. 

Application for a library card
Application for a reader's card with the Carnegie Library
Original Carnegie Library in Nashville
Carnegie Library staff

Some of the highlights of the library under Johnson's tenure:

  • 1905 - In the first full year of service in the new building, over 94,400 books were borrowed.
  • Also in 1905 - the "2-card" system began allowing patrons to take home 2 books (one of which could be fiction).
  • 1906 - the library system started the Children's Story Hour - the first in the state. It was also the first in the South to inaugurate the registration of borrowers; a system which enables a classification of the readers to be made. Why they did this?...

" this method it has been seen that while the leisure classes avail themselves of the library privileges to a great extent, the majority of the readers are persons in active employment, many of them being engaged in the various trade industries. For instance, to the casual observer, it seems surprising that the largest percent of the borrowers added in 1908 are registered as laborers."

  • A prequel to our Limitless Libraries, they connected with the public schools to send them books selected by the Librarian and a committee chosen from the schools. The books were sent back at the end of the quarter.

Carnegie wasn't finished with just one library in Nashville, between 1914 and 1920, he donated more money for 4 more branches to be opened:

  • 1914: The South Branch located in the old Montgomery Bell Academy building at South Park (which burned down in 1942).
  • 1915: The North Branch which still exists today (as the oldest existing building) at 1001 Monroe Street.
  • 1916: The Negro Branch located at 12th and Hines Ave, with Marian Hadley as the First Librarian. It closed in 1949 (due to its poor location, according to the Library director at that time), before the Library system integrated. It was eventually demolished to make room for NES' building on Church Street. If you're interested in learning more about this branch - I stumbled upon this article that goes into further detail. 
Facade of the Negro Branch Library
  • 1919: The East Branch which still exists today at 206 Gallatin Ave.
East (Carnegie) Library

Johnson's last year as director was 1912, but she was followed by Margaret Kercheval until 1920, who was responsible for not only overseeing the construction and opening of the 4 above branches, but also organizing the efforts that the library provided during World War I with the ALA - "one million dollars for one million books for one million soldiers." 

From NPL Collection - photos of World War I soldiers reading

There's so much more to talk about in regards to the library history, but here are some other highlights before the next downtown building (Ben West) was built...

Children's area of the Carnegie Library
Children's area of the Carnegie Library.
  • In the 1930's, the library's budget was cut a few times due to the Depression. In 1934, only $200 (roughly $4,000 today) was spent on new books. Also in 1934, the name "Carnegie Library of Nashville" was changed to "Nashville Public Library" and the Library radio programs were put on the air. In 1938, Tom Tichenor had his first puppet show at the Library at the age of 15; later to be hired on as Library staff to begin the Library's regular marionette shows
  • In the 1940's (1947 to be exact), a bookmobile service was initiated and a "Young Modern's" dept. was established for teenagers. 
NPL's Bookmobile
  • In the 1950's, a lot happened:
    • 1950: The Library offered free service to County residents in addition to city residents; county residents formerly paid $2 for a book card.
    • 1950: The Library system informally desegregated, meaning it was never reported on in the newspapers or advertised. 
    • 1951: The Library began lending fine art prints. 
    • 1952: Hadley Park Branch was constructed and opened. 
    • 1953: "Booketeria's" were established in supermarkets
    • 1956: The bookmobile services were expanded to county residents. 
    • Sometime in the 1950's: The Friends of the Library was established. 
    • 1959: The Library system was officially turned over to the city (which is confusing but apparently it hadn't been officially run by the city before). 
Ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new Hadley Park Branch in 1952
Ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new Hadley Park Branch.
  • In the 1960's, a lot more happened:
    • 1961: Richland Park branch opened.
    • 1962: A reading room was opened in the airport room (first ever established in a Municipal Airport) and the first WPLN broadcast went on the air.
    • Sometime in the 1960's: Several more branch and community libraries were planned and opened, including: Donelson, Edgehill, Goodlettsville, Green Hills, Inglewood, Old Hickory, and Thompson Lane. 
    • 1963: The building of the new downtown library began, and the Central Library services moved to 161 8th Ave N. 
View of the exterior of the Richland Park branch in 1950
The Richland Park Branch.
Interior of Airport Reading Room in 1962
Airport Reading Room in 1962.
The Carnegie Library - East Branch
Library Branches Through the Years

Building Named For Mayor Ben West

Ben West Library Building in 1965

We pick up again after 1963, when the building of the new downtown library (after Carnegie) began. 

Demolition of the Carnegie building
Demolition of the Carnegie Library; breaks my heart to see this :(

At that time, it would appear the library and its patronage grew quite a bit since the downtown Carnegie Library was built, so it was deemed "much needed". The old building was apparently in a "dangerous condition" and needed extensive repairs. 

The plan adopted by the Library Board was a $2.3 million dollar initiative to expand the library system, creating more branches through the city and to, of course, build a new downtown library. This, of course, was then the first main public library for Nashville and Davidson County built with local government appropriations. 

One thing to point out with this new library expansion plan too is that this time frame of the early 1960's was around the same time that the city was annexing more land, and working on a plan to consolidate the city and county governments. So with more land and a higher population, naturally the growth of the library system went with it. 

Layout drawing of the Ben West Library

The architect of the building was Taylor and Crabtree, and as I mentioned before, the location of the new building was essentially where the Carnegie Library previously was located, plus added space from purchasing land around it (some by use of eminent domain).

Actually, another interesting piece of info I found was the appraisal of the land at 212-214 8th Ave N and 211-213 Polk Ave (or known as the Nashville Labor Temple Property). Guess how much that land was appraised at? $98,000. But it was 1963. 

Photos from property appraisal of 8th Ave property, near Polk Ave
Photos of 8th Ave and Polk Ave before the Ben West Library was built.

One little detail I found in one of the planning documents that provided suggestions of how the building should be designed, it was stipulated that...

"The library should be arranged so that every part of the building is immediately visible from the main circulation desk. This is essential - Everything should be so arranged that, if need be, one person could run the library." 

Interesting tidbit, I thought, and not sure if that remained true but this is from someone that looked over the plans and made several other suggestions and proposed drawings, such as one sentence that simply says "air conditioning." Smart thinking. 

Proposed drawing of the Ben West Library design.
Proposed design drawing of the Ben West Library.

I believe 1961 was the year the planning officially began and 1966 is the year the library opened, later named for Mayor Ben West, after his death. The front doors opened on the Polk Ave side - somewhat of an homage to the old home of President Polk that used to sit on the very same spot. Also, it was more practical for patrons since most were coming from the bus stop, across from the War Memorial Building. 

How much were fines for overdue books in 1966? 2¢/day for children, 3¢/day for adults; with a $3.50 annual fee for non-residents, and loan periods for 14 days. 

30 more years go by and the city continues to grow, and another new downtown library is needed.

Contents of Cornerstone Box at the Ben West Library
Contents of cornerstone box buried at the Ben West Library. The letter below was included with it as well. 
Letter included with the cornerstone box, buried at Ben West.

New Home on Church Street

Construction of Church Street Library
Construction of Church Street Library. Photo courtesy the Gary Layda Photography Collection, Special Collections Division, NPL. 

And now we come to the current building on Church St. It was built when the future of libraries was somewhat questionable due to the rapid change in technology with personal computers, the internet, access of information, and the resources offered by the libraries. Libraries were looking to make changes, and Nashville wasn't the only major city to do that in a physical way (both Denver and San Antonio also built new libraries around this same time).

But what Nashville created with this Church Street location was a building that is 4 times the size of the Ben West building (from 71,710 square feet to 300,000 square feet), and has a "distinct architectural look" to it. Not that the previous buildings didn't - that's just what the June 9th, 2001 Tennessean clipping says. 

In the building program for the new library, created in July, 1998, here's what the "spirit of the design" was meant to be like (in short)...

"The building will be an active space, alive with intellectual inquiry and the movement of users and staff. It is therefore important that first-time users and infrequent users not be overwhelmed upon entering the building. Rather, the building's environment and ambiance -- especially the lobby and entrance -- should be designed to convey an inviting sense of warmth, orientation, and organization..." 

Drawing of the interior of the new library before its construction
Drawing of the lobby area, planned for the new library.

I'm not basing this info on any hard data, but I'd say this building has been pretty popular since its creation. It's gone through many changes - both physically and operationally - but still stands strong as the home base of the Nashville Public Library system. 

Drawing of the grand reading room
Drawing of the grand reading room, planned for the new library.

And if you're curious about specifics of the building, here are some further details...

Ground-breaking ceremony brochure from 1999
Ground-breaking ceremony brochure.
  • In June, 1997, the Metro Council approved a property tax increase that enabled the generation of $115 million in bond funds for improvements to the NPL system, which included a new Main Library downtown.
  • Groundbreaking ceremony: July 24th, 1999
  • When built, it was "clad in cut limestone, granite, and brick, the exterior of the building reflects and expands upon the classical themes found in much of Nashville's permanent architecture."
  • The grand opening of the Library took place on June 9th, 2001 and included: music by the Symphony and other musical groups, a grand ceremony of "bringing in the last books" from the Ben West building, and light refreshments. And several more events followed the next few days as well. 

See highlights of the opening ceremonies in the Tennessean clipping below, and footage from a news report about the construction of the Church Street building (from the Audiovisual Heritage Center). 

Tennessean clipping from June 9th, 2001

Staff Reflections on the 20th Anniversary

Aisle in Archives with the most of the NPL Collection
Aisle in Archives' work room with most of the NPL Collection.

Of the 213 boxes in the NPL Collection in Metro Archives, you can imagine there are plenty more interesting details about the Library system over the last 100+ years. I wanted to share more but had to rein myself in. BUT there is some more information I'd like to share, and it's in part II of this series

It will include great stories and memories from library staff that worked at the Ben West Library and moved over with the new building, or were hired on when the new building opened. 

I hope you've enjoyed reading a little "literary history", 'til next time!


lucille ball


Sarah is a Program Coordinator with Metro Archives. Her interests and areas of expertise are history, reading books (of any kind), music, travel, Harry Potter, and bingeing a good comedy series. When not in Archives, she is either nose-deep in a book or planning her next trip. Learn more about the fascinating materials found at Metro Archives through their website.