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A History of Jacksonville Public Library

Early Beginnings | Like a Phoenix... | Growth and Expansion | Recession and Revival | 21st Century and Beyond



Early Beginnings

The Jacksonville Public Library had its beginnings when May Moore and Florence Murphy started the "Jacksonville Library and Literary Association" in 1878. The Association was populated by various prominent Jacksonville residents and sought to create a free public library and reading room for the city.

Moore and Murphy's Association succeeded in establishing their free public reading room, Jacksonville's first, in the winter of 1878-1879. It was located in the Astor Building, on the corner of Bay and Hogan, and was manned by librarian James Douglas. Here visitors could find books, papers and periodicals.

In 1883, the Jacksonville Library and Literary Association was reorganized and renamed the Jacksonville Library Association. The new Association built Jacksonville's first public library building, described as "a neat one-story frame building having a steep roof and a small entrance porch in front facing Adams Street."

Like a Phoenix From the Flames

The Adams Street building was replaced in 1894 by a new building that the Association shared with the Board of Trade and the Elks Club. This building, on the northeast corner of Main and Adams, housed Jacksonville's public library until May 3, 1901, when the Great Fire destroyed it.

Help for rebuilding came in 1902 in the form of Andrew Carnegie, who offered $50,000 for a new library, provided that the city had a building site and appropriated at least $5,000 a year for library support.

In a citywide referendum which passed by a margin of only 15 votes (640 to 625), Jacksonville agreed. In January, 1903 the city passed an ordinance establishing a free public library and a board of nine trustees to govern it.

Jacksonville Free Public Library
A Jacksonville Free Public Library postcard ca.1910.
(Source: JPL Digital Library Collection)

On October 3, 1903, ground was broken for the Carnegie library on the northeast corner of Adams and Ocean. Two years later, on June 1, 1905, the library was formally opened with George B. Utley as librarian. Known officially as the Jacksonville Free Public Library, it was the beginning of the Jacksonville Public Libraries. It was also the first tax-supported library in Florida.

Designed by architect Henry John Klutho in the Neo-Classic Revival style, the library was two stories tall, made of limestone and copper. Its design was Greek Ionic, typical of Carnegie libraries, and featured four columns on the facade. It has been described as nearly fireproof, with wood only in the floors, doors and sash.

Today it houses a law firm and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Growth and Expansion

George B. Utley
George B. Utley, Librarian
Jacksonville Free Public Library, 1904.
(Source: Florida Photography Collection)

In 1907, George Utley said that the library was "fast becoming securely established as a part of the municipal fabric, and is considered more and more a necessity and less and less a luxury by the citizens of Jacksonville." By 1910 the library was outgrowing itself. The library made use of deposit stations and sub branches, but space in the Carnegie building became an increasingly rare commodity. Thus, in the 1920's a branch system was inaugurated which continues to flourish to this day.

The first branch, the Wilder Park Library, opened November 14, 1927 on the corner of Lee and Third streets. This was followed by a bookmobile service on October 30, 1928. From that time until the present, branches have continued to be opened, renovated and modernized, resulting in the current library system of a Main Library and 16 additional units. The original branch library was replaced on June 22, 1965 with the Graham Branch Library.

Wilder Park Branch
A press photograph for the first branch,
Wilder Park Branch Library
(Source: JPL Digital Library Collection)

With the Better Jacksonville Plan, renovations of existing branches as well as construction of six new regional units were planned. The first new branch built as part of the BJP project, University Park Branch opened in early October 2004, followed by Pablo Creek Branch later that month.

Less than a year later, in August 2005, the Better Jacksonville Plan renovations and expansions to the branch system were complete. The last renovated branch, Southeast Regional, re-opened on Monday, August 29th, with nearly 12,000 sq. ft of new floorspace, new Children's and Teen rooms, and expanded reading areas and shelving. The last new branch, the West Regional, opened on Saturday, August 27th, with nearly 50,000 sq. ft., making this newest addition the third largest library in the system.

(For additional branch opening dates, see the JPL Timeline.)

Recession and Revival

In the 1950's public interest in the libraries faded, along with adequate budget support. Lack of funding led to low book stocks, poorly trained staff and poorly maintained buildings. As Librarian Joseph F. Marron stated in an annual report, "Impending institutional bankruptcy was a phrase being applied to this first tax-supported public library in the state of Florida."

However, when the city commission and city council approved a 19 percent increase in the libraries' operational budget for 1957, the Jacksonville Public Libraries began to revive. The Friends of the Jacksonville Public Library, formed in 1956 with the intent of inspiring interest in libraries, are credited as a major influence in bringing about the increased budget.

During these years, the Main Library continued to be inadequate. In 1957, Library Consultant John Hall Jacobs identified the need for a new main library as the single greatest need of the system. After his survey, Jacksonville began to seriously consider a new main facility.

Again, the Friends of the Jacksonville Public Library, pushed hard for support of the libraries. A major capital campaign was instituted to inspire the public to vote for the construction of a new Main Library. When the votes were counted, library enthusiasts had won -- Jacksonville would get its new library building.

Haydon Burns Public Library
A postcard showing the Haydon Burns Public Library
in the late 1960s.
(Source: JPL Digital Library Collection)

In March 1960, the city approved a location for the new Main Library: the site of old City Hall, along with 60 additional feet of property previously occupied by the Windle Hotel. After selecting the design submitted by Taylor Hardwick, a prominent local architect, construction could begin. In March 1964, ground was broken at 122 North Ocean Street. On November 28, 1965, the new building was dedicated, and the next day it was opened for service to the public.

The Main Library was named after Haydon Burns, former Mayor of Jacksonville (1949-1965) and Governor of Florida (1965-67). The structure was designed to be both aesthetic and useful. As one newspaper reporter said of the library, "the ultramodern showplace is a symphony of color, texture and functional design."

The 21st Century and Beyond

On September 3, 2005, the Haydon Burns Library closed its doors for the last time. The Main Library building was now over 30 years old and showing its age. Due to space and wiring limitations, the building is inadequate for the needs of the growing Jacksonville community. In September of 2000, the citizens of Jacksonville voted for the Better Jacksonville Plan, which provided funding for a new Main Library building, six new regional branch libraries and improvements at most existing branches.

The New Main Library
Main Library at Hemming Plaza.
Robert A.M. Stern, Architect

On November 12, 2005, the new Main Library opened to the public. The opening is a historic event for the library system and the City of Jacksonville. It marks the completion of an unprecedented period of growth for the system under the Better Jacksonville Plan. It adds to the city's architectural and cultural landscape and provides a wonderful gathering place downtown for the entire community. The new Main Library offers specialized reading rooms, public access to hundreds of computers and extensive collection of books and other materials.

The Main Library remains the centerpiece for a library system which has developed and grown dramatically for over a century. With the construction of new facilities and the modernizing of old ones, Jacksonville's libraries continue to change to meet the needs of its customers . It is with optimism and enthusiasm that the Jacksonville Public Library looks ahead to the years to come.

(Click here for a Timeline of JPL History)