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History of the San Antonio Public Library

A brief history of the San Antonio Public Library from 1903 to the present.

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Andy Crews
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Subjects: Genealogy, Texana

Preparing for a Library

     The first substantial public library was begun in 1872 by the Alamo Literary and Debating Society with an initial collection of 120 books. When it grew to 800 volumes, a regular schedule was kept: Mondays and Thursdays, 4-6 p.m. for ladies; Tuesdays and Fridays, 8-10 p.m. for gentlemen. Individuals were required to pay a joining fee of $1.00 and .25 cents a month as a sustaining fee.  By 1882, the cost had doubled to fifty cents per month. In 1877, Mr. John A. Copeland, the librarian, opened a library at 45 Main Street.  During these years, the Bexar Bar Library Company and the Y.M.C.A. also began libraries.  On April 11, 1898, the Alamo Library became a free institution.

     About 1890, a group of young women from St. Mary's Catholic Church established the Alamo Free Library located in the belfry of the church. In 1893, the San Antonio Public Library and Women’s Exchange provided a library, kindergarten and nursery, art exhibitions, employment bureau, socials, and other activities.  Early in 1899, both these groups joined forces to secure a permanent library building and organization. Mrs. Ellen Slayden, wife of U. S. Congressman James L. Slayden, led the group in petitioning Andrew Carnegie for his financial support. In a communication dated January 6, 1900, Carnegie agreed on a $50,000 initial grant with certain stipulations: a suitable site for a detached building to be lighted from all sides; an annual sum of $5,000 for its support from the city; and free to the people. Later Carnegie required a library for African-American citizens be provided.  A room in the Riverside Colored High School was agreed upon and duplicates from the Carnegie’s collection provided several hundred volumes. It opened within a week of the Carnegie’s opening.

The Carnegie Library, 1903 - 1930

     The new Carnegie Library was constructed at the corner of Market and Presa streets and the doors opened on June 15, 1903.  The land was donated Caroline Kampmann on behalf of the Kampmann family for use as a library in perpetuity.  At the time the library opened, 7,151 books were available, provided by the Alamo Library, the Alamo Free Library and the San Antonio Public Library & Women's Exchange.

     The Carnegie Library building was designed in the Italian Renaissance style by J. Riely Gordon and Harvey Page.  Unfortunately, the building was damaged in the catastrophic 1921 flood that swept through downtown San Antonio.  Along with that, the building had grown too small for the growing city, which by the late 1920's had over 230,000 people, so a bond issue was passed in 1928 allotting $500,000 for construction of a new main library and library branches.  The Carnegie Library was razed in 1929 and the books were stored in the basement of Municipal Auditorium while construction was taking place.

The Main Library, 1930 - 1968

     Hubert Green was named the architect for the new library building on October 22, 1928.  Librarians began packing books and they were moved to the basement of Municipal Auditorium between April 17th and May 6th so the Carnegie building could be demolished, as the new library was to be built on the same site.  Mayor C.M. Chambers christened the new building "The San Antonio Public Library" on September 7, 1929. Construction was completed quickly and the library opened on August 2, 1930.  In 1940, after the death of Senator Harry Hertzberg, the library received his bequest of circus memorabilia and his rare book collection.  The Hertzberg Circus Collection opened to the public in January 1943 in an designated exhibit hall.

     This building served as the public library until 1968, when the next Main Library was built, but the location continued to exhibit the Hertzberg Circus Collection and became known as The Hertzberg Circus Museum until 2001.  Upon the closing of the museum that year, the Hertzberg Collection of circusiana was donated to the Witte Museum, per the stipulations in Harry Hertzberg's will.  

The second Main Library, 1968-1995

     By the mid-1960's, San Antonio had quickly outgrown its library.  The city had more than doubled in population since the second library opened in 1930 and was experiencing a post-war boom.  A 1964 meeting by the library board recommended a building of 80,000 square feet, to be able to accommodate 400,000 to 500,000 volumes.  This was double the capacity of the 1932 library building.  The $30 million Civic Improvement Bond Election, passed in January 1964, provided $1.75 million for construction of a new main library building and four branch libraries.

     Phil Carrington and Ben Wyatt were selected as architects for the new library and their plans were controversial from the start, as it took nine different proposals before gaining acceptance from the City Council.  Councilman Mendal Kaliff abstained from the final vote, stating, "This thing has dragged on far too long and there's no need to drag it out farther.  But I will say this:  we're not going to win any architectural prizes with this building."

     The new three-story Main Library opened on January 28, 1968 as six-year old Michael Esparza checked out the first book.

Central Library, 1995 - present

     San Antonio voters approved a $46.5 million bond issue in May 1989 allocating $21.7 million to fund a 200,000 square foot new library.  A professional study later showed that the library would need to be even larger - 256,000 square feet.  A 1988 proposal of architectural reuse plans, suggested the Sears building on Romana Plaza be used for a library but given a contemporary exterior.  The site was selected in 1991 but the decision was made to demolish the Sears building and build a completely new library building on the site.  In March 1991, the library board voted to approve a design competition.  The winning entry, by Johnson-Dempsey & Associates Inc. and Davis Sprinkle Architect of San Antonio and Legorreta Architects of Mexico City, was selected on July 15, 1991 and approved two days later by city council.  Construction took 16 months, from the groundbreaking on August 6, 1993 to the grand opening of the renamed Central Library on May 20, 1995.  The library, as constructed, is six floors of 170,000 square feet, plus a basement that houses a used bookstore along with staff workrooms.