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About Us: The History of the Dallas Public Library

In the beginning...

Mrs. Henry (May Dickson) Exall

By the late 1890s, although several libraries existed in Dallas, none of them were free. Civic leaders, in agreement that a free public library was vastly important to the growth and reputation of the city, began lobbying for the creation of such an institution.

The Dallas Federation of Women's Clubs, created in 1898 by Mrs. Henry (May Dickson) Exall, took on the campaign for a public library as its first project. Mrs. Exall was the driving force behind the project.

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Image Source:

Dallas Public Library Archives (MA82.2/1A)
Dallas History & Archives Division, Dallas Public Library


1899: Gathering Funds

Other civic leaders and community activists also rallied for the creation of a free library. The Dallas Morning News strongly supported the cause, stating that "the absence of a public library in Dallas has been remarked with humiliation by the citizen and astonishment by strangers and visitors."

Shortly after, donors from around the city began to chip in, raising nearly $12,000 in a matter of months.

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1901: The First Building, the Carnegie Library

The first library, 1901

The Dallas Public Library became a reality after Mrs. Exall requested and received a $50,000 grant from steel baron Andrew Carnegie. Located on the corner of Commerce and Harwood Streets, the two-story building housed the entire collection of 9,852 volumes on the first floor, with the Carnegie Hall auditorium and the Art Room on the second floor.

The art collection, which was the first public art gallery in Dallas, would later become the heart of the internationally known Dallas Museum of Art. The library still owns an original piece donated by Frank Reaugh.

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Image Source:

Dallas Public Library Archives (MA82.2/3-3)
Dallas History & Archives Division


1914: The First Branch Library (Oak Cliff Library)

In only a matter of years, the main library was overcrowded and in need of expansion. In response, the city opened the Oak Cliff Library in 1914 with the help of additional funds from Andrew Carnegie. The new branch, which focused on community needs rather than serious research, was immensely popular.

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1930s: More branch libraries

Dunbar Library

Despite the Great Depression, four more branches opened in the 1930s, including the Paul Laurence Dunbar Library, which was located at Thomas and Worthington Streets and served the African-American population of old North Dallas (now considered Uptown). Prior to this, the community ran its own libraries through private funds.

Another branch, the Sanger Library, opened at Harwood and Park Row to serve the primarily Jewish population that comprised South Dallas at that time.

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Image Source:

Dallas Public Library Archives (MA82.2/421)
Texas/Dallas History & Archives Division


1940s and early 50s: War times and Regeneration

The first Bookmobile, 1949

During World War II, the library was fully established as a War Information Center. Patrons thronged the library to access government publications as well as detailed maps of the war front.

After the war ended, the library was strapped to serve the city's burgeoning population. The Dallas Federation of Women's Clubs stepped in once again, donating the library's first Bookmobile.

By 1950, a group of citizens formed an auxiliary organization called the Friends of the Dallas Public Library to lobby for library services. Within a few months, the Friends purchased a second Bookmobile and started a successful campaign to secure funds for a new library facility downtown. Another project included creating a repository of fine and rare books for the library.

The group, still in existence, actively supports the library today.

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Image Source:

Dallas Public Library Archives (MA82.2/1189)
Dallas History & Archives Division


Growing Again: A New Central Library

Commerce and Harwood

In 1954, the badly deteriorating and overcrowded Carnegie facility was torn down and a contemporary six-story facility that held 433,000 books was built in its place. While construction was underway, the Library was housed at the City's busy train depot, Union Station.

When the new building opened, it featured a listening library, special programming for young adults, and several research units staffed by subject-matter specialists. The building, located on the corner of Commerce and Harwood Streets, is still standing today.

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Image Source:

Dallas Public Library Archives (MA82.2/)
Dallas History & Archives Division


1960s and 70s: Branching Out during the Bradshaw Years

By the time the new main library opened in 1955, the existing five branches were stretched to their limits as the city continued to grow. Between the 1960s and 70s, the city built 17 new branches.

Walnut Hill, the first branch one to open, quickly became the most utilized branch library in the nation with over 40,000 items checking out per month. The building was recently replaced with the Bachman Lake library after over 45 years of service.

During this time, just as the civil rights and women's liberation movements were beginning, Lillian Bradshaw - the first woman to head a City of Dallas department - was named Library Director in 1962. Days after her appointment she faced a censorship push from a Dallas councilmember, but the community and media rallied to her defense. The City Council not only overwhelmingly approved her appointment, but also passed a resolution to not censor books.

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The J. Erik Jonsson Central Library

Bradshaw on Opening Day

By the 1970s, the Library found its Central facility overloaded and unequipped to handle the emerging technology. In 1972 the City designated an 114,000 square foot site located at the corner of Young and Ervay as the location for the new central library building.

The new, technologically sophisticated structure opened in 1982 (with Lillian Bradshaw, at right) across from Dallas City Hall. It was one of the first libraries in the country to have an on-line catalog system and state-of-the-art audiovisual capabilities. The Library was renamed in 1986 as the J. Erik Jonsson Central Library, in honor of the former mayor who played a major role in its development.

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Image Source:

Dallas Public Library Archives (MA82.2/)
Dallas History & Archives Division


The 1980s and 90s: Emerging Technologies

The new facility was one of the first libraries in the country to have an online catalog system and state-of-the-art audiovisual capabilities. Upon opening, it also boasted a television production studio and the library's first book store.

In 1996, the library implemented the innovative STAR computer system, which allows patrons to access a myriad of electronic databases and the Internet.

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Today and beyond: Looking forward

Central Library

Today, the Dallas Public Library circulates over 8,000,000 items a year and has 30 service points throughout the city.

Recent innovations include several LEED certified buildings and Bookmarks at NorthPark Center, the very first library inside a shopping mall. Celebrating more than 100 years, the library looks forward to bright future.

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