The Young Men's Library Association
Andrew Carnegie and the New Library
The Carnegie Library School Of the Best...
African Americans and the Library System
The Auburn Avenue Research Library
The Special Collections Department
Central Library Construction and Renovation
Relationship of the System to City and County
Growth and Development of the Library System
Links to More AFPL History
On March 4, 1902, the first patrons of what we now call the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System entered the Carnegie Library, located on the same ground as today's Central Library. The origins of the library system, however, lay in the nineteenth century, with the efforts of members of the Young Men's Library Association to raise money for a free public library in Atlanta.
By 1867, Atlanta's remarkable recovery from the physical and economic damage of the Civil War was well underway. Before long, some Atlantans turned their attention to Atlanta's need for a library. Atlanta had never had a library that would serve the general public, even for a fee, and the city's booksellers were out of business at the war's end. Indeed, as late as 1895, no southeastern city yet had free public libraries as we know them today. In 1867, however, an Atlanta bank teller named Darwin Jones enlisted the support of his friends for a somewhat different idea. Jones, originally from Milwaukee, had observed the success of the "subscription library" in that city, one of many around the country. Jones and his associates, from Atlanta's emerging business and professional elite, formed the Young Men's Library Association, and set up a subscription library.
Young Men's Library Association
The YMLA was established on July 30, 1867. Its subscription library was open to the general [in this case, white male] public without charge, but one had to pay a membership fee for the privilege of actually checking out books. In 1873, the first [white] women members were accepted. As its collection grew, the YMLA relocated its library frequently. Its sixth and final site was a home on the northeast corner of Marietta and Spring Streets. The need for a public library became more widely recognized. Eventually this "home" of the YMLA Library was sold to raise money for the purchase of land at what is today the corner of Forsyth Street and Carnegie Way, on which the Central Library of the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System stands.
Andrew Carnegie and the New Library
When Walter Kelly, southern representative of Carnegie Steel, came to Atlanta in 1892, the YMLA turned to his employer as a possible source of financial assistance. Pittsburgh's Andrew Carnegie was famous for his enormous wealth, his role in the development of the American iron and steel industry, and his philanthropy. Carnegie established or contributed to a number of educational, humanitarian, and public service institutions, helping set up at least 2,500 libraries around the world.
A committee led by YMLA President Eugene Mitchell (father of writer Margaret Mitchell) began months of negotiation with Kelly and Carnegie. On May 6, 1899, Carnegie donated $100,000 to establish a public library in Atlanta. As part of the agreement with Carnegie, the city government was to give financial support to the new library. On July 1, the city government announced an outlay of $5,000 per year for its new institution. Carnegie's initial donation and the city government appropriation did not cover the expenses of building and supplying the new library. Anne Wallace, YMLA Librarian, undertook the task of convincing Carnegie to offer more money. In November 1899, the persuasive librarian convinced Carnegie to donate $25,000 to purchase furniture and to meet other costs; in March 1901, she encouraged him to give another $20,000.
The stage had been set for the appearance of Atlanta's Carnegie Library. Fittingly, Anne Nicholson Wallace, last librarian of the YMLA, and tireless worker in making the new library a reality, was named "Librarian" of the Carnegie Library on May 13, 1899. Wallace had already helped organize the Congress of Women Librarians, a part of Atlanta's 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition, and thereafter encouraged the founding of the Georgia Library Association.
The opening of the new library took place on March 4, 1902. The first book checked out of the new library was Maurice Thompson's Alice of Old Vincennes, a bestseller of its day. The YMLA merged its collection with that of the new library, but continued to exist as an organization for years after the Carnegie Library opened, gradually winding down its activities as it became clear that the new library would endure.
The Carnegie Library School
Under the leadership of Anne Wallace, "Librarian" (roughly equivalent to today's "Director") of the Carnegie Public Library, and with the ongoing financial assistance of
Andrew Carnegie, the first library school in the south opened in Atlanta on September 20, 1905. Anne Wallace was its first director. Originally known as the Southern Library School, the official name eventually became the Carnegie Library School of Atlanta. Popularly, Atlantans called it the Carnegie Library School; outside of the city, it was known as the Atlanta Library School. Financial pressures and evolving standards in the library profession led the school to affiliate with Emory University in 1925. Until 1930, it remained the south's only nationally accredited library school; by then its graduates were employed throughout the United States. The school was located at Emory from 1930 until it closed in 1988.
African-Americans and the Library System
At the time that the Carnegie Library opened, African-American scholar and activist W.E.B. DuBois led a group of African-Americans in an unsuccessful effort to receive representation on the Library Board, full use of the new library, or at least some branches to provide for their needs. Andrew Carnegie had offered funds for a branch library for black citizens, but the money was not used for years. Finally, in 1921, the Auburn Avenue Branch Library (1921-1949) began operating as the first of three branches eventually established to serve African-American patrons in the years before integration.
One of the milestones in the struggle to desegregate the library system came in May 1959, through the simple request of Irene Dobbs Jackson for a library card and the right to borrow books at Central. At that time, African-American patrons were allowed in the library, but only to read books in the basement. Jackson, a professor at Spelman College and the mother of Maynard Jackson who would later be Mayor of Atlanta for three terms, made it clear that she would go to court when her request was not met. Her action symbolized a variety of legal, political, and social pressures being brought to bear upon the Library Board to desegregate the Central Library.
Her experience also suggested the extreme nature of the opposition to desegregation; Jackson received terrifying threats from racists after her request for a library card. According to former Director Ella Gaines Yates, some staff members threw raw eggs at Jackson.
On May 19, 1959, the Library Board voted to extend to African-Americans the same privileges as whites in using the Central Library. The staff of the Central Library was desegregated in a series of steps between 1966 and 1973, as African-American personnel began serving in positions of increasing responsibility and visibility.
The Auburn Avenue Research Library
In hindsight, one can see another milestone in service to African-Americans which long preceded 1959. In 1934, materials used in the Adult Education Project, a joint venture of the American Library Association, The American Association of Adult Education, and the Rosenwald Fund, were donated to the Auburn Branch to form the Negro History Collection of Non-Circulating Books. The Adult Education Movement, stimulated by the American Association for Adult Education, was an effort to encourage reading, learning, and educational growth by people at all levels of education. The Auburn Branch of the Carnegie Library (not to be confused with today's Auburn Avenue Research Library) was one of two libraries in the U.S. which participated in the Project by offering programs aimed specifically at African-Americans.
Upon the closure of this branch in 1949, the collection was transferred to the West Hunter Branch, and in 1970, to the Central Library, due at least in part to the efforts of Mrs. Johnny LaBat Yancey, the first African-American member of the Library Board. Renamed the Samuel W. Williams Collection on Black America, in honor of educator and community leader Rev. Samuel W. Williams, the collection was officially dedicated as one of the library's special collections on November 21, 1971. In April 1994, the Williams Collection was moved again, to form the core of what is now the Auburn Avenue Research Library.
On May 16, 1994, the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African-American Culture and History (AARL) officially opened at 101 Auburn Avenue. The AARL was the first public library of its kind in the southeast, open to anyone interested in the African-American experience. Its collection encompasses a large collection of books and periodicals, as well as more than one million archival records and artifacts, ranging from paintings to pamphlets, oral history transcripts, film, photographs, and a variety of organizational records and personal papers.
The Special Collections Department
Another unforeseen benefit of the creation of the Williams Collection was its role in the development of a Special Collections Department at Central. Preservation of the Williams Collection was one of the earliest projects of what eventually became Special Collections. Other influences included public demand for specialized materials on Georgia history and on genealogy, and the need to maintain a large set of family history books donated to the library in honor of Hattie Wilson High, a local philanthropist. The department lives on as today's Special Collections Department.
Construction and Renovation of the Central Library
By 1902, the Carnegie Library of Atlanta stood at the corner of Forsyth Street and Carnegie Way. Although the building was remodeled several times before it was torn down and replaced with a new structure between 1977 and 1980, the Central Library has remained at this location.
In 1946, Atlanta voters approved the sale of bonds in 1947 to raise money for building several branches as well as renovation and additions to the Central Library. In 1950, Central's renovation was complete and a dedication ceremony was held. The name of the system was changed to the Atlanta Public Library.
In 1966, a second renovation of the Central Library was completed. Four years later, the Library Board appointed Marcel Breuer, a participant in the innovative Bauhaus Movement, to plan and design an entirely new building. Breuer, working closely with his associate Hamilton Smith, proposed a design that they believed would make use of natural light and windows. The exterior of the building was to be "monumental," enabling the library to retain its distinctive character and significance even if dwarfed by larger buildings. In 1974, a bond referendum was passed to raise money for construction of the new central library.
In 1977, the library moved to temporary quarters in the Thornton Building, popularly known as "The 10 Pryor Street Building." On May 25th, 1980, dedication ceremonies were held for the new building, which officially opened to the public two days later, under the leadership of Ella Gaines Yates, first African-American director of the library system. The building was completed ahead of schedule and under budget. Breuer was unable to attend the dedication ceremonies and died a year later on July 1, 1981 at the age of 81.
A popular addition to the exterior of the Central Library was the sculpture Wisdom Bridge. This work of sculptor Richard Hunt was placed on the plaza and dedicated August 1, 1990.
In 2001, approaching the centennial of when library service was first offered to the public a major renovation of the Central Library was begun.
The Relationship of the Library System to the City and County
In 1935, the City of Atlanta and the Fulton County Board of Commissioners signed a contract under which library service was extended to all of Fulton County. This expansion was made possible by a joint grant by the WPA and the city government. In 1982, Georgia voters passed a constitutional amendment authorizing the transfer of responsibility for the library system from the City of Atlanta to the County. On July 1, 1983, the transfer became official, and the system was renamed the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library.
Some journalistic accounts of this period speak of a "merger" or "combination" of city and county systems. The term "transfer of authority" is more accurate, because Fulton County had never operated a library system before 1983. It had contracted with the City of Atlanta to provide library service to areas within the county outside of the city's service area.
The Growth and Development of the Library System
In 1898, the YMLA held a collection of 15,000 books. In 1902, the Carnegie Library registered over 10,000 patrons and checked out 116,000 books. There were no branch libraries at that time. By 1924, twenty-five years after Carnegie's original donation, over 57,000 people held library cards; in that year 625,000 volumes were circulated. The system then included eight branches plus three special depositories in schools and factories. In 1967, one hundred years after the founding of the YMLA, the system encompassed nineteen branches and circulated 2,118,244 items, including more than 870,000 items for children. 53,112 patrons registered for library cards in that year alone, over and above previous cardholders.
As of early 1999, approaching the centennial of Andrew Carnegie's original donation, the Central Library alone held 2.1 million items of all kinds. Central received more than 300,000 visitors per year; on the average day, about one thousand people came in. At least four hundred more were helped every day by Information Line (now replaced by Reference Line), our telephone reference service. The system offered 3,598,794 items of all types, including nearly two million books. This figure does not include more than one million archival documents at Auburn Avenue.
In 1902, computers were completely unknown. Today, the library system offers free Internet access at every branch. Computer training and word processing are available at Central through the "Gates Lab," maintained by the Instructional Learning Center.
The Teen Technology & Homework Center, on the 3rd floor of the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library's Central Library is designed especially to appeal to library patrons in middle school and high school. The vision for the center was developed during the 1997 Teen Initiative of the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System's Youth Services Division. The center opened in October 2000.
In 2001, the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System encompassed the Central Library, the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History, `thirty-two active branches, and two Bookmobiles. In 2001, the last full year of service before the library system's celebration planned for mid-2002, total circulation for the entire system was 2,994,955 items of all types. Central's circulation was 222,955 items. These numbers of course exclude uses of non-circulating materials, such as reference works and the archival holdings of the AARL and of the AFPL Archives. In every month of 2001 except December, Central circulated more materials than the Carnegie Library owned in its first year. A total of 337,071 people had library cards at the end of 2001. A few other figures may give a sense of the magnitude of change in the system. In 1902, the Carnegie Library circulated 116,000 items. In 2001, seven branches and Central each exceeded that total.
For more AFPL history see . . .
Timeline of AFPLS History
Margaret Mitchell & the Atlanta Public Library
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