Richmond Public Library History
Richmond Public Library was founded by civic-minded leaders in the early 1900s. The establishment of a public library for Richmond residents took several tries, however.
The Finance Committee of Richmond’s Common Council twice passed up Mr. Andrew Carnegie’s generous offers of financial assistance to establish a public library in Richmond. The first offer, of $100,000, in March 1901, made it as far as the selection of Trustees for the Library, a recommendation for a site for the proposed building and the sum of $22,000 to purchase it. After consideration, the Finance Committee rejected the recommendation. Mayor Carlton McCarthy tried again in 1906, at which time Mr. Carnegie was willing to double his original offer to $200,000. The matter again came to the Finance Committee, where it was “read and ordered to be received and filed.” No further action was taken. Individuals and community leaders in business, education and civic institutions had rallied to the Library, to no avail.
These individuals and leaders then founded the Richmond Public Library Association in 1905 to advocate for a public library in Richmond. Gradually, they built more community support and began to win over public officials. On April 5, 1922, Mr. John Stewart Bryan became president of the Association, and stepped up the campaign for a public library. In June 1922, within 3 days, 10,000 Richmonders signed a petition supporting the establishment of a public library. The Richmond Public Library Association ultimately gathered a total of 50,000 signatures. This time, the wishes of Richmonders prevailed with the Common Council and the Board of Aldermen.
April 5: Mr. John Stewart Bryan was elected President of the Richmond Library Association.
November 16: Council passed an ordinance providing for a bond issue of $200,000 for the purchase of a site, construction of a building and purchase of equipment. Cost of books and maintenance was not included.
July 5: Council passed an ordinance authorizing formation of the Richmond Public Library Board.
November 7: The Library Board met for the first time. John Stewart Bryan was elected Chairman.
March: the Board chose the former home of the late Major Lewis Ginter, at 901 West Franklin St., for the library building. The building was purchased for $112,000.
May: Council made available operating expenses of $20,000.
June 1: Librarian Thomas Parker Ayer became the City Librarian. A native of New Hampshire and graduate of Brown University, he had served as Librarian of the Federal Trade Commission and as a reference Assistant in the Library of Congress.
October 13: Library formally opened. Hours of operation were 10:00 a.m. – 9:00 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. The Children’s Department hours were 3:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m. on school days, 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. on Saturdays.
Incorporated into the public library were separate collections and family libraries.
The Children’s Department absorbed the collection and the name of the John B. Tabb Memorial Library, which had operated at the State Library since May 1922. Established by the John B. Tabb Memorial Association, this library was for the use of children, and contained more than 1,000 volumes. Tabb was born in Amelia County, Virginia, in 1845. He was a poet, teacher and priest.
The Rosemary Library, founded by Thomas Nelson Page in memory of his wife, Anne Seddon Bruce Page, had operated since 1916 in conjunction with the John Marshall High School Library. Originally established in 1890 as a reading room for boys, it became a membership library, with dues of $1.00 per year for working people and $3.00 for others. At John Marshall High School, the Rosemary library was used by the school from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; and the public from 3:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.; 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on Saturdays.
The City Government Library, consisting of various volumes kept in the reception room of the Mayor’s Office in City Hall, was moved to the new library.
Other collections had been in storage: the private library of the Reverend Dr. George Woodbridge, a collection of history, biography and literature; the library of J. Staunton Moore, a collection of theology, history and literature; the library of the Richmond Advertising Club and Better Business Bureau, a collection of business literature; the library of Professor James Lingan Randolph, a collection of technical society publications and engineering works; and a collection give to the library in memory of Cadet John Dunn, IV, Royal Flying Corps: Blackwood Magazine, Cornhill Magazine, Virginia Magazine of History and volumes of history, literature and art; and the Benjamin H. Berry family library of works in history, biography and literature.
July 27, 1925: RPL’s first branch opened at the Phyllis Wheatley Branch of the YWCA at 515 North 7th Street to serve African-Americans. The branch was open 4:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. weekday, and occupied two rooms on the second floor of the building, free of rent. Two schoolteachers operated the branch. On December 2, the branch was named the Rosa D. Bowser Branch. Library users selected the name to honor Richmond’s first female African-American schoolteacher (1855-1931), who began her career in 1872 at Navy Hill School. A community activist as well as a teacher, Mrs. Bowser helped form the Virginia Teachers Reading Circle, founded the Richmond Woman’s League, served on the executive board of the Southern Federation of Colored Women, helped found the National Associate of Colored Women’s Clubs and helped found the Women’s League Hospital and Training School.
September: Details of the will of Mrs. Sallie May Dooley became public. She left $500,000 to the City to purchase a site, and to build and equip a public library in memory of her husband, Major James H. Dooley. Mrs. Dooley’s generosity also supported Children’s Hospital, St. Joseph’s Villa, and bestowed her home, Maymont, and its grounds to the City for use as a park.
The library established the Schools Division of the juvenile department, and began the practice of deposit book stations, usually in public school libraries at a distance from the public library. The stations would then be open to adults in those school neighborhoods to check out books. This practice grew into placing deposit collections of about 25 books each in school classrooms. Staff from the Schools Division visited schools three or four times a year to shift the classroom deposit collections. Starting with four schools in its first year of operation, at its peak the Schools Division served 40 schools.
The library also began the work of supplying public hospitals with books. The hospitals librarian visited each of these hospitals weekly, taking books to patients and making notes of their requests for books to bring on her next visit.
May: The Library Board chose 1st and Franklin Streets as the site of the Dooley Library. Cost of the site: $140,000.
June 1: The Arents Free Library, founded by Grace Arents, became a branch of the Richmond Public Library. Miss Arents had founded the St. Andrews Library in January 1902 at 224 South Cherry Street. The Library opened to the public on January 1, 1914 as the Arents Free Library, and was supported by Miss Arents until June 1926, when she bequeathed it to the City, with an endowment of $100,000.
November: The Library Board chose the firm Baskervill and Lambert as architects for the Dooley Library.
December 1: Library Director Thomas Ayer resigned.
July 16: Mr. Ayer returned as Director.
August: Clearing the site at 1st and Franklin began.
September 3: In spite of thousands of petition signatures and support from business and civic boosters, City Council defeated a proposal to purchase the entire block between 1st & 2nd street on Franklin to allow for future expansion of the Dooley Library.
January 15: Excavation of the site began.
June 22: Cornerstone for Dooley Library laid at 1st & Franklin by Richmond Lodge Number 10, A.F. & A. M. In the cornerstone is the will of Mrs. Sallie May Dooley.
October 29: Stock Market Crash.
July 19: The Dooley Library opened to the public. Outside walls were of George Washington stone, quarried at Aquia Creek, Virginia. Within the walls of the main front stair hall, stairway and the wainscot of the lobby (now the Dooley Foyer) are Italian Montanelle marble. The walls of the lobby (now the Dooley Foyer), above the wainscot, are of Italian Travatine. The total cost of the building was $543,000. Library staff moved 70,000 books and magazines from the old library building to the new one in just 3 days.
December 15: Dooley Library dedication ceremony.
August: The Board of Alderman approved purchase of the Dill house at 00 Clay Street to house the Rosa Bowser Branch. The Dill house had been built in 1832 by a baker who had come to Richmond from Pennsylvania early in the 19th century. In 1922, the Council of Colored Women, in which Maggie L. Walker was a leading spirit, purchased the building for its headquarters.
November: The Rosa D. Bowser branch opened at 00 Clay St. and occupied the site until 1965. The building was briefly used by Open High School and then in June 1991 opened as the location of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia.
The Forest Hill Community Library was organized in the Parish House of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd to serve the Forest Hill Park, Woodland Heights and Westover Hills neighborhoods.
The Forest Hill Community Library moved to the Old Stone House (Rhodes House) in Forest Hill Park.
September: African-Americans filed petition in U. S. District Court seeking equal access and service at the Dooley Library. The petition is denied.
A chest containing the official records, proclamations and documents of the Richmond Bicentennial Celebration of 1937 was placed over the entrance to the general stack section on the main floor (now part of the Children’s Department), to be opened in 2037. It contains a copy of the 1937 telephone directory, copies of special editions of Richmond newspapers, copies of proclamations by the Mayor during the bicentennial events; a copy of a manuscript of the bicentennial pageant, “Cavalcade of the Cavaliers,” and a passbook for a $5.00 deposit, expected to give the Tercentenary Commission a start in financing the 300th birthday celebration.
February: The Forest Hill Community Library became a branch of the Richmond Public Library and was named the Forest Hill Branch.
November: The Music Department opened in space on the ground floor, weekday afternoons and Tuesday and Thursday evenings. The Library was finally able to make accessible music materials that had been in storage. Music lovers were now able to check out chamber music scores, sheet music, and phonograph records of classical music. Future plans included adding a listening room. The Wallerstein Foundation, set up in 1943 in memory of Clara Ullman Wallerstein, supported the music collection with funds to purchase materials.
June 29: The Arents Library was returned with its endowment to the Trustees of the donor, and closed as a branch of the Richmond Public Library. The interest on the original endowment was no longer enough to maintain the library. The Arents Library moved to the William Byrd Community House at 221-223 S. Cherry St. in May 1947.
May: The Richmond Public Library Board voted to integrate the Library, effective June 1. The Leigh Street YMCA’s Business and Professional Men’s Council was instrumental in petitioning the Board to provide equal access. This organization was also instrumental in the 1946 appointment of the first African-Americans to the City’s police department.
May: Richmond Public Library began rotating collections of periodicals and books to Richmond firehouses for use by firemen.
March: Council approved an ordinance for acquisition of land at Belmont and Ellwood for a new library branch. The site was occupied by the home and laundry business of Woo Fong, who was forced to move his family. The architectural firm of Budina and Freeman was commissioned to prepare plans for the new branch.
June 30: Mr. Thomas Ayer resigned as Library Director.
July 18: Mr. C. Lamar Wallis became the new Library Director. Mr. Wallis had been director of the Galveston, Texas city and county library and a former president of the Texas Library Association.
The Library Board and the City Council approved a recommendation that the second floor west wing (now housing the Library’s Administration offices) be renovated and equipped for a department of music and other fine arts.
April: Groundbreaking for the Belmont Branch.
June: Mrs. Samuel H. Gellman came forward with a gift of $5,000 to equip a memorial meeting room in the new Art & Music Department, for music listening, films and similar uses with groups.
October: The new Art & Music department opened on the 2nd floor of the Main Library.
October 25: Belmont Branch Library opened at 3100 Ellwood Avenue and dedicated in a ceremony that honored former director Thomas Ayer.
December 1: The new music room is dedicated as a memorial to Samuel H. Gellman, a Richmond attorney active in civic affairs and a supporter of music programs in the City.
Planning for the Westover Hills branch began. Budina and Freeman were commissioned to prepare plans.
February: Council approved the purchase of a site at Devonshire Rd. and Westover Hills Boulevard.
November: Groundbreaking for the Westover Hills branch began.
November: Lamar Wallis resigned as Library Director.
February 3: Howard M. Smith, new Library Director, started work. Mr. Smith was a native of Charlotte, NC, who had grown up in Norfolk and attended the University of Virginia. He received his graduate degree in library science from the University of Michigan and came to RPL from Philadelphia Public Library, where he had been Personnel Chief.
April 15: Friends of the Richmond Public Library held its first annual program. The Friends organized and began recruiting members in February. Membership dues were $1.00 annually.
July 9: Westover Hills Library at 1408 Westover Hills Boulevard held an open house and dedication in the evening, and opened for business on July 10. The Forest Hill Branch in the Old Stone House in Forest Hill Park closed and the books were moved to the Westover Hills branch.
September: Miss Carrie Anderson, RPL music librarian, began broadcasting her popular, hour-long classical music program from the Library’s music room. The program aired weekly on WRFK-FM. Ms. Anderson had started the broadcasts at the station in 1957.
November: Library supporters incorporated a Richmond Public Library Foundation. This Foundation did not operate for very long.
February: E. Claiborne Robins donated funds to the Friends of the Library to purchase a bookmobile.
May 14: The RPL Bookmobile began service with regular stops in the City. “Nellie Belle” was the name of the bookmobile.
March: Plans for a branch in Ginter Park were unveiled. Budina and Freeman, architects.
April: Council debated sites for a branch in the East End.
July: Groundbreaking for the Ginter Park branch.
Summer: The rest of the Main Library was air-conditioned. The Art & Music Department had already been air-conditioned.
January: Property purchased for the East End branch at 25th and R Streets.
January: Property purchased to expand the Belmont branch.
May 13: Ginter Park Branch Library at 1200 Westbrook Avenue held an open house and dedication ceremony in the evening. The branch opened for business on May 14. The cost of construction of the building was $140,000.
September: Plans for the East End branch were unveiled.
November: A small park on Franklin Street adjoining the Main Library was dedicated. Sponsored by the Tuckahoe Garden Club, the garden made beautiful and useful a space slated for eventual library expansion.
July: East End Library opened with limited services.
November 14: East End Library fully opened and dedicated. Cost of construction: $127,000. The Rosa D. Bowser branch closed.
June: The expanded Belmont Library opened.
With the end of the 1965-1966 school year, the Schools Division of the Richmond Public Library ceased operations. With the establishment of neighborhood public library branches and the growth of public schools libraries, the need for the services of this department had decreased. Serving 40 schools at its peak, by 1966 the division was serving only 22 schools.
September: Plans for expansion of the Main library approved by the City Planning Commission. Baskervill & Son, architects.
September 15-17: Celebration and dedication of the expansion of the Main Library. The expansion tripled the capacity of the Dooley Library, now the Dooley Wing. The new building covered 140,200 gross square feet included 26,400 square feet of stack area. The exterior of the building was sheathed with Kasota Stone. Cost of expansion: $5,000,000. Architect: Baskervill & Son. Contractor: J. A. Jones Construction Company. Library Design Consultants: Emerson Greenaway and J. Russell Bailey. Richmond native and author Tom Wolfe was the featured speaker at the formal dedication ceremonies, and Virginius Dabney was the Master of Ceremonies. In the expansion, the Art & Music Department and the Gellman Room moved to the first floor into the space previously occupied by the Reference Room, the card catalog room, and the Reading Room of the Dooley Wing. In the new addition were the Literature and History Department on the first floor, the Circulation Department relocated to the new entrance, and the Business, Science & Technology Department on the 2nd floor. The Children’s Department remained on the lower level. Also on the lower level in the new addition were additional meeting spaces and a 250-seat auditorium.
December 31: Broad Rock Library opened.
April 15: Broad Rock Library dedication ceremony.
September 25: West End Library opened.
December 7: West End Library dedicated.
October: Kiosk branch opened at 10th and Marshall Streets. A 20 square foot facility with 3,000 books, the Kiosk served downtown workers.
July 15: North Avenue Library opened.
August 3: North Avenue Library dedicated.
July 23: Robert N. Costa started work as Library Director.
August 3: Howard Smith resigned as Director.
January 15: Hull Street Library opened.
July: Main Library becomes repository for Richmond City Records. City Records Manager joins library staff.
April: Richmond Public Library’s RICHCAT, its online catalog, goes public.
RPL awarded an MCI Communications Corporation LibraryLINK grant to bring free public access to the Internet.
November 4: RPL becomes 1st library in the area to offer public Internet access.
December: Director Robert Costa retired.
May: Richmond Public Library Foundation organized. The Foundation develops, administers and allocates private funds that provide the extra margin of excellence for the library system by enhancing public support for the library and its programs.
September: Robert Rieffel began work as Library Director.
July 24: Library Park opened behind the Main Library.
March: Gates Foundation gave RPL a $189,982 grant to purchase 36 computer workstations, complete with Internet access, for use at the City’s nine public libraries, and to establish a regional training lab at the Main Library.
October 5: the Main Library joined the First Friday Art Walk.
February: the City of Richmond and the RPL Foundation announced the launch of a multi-million dollar fund-raising campaign called Literacy Legacy, seeking to raise a minimum of $2.8 million to revitalize, renovate and restore the City’s public libraries. The campaign was launched with a $950,000 grant from the City of Richmond, two $200,000 challenge grants from local philanthropic foundations, and $250,000 in leadership support from individuals. In addition, RPL received a $300,000 challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The NEH funds purchased culturally diverse material and established a fund for culturally diverse programming.
February: Renovations to Main completed. The subject departments combined to form the General Collections Department on the 1st floor. The Children’s Department moved into the Dooley Wing on the 1st Floor. The Martha Orr Davenport Special Collections Room opened on the lower level in the space formerly occupied by the Children’s Department. The Periodicals Department, and Computer Lab, moved into the 2nd floor.
August: Robert Rieffel retired.
October 8-9: Ceremonies and events held to dedicate the Main Library’s renovations. The Friends of the Library sponsored a Children’s Book Festival on the 9th, which attracted huge crowds to enjoy story times, crafts and visiting children’s authors.
August 22: Harriet Henderson (later Harriet Henderson Coalter) became Library Director.
March: RPL acquired the Public Law Library collection when it vacated the John Marshall Courthouse to make room for construction of a new courtroom.
Richmond Mayor L. Douglas Wilder announced his plans for “City of the Future,” to provide needed infrastructure improvements to City facilities. $7,000,000 over five years is targeted for library capital improvement projects and upgrades.
Renovations of the North Avenue and Westover Hills libraries, and of the Auditorium level of the Main Library were completed in 2010. North Avenue Library operated a small, temporary site at the former Norrell Elementary School, 2120 Fendall Avenue, from May-August 2010 during the library’s renovation.
Mayor Dwight C. Jones reopened North Avenue Library on October 15, 2010. Westover Hills reopened on December 6, 2010.
Library renovations at Belmont, Broad Rock, East End were completed. Ginter Park closed in August 2015 and reopened to an expanded space on June 28, 2016. West End Library closed for renovation June 18, 2016, and looks forward to reopening in early 2017. Harriet Coalter retired in August 2015. Scott Firestine was hired and began as Director May 9, 2016.
Leatherman, Carolyn H. “Richmond Considers a Free Public Library.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. Vo. 96, No. 2 April 1988.
Williams, A. Simpson. History of the Richmond Public Library. 1941.
Richmond Public Library Newspaper Clipping Files.