The story of the Birmingham Public Library is the story of Birmingham. In fact, BPL is the oldest cultural institution in the city, born only fifteen years after the city’s founding. It grew along with Birmingham and reflects the city’s history in its buildings, collection, and people.
You might be asking yourself, who is this handsome devil leaning over to look at me? This is John Herbert Phillips, “a tall man of Welsh descent from Kentucky,” and the superintendent of schools beginning in the early 1880s. It was he who formed what would become BPL.
In August of 1886, the private Birmingham Library Association, a fee-based library, dissolved and bequeathed its 800-volume collection to Superintendent Phillips. By September of 1886, Mr. Phillips had opened up the first public library in a small reception room beside his office, a meager 15 by 18 feet in Birmingham’s high school, pictured here:
What this means is that we are living in the exact time, one hundred and twenty-five years later, when the idea to build a library in a booming, mining town, came to fruition. Birmingham, whose population had risen from 3,000 to 25,000 in only a few years, had decided to provide lifelong education and cultural enlightenment for its children and citizenry.
The Library quickly outgrew its small space and in 1890, when the high school moved to the spot where the Tutwiler Hotel now sits, Phillips got a new library
(as sketched here from the 1891 Annual Report):
Of course, what you cannot see is the chewing gum that the young scholars stuck on the underside of the desks.
In 1887, Superintendent Phillips suggested that if the Board supported the library and the city of Birmingham helped fund its book purchases that the library could, in turn, reach “respectable proportions.” Indeed, BPL, is now the largest library system in the state, with 19 locations serving every corner of the city.
Unfortunately, for two years running, the materials budget has been cut by more than $600,000 (roughly half). BPL has tightened up its proverbial belt, and we believe, as Gloria Gaynor once claimed, that we will survive. However, if at no other time in our 125-year history, now is the time that we need your support. Our materials budget has been, in reality, decimated.
This year we’re launching the 2011 BPL Donation Campaign, in celebration of our 125th anniversary. Your contribution will allow us to expand programming throughout the system, provide access to technology, and purchase books, CDs, audiobooks, DVDs, and eBooks for the more than one million visitors we serve each year. We’re asking you to join us by investing for the benefit of future generations as well as the current one. Please help us keep our shelves full of the rich materials we have provided for 125 years.
Donate online, in person at any library branch, or by sending your gift to the Birmingham Public Library, 2100 Park Place, Birmingham, AL 35203. Please make checks payable to the Birmingham Public Library Campaign. Thank you for investing in us!
Throughout the coming months, we will post interesting tidbits from the Library’s early history.
(All images courtesy of the Birmingham Public Library Archives. Text cited from the Southern History Department's Annual Reports of the Board of Ed., as well as the indomitable Virginia Pounds Brown's "History of the Birmingham Public Library." Proofreading and editing by Mrs. K.J.S. Bates.)