The 144-Year History of the First Public Library in Texas

 The 144-Year History of the First Public Library in Texas
This ca. 1884 metal sign marked the location of the Galveston Public Library, the first public library in the state of Texas. Its collections were later absorbed by the Rosenberg Library when it opened in 1904 [gift of Galveston Public Library, 1905].

The 175-year-old City of Galveston has been credited with a long list of “firsts” in Texas. Among these is the state’s first public library. One hundred forty-four years ago, the Galveston Chamber of Commerce (another “first” organization in the state) founded a library for local citizens. Although Rosenberg Library was not established until 1904, its roots can be traced to this early predecessor. During the month of January, Rosenberg Library exhibited a ca. 1884 sign which originally marked the location of the Galveston Public Library in the Masonic Temple.

 The 144-Year History of the First Public Library in Texas
Before the Rosenberg Library building was completed in 1904, the city’s book collection was housed nearby at the Masonic Temple [image courtesy of Rosenberg Library].

The Galveston Mercantile Library

On September 13, 1870, the Galveston Chamber of Commerce adopted a resolution “to establish and foster a mercantile library and reading room in this city for the use of all persons subscribing thereto.” A three-person committee was created to manage the library.

The term “mercantile library” is not a reference to the types of books in the collection. Rather, it was named such because it was founded by local merchants. Similar libraries had been established as early as 1820 in other U.S. cities including New York, Boston, Cincinnati and Philadelphia. Funding for these libraries came from voluntary subscriptions. An annual membership to Galveston’s mercantile library initially cost two dollars per month. As a result, only more affluent citizens could afford to access library books.

In January of 1871, a celebration to mark the opening of Galveston’s first library was held at Casino Hall (2120 Avenue G). The Galveston Mercantile Library was originally located in the Hurlbut Building on the 2200 block of Postoffice Street. It became the “first public standard and circulating library established in Texas.” The collection was comprised of 2,000 books which had all been donated by local merchants.

Within a short time, the library had outgrown its space at the Hurlbut Building and was moved to Ryland Chapel, the first Methodist Church to be erected on the island. (This structure, located at the corner of 22nd Street and Church, was later replaced by the Scottish Rite Cathedral.) By 1873, the collection numbered 5,500 volumes which included books, periodicals, and items related to Texas history.

The Galveston Free Library

The library’s popularity continued to grow, and in 1874, the Chamber of Commerce offered its mercantile library as a gift to the City of Galveston to be used by local citizens free of charge. Thus the Galveston Free Library was established, with the City providing $250 per month for “maintenance, preservation, and increase.” Nine trustees were appointed to manage the library. In 1875, the library moved again to the first floor of the Ballinger & Jack Building at 2211 Postoffice.

However, just three years later, a newly elected City Council voted to withdraw all funding for the library. The book collection was moved into storage at city hall. In 1881, a group of young men known as the Galveston Lyceum requested that the City allow them to act as custodians of the collection under the supervision of members of City Council and the City Library Committee. The City accepted the request.

The Galveston Public Library

The library was relocated back to its original home at the Ballinger & Jack building. It was renamed “The Galveston Public Library” with a collection that included more than 11,000 books and other print materials. In 1884 the public library moved into a larger space on the second floor of the Masonic temple. Despite local support, funding for the operation of the library proved to be an ongoing challenge and in 1890, the City Council voted to resume its management of the collection.

 The 144-Year History of the First Public Library in Texas
Original architectural rendering of Rosenberg Library. Made by noted illustrator Hughson Hawley in 1902 [image courtesy of Rosenberg Library].

Henry Rosenberg, a local businessman and philanthropist, was among the original founders of Galveston’s mercantile library in 1870. As such, he was all too aware of the decades-long struggle to finance and maintain a library for Galveston. When Rosenberg — a lover of books — died in 1893, he bequeathed more than $600,000 for the organization and endowment of a free public library for all residents of the island.

Rosenberg Library and the Colored Branch

In the years following, the Rosenberg Library Association was created and plans for the construction of a beautiful new building were made. Rosenberg Library officially opened its doors at 23rd Street and Sealy in June 1904. The Galveston Public Library at the Masonic temple closed, and its collections were absorbed by Rosenberg Library.

A separate “Colored Branch” for African Americans was completed shortly thereafter. It is believed to be the first public library for blacks in the Southern United States. The Colored Branch was housed in an annex to Central High School, the first African-American high school in Texas. Nicholas Clayton designed the original structure at Avenue M and 26th Street. It was later demolished and replaced by a more modern building which is still standing; currently it is the home of the Old Central Cultural Center.

 The 144-Year History of the First Public Library in Texas
Rosenberg Library’s Colored Branch was first housed in an annex to the original Central High School building designed by Nicholas Clayton [image courtesy of Rosenberg Library].

Since 1870, the public library has been a community center for the people of Galveston. Today more than 230,000 patrons visit Rosenberg Library each year. In addition to its outstanding collections of books and DVDs, the Library offers a computer lab, meeting spaces, a Children’s Department, a research center, and a fantastic museum and archives.

Past Treasures