LFPL: A History of Pride and Resourcefulness

As we prepare technology and service to bring the Louisville Free Public Library into the next century it is interesting to take a backward glance at our long and rich history. Our city had a library as early as 1816, but it was not a free public library. It was a small collection housed in the old Court House. It soon folded for lack of funds as did others to follow it. In1870 some progressive individuals decided to create a public institution for information and enjoyment where anyone could borrow books without charge. The word "lottery" was carefully omitted from the 1871 charter to the Public Library of Kentucky, but trustees were able to sell tickets to fund-raisers at which lucky ticket holders would win a portion of the funds. Prizes as high as $35,000 were awarded!

The trustees then began acquiring a collection and bought the Weisinger Hall (the old Kaufman's department store) to store the materials. Shortly after, a group of citizens organized to form the Polytechnic Society of Kentucky as a funding body for the library. Theirs was not a glowing success but it kept the library alive until the turn of the century, when the promise of a grant from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, as well as local taxes, raised the prospects for a stable well-funded institution.

A competitive effort named the Louisville FREE Public Library eventually was housed in the same building as the Polytechnic. After much controversy the two entities merged and eventually the newer effort prevailed. Work on the library's building at its present site south of Broadway began in 1905 with an official opening in 1908. The library prospered and added sites among them the Western Branch which was the first Carnegie-housed library in the U.S. built solely for African Americans.

In 1950 the library became the first library in the nation to put its own FM-radio station on the air - WFPL, a second station, WFPK joined it in a few years.

From the beginning, a children's library was an integral part of the system pioneering in story-telling sessions and adding a Junior Art Gallery. In 1969 a $4 million north building was added to the Victorian-style Carnegie structure. This provided an additional 110,000 square feet of floor space, compared to the 42,000 in the old one. Several services begun before that time expanded with a gusto. Among them were the Audio-Visual department, the Kentucky Division, special collection of rare books, a natural history museum and the depository for United States government documents. The Foundation Center and Talking Book Library for the visually impaired also grew in significance.

At one time the LFPL included over 30 branches; several of which were closed over the years because of lack of funding. However, fewer sites became even more accessible to users by the linking provided by an automated circulation service brought to the library in 1985.

During the 1980s the library faced two unsuccessful tax referendums but continued on a positive note thanks to a five-year plan of development which was adopted and funded by the City and County in 1992. Likewise, the Library Foundation was formed and underwrote the Library 2000 campaign to raise funds for technology.  The parallel endeavors of the Five-Year Plan and the Library 2000 have resulted in additional branch locations, increased staff, extended hours, expanded book collections in juvenile, adult and reference areas and an impressive automation project. The Louisville Free Public Library presently has 17 branch locations in addition to the main library. There are also two bookmobiles, one for adult services and one for juvenile outreach. An electronic catalog as well as numerous databases are available at all locations, thus equalizing many services among smaller and larger branches.

The Louisville Free Public Library is a system that honors its past, accomplishments, vitalizes its present endeavors and envisions an exciting future.

See Centennial Photos of Main Library

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Last Updated: 02/03/2012