Origins of Harris County Public Library
1921: The Beginning
In 1921 the idea of bringing library services to the rural communities and schools of Harris County was thought of as something akin to a social experiment. A handful of dedicated staff and volunteers with a budget of $6,500 brought the thriving system we see today into existence, beginning with a collection of 3,455 titles that circulated a total of 19,574 times in that first year.
The devastation of the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900 shifted regional population centers inland from the coast. The birth of the Texas oil industry at nearby Spindletop also attracted new residents to Houston, and the city’s population exploded alongside its emergence as a hub of the new industry.
As Houston transformed into a major seaport with the construction of the Ship Channel, the rural areas of the County experienced their own boom in the form of increases in livestock and acreage which helped farms and small towns to thrive. Successful farms tend to draw fewer new residents than successful seaports, so the population density outside the urban areas of the County remained relatively low and growth in the rural areas did not keep pace with that of the city of Houston itself.
Rural Harris County in 1921
The goal of providing library service to rural areas was complicated by social, legal, and financial obstacles in addition to the natural barriers of forest and field. Houston could afford to build its own city library, but the long dirt roads connecting the city to the small outer towns were insufficient to ensure access to city library materials for residents outside of the inner urban areas.
Road improvements and library resources were both beyond the budget of County government. Public resources were focused on the urban areas where most people resided. Assistance from the state would not come until the Texas legislature gained the power to provide public library services for Texas counties in 1919. The success of the Harris County Public Library system in overcoming these obstacles can be traced back to three nationwide social and political movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: The Progressive Movement, the Country Life Movement, and the Good Roads Movement.
The Progressive Movement
The Progressive Movement was a period spanning roughly the years between 1890 and 1920 during which problems caused by a rapid influx of working class people into cities prompted a wave of social and political reforms. The Progressive Movement recognized the advantages of an educated and literate public which brought the need for public library services to national attention.
The Country Life Movement
The Country Life Movement was a series of federal government projects intended to improve living conditions in rural areas of the United States to the extent that fewer residents would choose to migrate away from their farms and small towns to the cities, thereby depopulating the farms and threatening the food supply. The success of this effort led to a higher population and a sustained need for library services in the rural areas of Harris County than might have existed without federal intervention.
The Good Roads Movement
The Good Roads Movement began in the 1880s with groups of bicycle enthusiasts advocating for the European model of government construction and maintenance of roads with the goal of better connections between rural areas and cities so that populations outside of the cities could reap the same social and economic benefits enjoyed by those within. Texas residents did not see the benefits of this movement until the 20th century, when the efforts of automobile lobbyists to carry the movement forward culminated in the Federal Road Act of 1916. Texas made itself eligible for the federal funds made available by this Act with the establishment of the Texas Highway Department in 1917. The improved roads that resulted from these efforts enabled librarians to more easily serve rural towns that had previously been connected to Houston by dirt roads.
Arthur E. Dawes and the Beginning of the County Library
In 1920, Harris County attorney and County Life Movement advocate Arthur E. Dawes, inspired by the state legislature granting Texas counties the power to create and maintain public libraries, began collecting signatures to petition the Harris County Commissioners Court for a public library system in Harris County. Dawes and Houston Public librarian Julia Ideson were able to mobilize enough public support to present a petition to the Court. In 1921, the Court approved the petition and the Harris County Public Library was born and funded at $6,500 for the first year.
County Librarian 1921-1926
In May of 1921, Lucy Fuller, a native Texan who had left for New York City to pursue a library degree at Carnegie Library School and a job at the New York Public Library, returned to Texas to become the first county librarian for Harris County Public Library.
Between July and December of that year, she and her staff established twenty-six library stations in schools, businesses, and private homes throughout the county. Materials were transferred between stations although the county roads were often poorly suited to the vehicles available to HCPL staff on their limited budget, and children's storytimes were offered throughout the county even in areas with populations too low to claim "branch" status.
The library system enjoyed such a successful year that the budget was increased from $6,500 in 1921 to $12,000 in 1922. By the end of that second year the library had spent $5,748 on 8,638 volumes with a circulation of 80,869, and the number of library stations expanded from twenty-six to forty-one. The success of the library system was partially due to Lucy Fuller's insistence that every library station, whether large or small, receive regular visits and attention from staff, from the Harrisburg station with its 7,449 circulations to Sheldon station with 79 circulations. Fuller's partnerships with public schools, which constituted the bulk of the county library stations, were bolstered by Harris County Public Library exhibits at the Teacher's Institute of Harris and Matagorda Counties, the Houston Fair and Exposition, and the meeting of the Texas State Teacher's Association.
In 1923, the library offered 31 children's storytime hours across the county and began service at its first location in the Black community in a private home in Independence Gardens.
First Central Library Location
Harris County Courthouse
By the end of 1924, the county library collection had reached 17,445 books with an annual circulation of 122,685. During that year, the library also began supplying books to the Harris County School for Girls and the Ross Sterling Camp for Boys. Two new stations were also opened that year at the Hart School and La Porte Colored School to support Black students. Some original library stations closed, but more new library stations opened and by the beginning of 1925 there were sixty-two county library stations in operation.
Bound by state law, the main office and central library of HCPL were located on the fifth floor of the Harris County Courthouse until a more suitable location could be found. Budgetary restrictions kept the central library in the courthouse for many years, and the fifth floor location was open to all county citizens as a reading room from 8 am to 5 pm every day except Sunday.
Given the modest nature of the central library, the most significant work of the library staff took place out in the community. Staff members presented children’s storytimes and attended community and school meetings as well as picnics and barbecues. HCPL librarians provided schools with reading lists, and collected newspaper clippings, pamphlets, and photos to archive for posterity.
First Branch Library Building
Until the end of 1925, the Goose Creek library station was established wherever Lucy Fuller could find room, whether in a drugstore, post office, or dry goods store. The Goose Creek Oil Field was very important to the Texas Oil Boom, so she approached Ross Sterling, president of Humble Oil, with a proposal for Humble Oil to provide funds for the library to rent a building. Sterling’s counterproposal was for Humble Oil to provide funds for the library system to buy its own building.
On December 31, 1925, construction on the new Goose Creek Branch building commenced. Unfortunately, Sterling provided no funds for the building’s interior, leaving the county to raise the funds on its own.
Librarian and two others pose in front of the Goose Creek library dedication plaque.
HCPL devoted a significant portion of 1925 to fundraising for the interior of the Goose Creek Library.
The Legacy of Lucy Fuller
Despite a $225 per month raise in June of 1925, Lucy Fuller tendered her resignation as Harris County librarian in December of 1925 as construction of the Goose Creek Library building began. In her five years as county librarian, HCPL had grown from a fledgling system with a small budget and only one staff member into a thriving rural library system with 22,785 books, five employees, 140,340 circulations annually, and 67 branches and stations throughout the county. Having helped to establish Harris County Public Library, Fuller moved to Beaumont to establish the Beaumont Public Library and become its city librarian.
The Start of Bookmobile Service
Another aspect of Fuller's considerable and continuing legacy is the bookmobile service she established.
In 1925 alone, librarians drove 13,000 miles and made 432 visits to branches and stations. Before her departure for Beaumont, Fuller was able to secure funding for a vehicle with a roof, making travel easier for librarians in Harris County's sometimes inclement weather.
James Faulk was the first driver of an HCPL bookmobile.
County Librarian 1926-1932
Ruth Underwood took over as county librarian after Lucy Fuller's departure and oversaw the continued development of the library system. After the 1929 stock market crash marked the beginning of The Great Depression, Underwood had to contend with a reduced budget for many years. Total spending for 1932 was just over $19,000, only a $2,000 increase from 1925. However, thanks to Underwood's leadership and an everlasting public demand for library services, total circulation for that year rose to 308,834, and the bookmobile service logged over 17,000 miles.
Pelly Branch Library
Throughout rural Harris County, library branches continued to expand using whatever space the communities had to offer. In 1929, the Pelly Library Branch resided in the Pelly City Hall.
Lindale Branch Library
In 1931, the Lindale Branch was housed in a café.
Local communities held regular fundraisers to supplement the library's limited budget and supply the library with new books. Early friends of the library groups held book sales, such as this one in Pasadena in May 1934.
County Librarian 1932-1939
Elnora Edgar replaced Ruth Underwood Pooley as County Librarian in 1932. By the end of 1936, the library collection had actually decreased by 92 volumes down to 39,788 because the wear and tear on HCPL's books was outpacing the ability of the county to buy replacements. Demand for services saw no such decrease, however, as circulation reached 299,000 and the need for a full service book wagon became apparent.
Books For All, Free To All
The new book wagon entered into service in 1937 and was an immediate success.
HCPL staff could now make books available to rural patrons from the wagon’s built-in and easily browsable shelves rather than the simple boxes they had been forced to use in the past.
Books were checked out from inside the vehicle.
1938: Expansion Inside and Out
By 1938, the bookmobile service saw the addition of a dedicated book car to work alongside the book wagon. The book car logged 16,059 miles and the book wagon added another 11,853 miles. This measurable increase in demand came alongside another modest Depression-era budget of $21,205.
In another indication of the increased demand for services, the central library took 1,088 special requests for items from patrons in the branch libraries that year. The books were mailed from the central library or taken by bookmobile.
Jefferson Davis Hospital Nurses Home
The New Location of the HCPL Central Library
In 1938 the City of Houston relocated its primary municipal medical services away from the Jefferson Davis Hospital on Elder Street to what would later become Ben Taub Hospital in an area future residents would call the Texas Medical Center. The apartment housing facilities for nursing staff at the old downtown location would become the new home of the HCPL Central Library.
Map of Branches and Stations 1921-1939
The Harris County Public Library began life on the fifth floor of the Courthouse with one librarian, a modest budget, and an ambitious goal. Less than two decades later, the library system entered the 1940's with a clear mission, a record of exceptional public service, a new more spacious headquarters in a more easily accessible location, a bookmobile service with 10 routes covering a total of 50 stops, and 43 library branches and stations throughout the county.
Explore some of the 200+ locations served by HCPL from 1921 to 2020 on our Centennial Map.