A Concise History
The new Library quickly outgrew the cramped space in the Courthouse basement. Civic clubs joined the Up-To-Date Club to support the purchase of the old Searcy Home which the Tuscaloosa County Library would share with the County Board of Education from 1926 until 1958. Funding for library operating expenses was provided by both Tuscaloosa County and the City of Tuscaloosa, with books and furnishings donated by individuals and civic organizations. During the Great Depression and World War II, the Tuscaloosa County Library continued to serve a growing population and even expanded its programs to include a Children’s Reading Room and branches in outlying communities. A special advisory group of Tuscaloosa businessmen worked with the Library Board and staff to plan for future growth.
In 1879, a group of prominent Tuscaloosa businessmen donated books from their private libraries to establish a “Library Room” in a large parlor above a drugstore. They hoped to provide a comfortable space where “young men” could “read, talk, crack jokes, or play drafts, backgammon, or chess, thus passing their idle time, if not advantageously, certainly free from all evil influences.” After only two years, Tuscaloosa’s first “City Library” closed, perhaps because not many young men wished to spend their time in such wholesome pursuits.
Thirty years later, in 1911, a group of progressive women formed the “Up-To-Date Club” and pressed the Tuscaloosa County Board of Revenue to allocate funds for a new library. The Board released two rooms in the basement of the old Tuscaloosa County Courthouse to establish a “County Library” to be staffed by a librarian and kept open to “every citizen” of the county. The women of the Up-To-Date Club provided furnishings, books and staff since the Board of Revenue would not fund the library until it was “established, equipped and opened to the public.” By 1922, the Tuscaloosa County Library had become a funded community service with a full-time librarian.
By the end of World War II, total volumes had increased from 500 to more than 10,000, and annual staff salaries had increased from $300 to $2,040. A new Bookmobile was purchased by the Tuscaloosa Civitan Club in 1947; it made 56 stops and provided a circulation of 70,000 volumes in the first six months. Holdings doubled to more than 21,000, and total circulation was up to 236,627 volumes in 1951. A citizens’ support group, the Friends of the Library Association, was organized to assist the Library Board in securing funds from public and private sources to meet the growing demand for library services. The Alabama Public Library Service (APLS) increased its assistance and provided professional support to both the Library Board and the staff.
To expand the central facility, the county Board of Revenue negotiated the acquisition of a spacious antebellum house, the historic Jemison-Friedman Home, as the new location of the Tuscaloosa County Library. Professional librarians warned the Board that the antiquated structure would require too much maintenance and renovation to make it a cost-effective library. The best solution, they insisted, would be the construction of a new building designed as a modern library. Immediate financial concerns overrode long range plans, however, and the Tuscaloosa County Library moved into the old mansion in 1958.
Programs at the “Friedman Library” continued to grow despite its physical limitations. The stately old building with its antebellum charm became a cultural center of sorts, with changing displays and exhibits of local arts and crafts. An expanding phonograph collection of classical music and listening stations added a novel media resource. Financial constraints postponed the purchase of a new bookmobile, abruptly ending a flourishing outreach program. The inoperable old van was parked alongside the Friedman Library to provide temporary space for a new program for blind and handicapped patrons.
Like most public services in the South, library programs were segregated in Tuscaloosa until the Sixties. The first public library available to African-Americans was a small facility called the Weaver Library housed in a non-white community center. In 1955, the Weaver collection was moved into a separate building purchased by the Benjamin Barnes Branch of the YMCA and served as a temporary library for African Americans. In 1959, the City of Tuscaloosa purchased the property to build a “separate but equal” library, and a new Weaver Branch Library opened the next year for African American patrons. Desegregation of Tuscaloosa Public Library services happened quickly when a group of five African American patrons silently entered the central building in 1964 and demanded full access to the system. The immediate result of their confrontation was complete integration of the new Weaver Branch Library into the Friedman Library system. In the 1990s, after extensive renovations, the Weaver Bolden Branch Library became a vital component of the Tuscaloosa Public Library.
Crippled by mounting costs to maintain a deteriorating 19th Century home as a public building amid diminishing funds from county and city governments to finance expanding programs, the Friedman Library Board turned to Federal and State sources for long-range support. Grants, bond issues and fund drives finally enabled the Board to build a new library according to professional library standards. In 1979, after more than two decades in a charming but inadequate facility, the library system moved to its current location overlooking the Black Warrior River. The new “Friedman Library Building,” now the central branch and headquarters of the modern Tuscaloosa Public Library, has been renovated twice since its opening. It is a modern facility in a convenient location, offering an outstanding array of services and programs to thousands of patrons.
Today, the Tuscaloosa Public Library, consists of the Main Library, two thriving satellite branch libraries, and two bookmobiles. Other resources accessible to all patrons include meeting rooms, a modern computer laboratory with full internet access, flourishing children’s programs, special programs and a genealogy and local history collection with microforms, readers and printers, and numerous online research services, including catalog searches and circulation requests. Opened in 2006, the Brown Branch Library extends all library programs into the fastest-growing patron community of Tuscaloosa County. With the relocation of the Weaver Bolden Branch Library to the McKenzie Court Community in the fall of 2010, the West End area now has a newer, bigger and more modern building with the same great service from staff. The current Tuscaloosa Public Library, with its team of dedicated professional librarians and staff, is a remarkable outcome of its humble early roots.