Free Library

In February 1897, with Mayor Joseph B. Simrall’s encouragement, Mary D. Short[1], Ida W. Harrison and Miss Scott of the Woman’s Club of Central Kentucky, led an efforts to establish a free library in Lexington.[i]  On January 8, 1898, Short proposed that the city lease from the library company its “building, books and furniture” for a period of five years.  As rent, the city would provide enough funds to renovate the building, including converting one room for the “colored people.”  All new books purchased by the city would be stamped to distinguish them from the library’s company.  Short was the granddaughter of one of the early “fharer.”  See Appendix J – Mrs. Short’s Plan. [ii]

In early 1898, the city of Lexington was classified as a second class city by the legislature, which allowed the city of establish a “free library.”  This reclassification was proposed by State Senator Charles J. Bronston[2].

On April 3, 1898, the stockholders of the Lexington Library Association met to discuss the proposed lease.  It was noted that more women were present than men.  Judge Joseph D. Hunt spoke on behalf of the free library and indicated that the association’s proposal for divided responsibilities was unacceptable.  Judge Hunt proposed that the public library rent the “building and books” for $500 per year for a term of 3, 4 or 5 years.  In addition, between $1,500 and $2,500 would be expended to improve the library’s building immediately.  The association would retain $125 per year to purchase books selected by them.  Special arrangements would also be made for the preservation of the rare books.  See Appendix K -Judge Hunt’s Proposition[iii]

Laura Clay, a stockholder made a motion for a five year term because of the cost of the improvements.  However, Dr. John B. Morton opposed the long term “for the fear that the negroes might make prejudice against the Library Association.”  In response, Clay stated “that it was the duty of those conducting a public library to furnish a reading room for colored people.”  James M. Duff indicated that he was opposed to any union.  The proposal was approved 57 to 5.[iv]

On April 15, 1898, the city charter was amended to establish the Board of Trustees of the Public Library.  The library would be funded from 3% of the school tax and ½ of the fines levied in Police Court.  The board included five trustees appointed by the mayor for 4 year terms.  Each trustee was required to post a $5,000 fiduciary bond.  In addition, the ordinance specified:

“Said Library shall be open and free to the public under such rules and regulations as aforesaid during reasonable and proper hours and until at least 9 o’clock at night, but said library may be closed on Sunday if deem proper.”

The mayor appointed Judge Joseph D. Hunt (President) Ida W. Harrison (Secretary), Major Henry C. McDowell, Senator Charles J. Bronston and Mary D. Short.  Upshur Berryman was also appointed Treasurer by the trustees.[v]

In May 1898, the public library was funded by $3,000 from the city and $1,500 from the school board.  These funds had accumulated over the past few years and held in the Public Library Fund.[vi]

On July 21, 1898, the city leased the Lexington Library Company’s building and collection for five years, beginning September 1, 1898.  The library company agreed that if “the institution should prove a success, then the said Library Company would make over to the Lexington Public Library, its books and properties, to be thereafter the property of the Lexington Public Library.”[vii]

On September 1, 1898, the library closed for renovations.[viii]  In November 1898, Mary K. Bullett[3] was appointed the Librarian and Mary Bullock Assistant Librarian.  The renovations were completed during December 1898.[ix]

In January 1899, Cataloger W. G. Forsythe of Boston arrived in Lexington to help catalog the library’s books.  The library adopted the Dewey Decimal Classification System.  Forsythe with the assistance of the librarians cataloged 10,000 volumes over the next three months.  An additional 2,000 volumes of reference works were not classified.  Forsythe was paid $225 for his work.[x]

In February 1899, the library received a new book plate lettered as “Founded 1796 - Free 1898 – Lexington, Ky.” The book plate was designed by Dudley Short, the oldest son of Mary D. Short, who donated 10,000 engraved copies to the library.[xi]

Lexington Public Library opened on April 10, 1899 as a free library.  The collection included 10,017 volumes.  During the first month of operations circulation was 1,004 volumes and by the end of the year 34,502 books.[xii]  During February 1900, the public library extended free service to the residents of Fayette County, after the Fiscal Court agreed to appropriate $600 annually.[xiii]

On May 18, 1901, the library opened the Children’s Room, with Florence Dillard as librarian.[xiv]

In April 1902, the library issued the following financial statement for the first four years[xv] as a free library.




City of Lexington



Police Court Fines



City Council



Fayette County



Library Company






Catalog Sales








Books & Magazines

$  5,032


Building Repairs



Furnishing & Fixtures






Fuel & Lights



Catalogue Expenses



General Expenses







$     128

$      32

In May 1902, the library reported that it had 14,278 volumes and 3,681 patrons.  Patrons were required to deposit $1.50 per book before they checked out a book.[xvi]

In 1902, the Board of Trustees consisted of Charles J. Bronston (Chairman), Eva C. Stevenson (Secretary), James M. Duff (Treasurer), F. Paul Anderson and Mary D. Short.[xvii]


[1] Short was the granddaughter of William A. Dudley, one of the early “fharer.”

[2] Charles Jacob Bronston was a prominent lawyer and politician in Lexington.  He was known as the Red Fox, due to his red hair.  He was born in Richmond, Kentucky on June 20, 1848.  During 1869, he graduated as valedictorian from Kentucky University and in 1870 from the Law School, at the University of Virginia.   He began his law career as a partner of James B. McCreary, later governor, and became a Professor at the law school at Centre College.  In 1874, he married Susan W. Hughes, daughter of William T. Hughes (who owned Elmendorf Farm).  In 1879 to 1895, he was the Commonwealth’s Attorney for Central Kentucky, in 1890-1891 a member of the Constitution Convention for the state and a state senator.  He was also the President of the Blue Grass Rapid Transit and Southern Mutual Investment Companies.  He died suddenly in April 1909.

In March 1899, Bronston was threaten by Colonel Jack Chinn in the lobby of the Capital Hotel in Frankfort.  Bronston had won a large award against Chinn.  Chinn gave Bronston ten minutes to arm himself.  Bronston quickly retrieved his pistol and returned to the lobby.  Both we then arrested before any violence.  Bronston was released and Chinn was required to post a $5,000 bond.

[3] Bullett was the former social editor of the Lexington Herald, was the leading promoter of the new “free library.”  She was described as “one of the most cultivated and refined women in Kentucky . . . .  Her mind a storehouse of knowledge and information.”  She held that post until 1911.


[i] Lexington Leader, February 10, 1897, page 6, column 5 and Lexington Herald, February 14, 1897, page 5, column 4.

[ii] Lexington Herald, February 10, 1897, page 6, column 5 and Lexington Herald, September 15, 1901, page 11, columns 3-6 and Bullett, page 18.

[iii] Lexington Leader, April 4, 1898, page 4, column 4 and Lexington Herald, May 23, 1898, page 1, column 3.

[iv] Lexington Leader, April 4, 1898, page 4, column 4 and Lexington Herald, May 23, 1898, page 1, column 3.

[v] Lexington Leader, April 16, 1898, page 5, column 3 and page 6, column 2 and April 21, 1898, page 7, column 3 and Lexington Herald, April 16, 1898, page 4, column 3.

[vi] Lexington Leader, May 22, 1898, page 4, column 1 and Lexington Herald, May 23, 1898, page 1, column 3.

[vii] Wright, pages 145-146, Kentucky Library Commission, First Biennial Report, 1910-1911, Courier Journal Job Printing Company, Louisville, 1912, page 53-54 and Wilson, page 3.

[viii] Lexington Leader, August 28, 1898, page 7, column 2.

[ix] Lexington Leader, November 30, 1898, page 5, column 4 and Lexington Herald, November 30, 1898, page 1, column 3 and December 18, 1898, page 4, column 1.

[x] Lexington Herald, January 14, 1899, page 5, column 2 and Lexington Leader, February 12, 1899, page 9, columns 1-4.

[xi] Lexington Leader, February 9, 1899, page 8, column 5.

[xii] Lexington Herald, April 8, 1899, page 5, column 6 and April 9, 1899, page 8, column 5 and Lexington Leader, April 9, 1899, page 5, column 3-4 and April 10, 1899, page 6, columns 3-4, Wright, pages 145-146, First Biennial Report, 1912, page 53-54 and Wilson, page 3.

[xiii] Lexington Leader, February 6, 1900, page 6, column 5.

[xiv] Lexington Herald, May 2, 1902, page 3, column 1.

[xv] Lexington Leader, April 4, 1902, page 6, column 4.

[xvi] Lexington Herald, May 2, 1902, page 3, column 1.

[xvii] Lexington Leader, March 29, 1902, page 6, column 3 and April 15, 1902, page 1, column 7 and Lexington Herald, April 16, 1902, page 3, column 2 and April 22, 1902, page 2, column 4.

William M. Ambrose, Lexington Public Library - Founded 1795 / Free 1898, Limestone Press, Lexington, 2012.

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