Libraries serve an important role in offering Arkansas’s citizens access to information and resources. Various types of libraries exist in Arkansas, including public libraries open to all citizens, school libraries that serve primary and secondary schools, academic libraries that support colleges and universities, and special libraries that fill unique roles.

The earliest libraries in what became Arkansas were private collections of books owned by French and Spanish settlers in the Arkansas Post area. Due to the difficulty of bringing books from Europe, these collections typically consisted of only a small number of volumes.

After the purchase of the Louisiana Territory by the United States, the area that would become Arkansas began to attract more settlers. As additional people moved into the state, settlements began to grow. Private libraries continued to expand in the state, and books were often borrowed by neighbors and other citizens. Albert Pike owned an expansive private library and lent books to friends, leading him to publish a column in a local newspaper calling for their return. Men studying to become lawyers typically utilized the law libraries of attorneys in the state to prepare for admission to the bar. For example, Patrick Cleburne used the law library owned by the Hanley and Alexander Law Firm in Helena (Phillips County) to study for his bar examination. An early lending library created by William Woodruff in Little Rock (Pulaski County) began operations in August 1843. The library was open to the public, and membership cost patrons two dollars annually. The library operated at least until Little Rock fell to Federal forces in 1863 during the Civil War. When a fire broke out in a nearby building, efforts to save the books led to their placement on the street, where nearby Union soldiers claimed at least some of the collection.

The early twentieth century saw a boom in the founding and building of public libraries across the United States, including in Arkansas. Women’s groups across the state were instrumental in founding these libraries. While many of these groups were literary organizations or established solely to create a library, some were women’s clubs with broader missions. The first library established in the state by a women’s group was in Hot Springs (Garland County) in 1881 when the Woman’s Christian National Library Association began operations. Between 1881 and 1990, sixty-four libraries were created by women’s groups across the state.

The Arkansas General Assembly passed a bill in 1903 allowing cities to collect a 0.25 mill in taxes on real and personal property, and the law was expanded in 1904 to extend the collection to support libraries. Funded by grants from the Carnegie Foundation, four libraries were constructed in the state between 1906 and 1915. By 2021, the Carnegie libraries in Morrilton (Conway County) and Eureka Springs (Carroll County) continued to operate as libraries, while the Carnegie library in Fort Smith (Sebastian County) housed a television station; the Little Rock Public Library was demolished in 1963. The columns from Little Rock’s Carnegie library were installed in front of the Main Library of the Central Arkansas Library System (CALS) in 2009.

Limited library access for African Americans existed across the state from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. Early public libraries in the state were segregated, as were most public facilities, but sometimes African Americans could access private libraries owned by whites; Scipio Jones, for example, read law in the offices of several judges in Little Rock before passing the state bar examination in 1889. Several efforts to start libraries for African Americans in Little Rock in the late nineteenth century were unsuccessful. A branch of what later became CALS serving the African-American community opened on 9th Street in Little Rock in 1917. One library assistant worked in the branch, which held about 1,200 books when it opened. The Little Rock Public Library Board of Trustees received advice from a three-member elected advisory board of African Americans. Moving to West 16th Street in 1941, the branch (later named after Helen Booker Ivey) continued to operate through the 1960s, joined by other library services for African Americans across the state. Widespread library access for African Americans in the state did not become a reality until the 1960s and 1970s with the desegregation of public libraries in Arkansas.

The State of Arkansas began supporting library operations in 1921 with the creation of the Free Library Service Bureau as part of the Arkansas Department of Education, with operations beginning in 1923 when the bureau first received an appropriation. This department worked with counties and cities to create libraries across the state. Some efforts were made for the bureau to work with school libraries, and a grant from the Julius Rosenwald Fund in 1930 to support operations expanded the reach of the bureau. The Arkansas General Assembly did not appropriate any funding for the bureau after 1933, leading to its closure at the end of June.

Created by the Arkansas General Assembly in 1935, the Arkansas Library Commission first received funding in the 1937 biennial session. Tasked with distributing library funding, providing guidance for librarians and governing boards, and encouraging the establishment of additional libraries, the commission operated as an independent body until the 1971 reorganization of state government, which saw it placed in the Department of Education. In 1979, the General Assembly established the Arkansas State Library and abolished the Library Commission.

Governed by the State Library Board, the Arkansas State Library is led by the state librarian. Required to hold a graduate degree accredited by the American Library Association, the state librarian manages the daily operations of the state library. Continuing to support local libraries across Arkansas, the State Library also serves as a centralized library with multiple collections. Items in the library include collections on Arkansas, reference materials, and government documents. The library also includes the Arkansas Regional Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. The State Library Board includes seven members appointed by the governor, with the state librarian serving as the secretary for the group.

School libraries play an important role in connecting children to information resources. Early school libraries in Arkansas often included small collections of books stored in the corner of the classroom. School consolidation efforts in 1929 led to the creation of larger schools and, in turn, larger school libraries. Many children in Arkansas first experience library services when visiting their school library. The Arkansas Association of School Librarians, a division of the Arkansas Library Association (ArLA), represents school librarians in the state.

Higher education institutions across the state include library resources on their campuses. Early colleges in the state had small collections of books for the use of students and faculty but did not operate in the same manner as modern libraries. Collections were often haphazardly gathered with little attention to detail, and a librarian was rarely dedicated to the library full time. Colleges that opened in the nineteenth century often began operations without a library collection.

The University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) opened in 1872 without a library. By the next year, 137 books for student use were purchased, and in 1874, a total of $350 for the purchase of library materials was appropriated. Students supervised early operations of the library, a duty later assumed by faculty members until the employment of a full-time librarian in 1894. The collection expanded over the decades, and trained librarians began to be employed by the university to turn the library into a research facility.

The regional agricultural schools that were established in 1909, which developed into junior colleges and later into universities, each added libraries as the curriculum expanded. These regional schools are today known as Arkansas State University (ASU), Arkansas Tech University, Southern Arkansas University (SAU), and the University of Arkansas at Monticello (UAM). The initial holdings of these libraries included government documents and agricultural bulletins, collected to support the mission of the institutions. As the missions of the schools expanded and college-level coursework was added, the libraries likewise grew.

Arkadelphia Methodist College began operations in 1890, and all faculty members were required to subscribe to a professional journal in their field and place those titles in the college library. The library grew with the addition of a librarian the following year. Further expansions of the library came when the institution was transferred to state control as Henderson State Teachers College in 1929.

In the twenty-first century, all colleges and universities in the state operate libraries to support student learning and faculty research. Many of these libraries also offer some services to the general public.

The Arkansas Library Association (ArLA) is a statewide organization created in 1911 to support libraries and library staff. Organized in Little Rock, the organization originally focused on supporting public libraries and increasing funding levels at those institutions. Over the next several decades, other libraries and librarians gained membership. A newsletter began to be published in 1925, and it evolved into Arkansas Libraries, a quarterly journal focused on library issues in the state. The original Arkansas Libraries was published by the Free Library Service Bureau between 1930 and 1933.

ArLA works with librarians and libraries across the state to offer professional development opportunities. Hosting an annual conference, publishing Arkansas Libraries, and supporting Arkansans pursuing graduate degrees in library science, the organization continues to be active in the twenty-first century.

ARKLink is a consortium of more than fifty academic libraries in the state that work together to obtain electronic databases. It began as part of the College and University Library Division of ArLA but was established as a distinct organization in 1998. Libraries pay dues to the organization, which meets regularly to make group purchasing decisions. The consortium also allows patrons from member libraries to borrow materials from other member libraries using a library card issued by ARKLink.

In addition to public, academic, and school libraries, several special libraries have existed in Arkansas, including the Arkansas Supreme Court Library and the library at Historic Washington State Park. Housed in the Walters Community Support Center, the Base Library serves the residents of Little Rock Air Force Base. The National Center for Toxicological Research in Jefferson (Jefferson County) includes a library to support the research conducted at the facility. The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) has included a library since at least 1890, when an announcement of the new building in Little Rock mentioned the facility. The library expanded over the decades as the college grew and moved to new locations in Little Rock. The library began serving not only UAMS but also healthcare professionals across the state. The volunteer-staffed Women’s Library opened in 1982 in Fayetteville. The library offered materials related to women’s rights and self-education, and patrons who paid a membership fee were allowed to borrow materials. The library closed in 2000, and the collection and related materials were donated to the University of Arkansas Libraries Special Collections.

One example of a special library operated by a public library system in the state is the Hillary Rodham Clinton Children’s Library & Learning Center, part of CALS. The library offers not only traditional library resources for children and their families, but also a greenhouse and teaching garden, a teaching kitchen, and walking paths, among other unique offerings. The Bobby L. Roberts Library of Arkansas History & Art, also part of CALS, contains resources related to the history and culture of the state, including archival and art collections.

Training for school librarians is offered at three universities in the state: Arkansas Tech University, the University of Central Arkansas, and Southern Arkansas University. The University of Arkansas at Little Rock offered a Master of Library Science degree for a period in the 1980s, but no degrees accredited by the American Library Association have ever been offered in Arkansas.

Public libraries serve patrons in every county of the state as of 2021. Operating under a variety of governing structures with support from cities, counties, and the state, public library resources are available to almost every citizen. Several regional public library systems exist in the state to share resources.

For additional information:
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David Sesser
Henderson State University

Last Updated: 02/27/2021