Photos by Fred Asbury
Cossitt was born an orphan in Granby, Connecticut, in 1811. An uncle adopted him and took the young Cossitt under his wing as an apprentice at the dry-goods trade, and soon the pair were partners. Cossitt and his uncle moved their business to the rough frontier town of Memphis in 1842. By the early 1850s, he was gone. He retained operations here for some years afterward, but made his home back up north in New Jersey and subsequently New York, never returning to Memphis permanently. But those 12 years of business in Memphis were very good to Cossitt. In addition to dry-goods wholesaling, he branched out into real estate, contributing to the commercial development of Main and Front Streets and adding to his increasing wealth. He vowed to return the favor to the city that gave him his start financially. Cossitt died on a business trip to Europe in 1887, but not before relaying his wishes to his friend Carrington Mason to build a public library for Memphis.
oldest library of which anything is known is said to have been founded
in Memphis, on the Nile, by the Egyptian ruler, Osymandyas, of the 12th
dynasty, or about 4,000 years ago. "
-Jeremiah Clapp, at the dedication of the Cossitt Library, April 12th, 1893.
Colorized postcard courtesy of the Memphis/Shelby County Public Library and Information Center.
His gift couldn't have come at a better time. Between 1890 and 1900, the city's population exploded by 59 percent, yet beside a few private reading rooms, Memphis still had no public library system (or many other cultural amenities, for that matter.) Mason set to work trying to pry the money out of the hands of Cossitt's three daughters, each of whom begrudgingly gave $25,000 toward the construction fund. It wasn't much of a gesture, considering one of the daughters was the wife of Augustus D. Juilliard who, a few years later, would donate $12 million to found the Juilliard School for the Arts in New York. Area businesses couldn't come up with much more. Union Planters bank, for instance, donated just $75. Still, it was a start. Atlanta architect M. L. B. Wheeler was commissioned to design the new building.
In spite of the project's paltry budget, Wheeler created a small but impressive-looking Romanesque monument like nothing ever seen in Memphis. Built on the public Promenade next to the U.S. Customs House, the Cossitt Library's red sandstone turret towered above Memphis's young skyline and signified that culture and learning had finally arrived in town, sort of. After all the fanfare at its dedication, the new library stood empty for a year because there wasn't enough money in the budget to buy any books. So the Memphis Commercial and the Memphis Daily Appeal, separate newspapers back then, began a campaign asking the public for books. It worked. The shelves filled up, and in five years circulation at the Cossitt Library reached 150 books a day.
The old Romanesque style Cossitt Library graced Front Street for many years before it was torn down and replaced with a modern building in 1958.A few years later the library came under the direction of its second head librarian, Charles Dutton Johnson. In 1903 Johnson managed to successfully lobby the city for a property tax of three cents per $100 assessed value to pay for library acquisitions and expansions. He also began renting out storefronts around the city, instituting the first branch locations. The library system was soon put on the back burner, however, and further expansion hit a plateau for about the next 50 years, until E. H. "Boss" Crump decided to make the outdated library system his top priority around 1950 (Crump had been running things for40 years already.). "Jesse, are you running the best library in the South?" he asked head librarian Jesse Cunningham after unexpectedly asking him to come to his office. When Cunningham replied with the truth ("No"), Crump flexed his political muscles and pushed through funding to build the Highland Branch Library in 1950. It was the system's first branch built specifically as a library, rather than operating out of a rented storefront. Above the door on the Highland side, a concrete plaque still reads "Cossitt Library." Suddenly, between 1951 and 1968, the library system was awash in money. A new main library building went up at the corner of Peabody and McLean in 1955. Thirteen more branches followed:
South (1961, addition 1968)
White Station (1964)
Parkway Village (1966)
All the locations that went
up during the building boom are still in service, and many have undergone
extensive renovation. The population center of the city had moved far
beyond Front Street to far-flung bedroom communities across the county
after World War II. By constructing numerous branches in these new areas,
the library adapted to the commuter lifestyle and attempted to serve the
But most recent changes to the library system have been for the better. In 1960, the historically segregated library was forced to change its Jim Crow policies after a series of sit-ins. The first black branches were only in schools, established by head librarian Charles Dutton Johnson way back in 1903, a notable action at a time before blacks had access to any library. He placed the first of these black-only branches at LeMoyne Institute (now known as LeMoyne-Owen College). The first stand-alone black branches came in the 1920's. But the separate-but (hardly) equal policy wouldn't fly in the 1960s. Desegregation took full effect in 1961.
That same year, the venerable Goodwyn Institute, a sort of society of higher learning founded around the turn of the century, disbanded and merged its library with the Memphis and Shelby County Public Library, as it was now called. The merger greatly increased the library's collection.
It took until 1980 for computers to begin replacing the old card checkout system, but the network was so poorly designed it had to be replaced in 1986. That was also about the time the card catalog went extinct, replaced by a computerized system. The Cherokee Branch was the first to offer a public-use computer, a Commodore VIC-20, in 1983.
The library system itself, by City Council edict, became known as the Memphis and Shelby County Public Library and Information Center --quite a mouthful, but the name describes the library's new role as a complete source of information of all formats. By the 1980s, the old Main Branch in Midtown had become grossly inadequate. It had been enlarged with a large new addition on its east side, but the result was an architectural mess inside. The addition itself was outmoded and retired in 2001, when the new Central Library at Poplar near Tillman opened its doors to the public. The Central Library, designed by the prolific Memphis architect Frank Ricks, was greeted with general praise for its more organized layout, but also got some public derision. In one of the more humorous news events of the year, protestors staged a vigil in front of the library complaining about the inclusion of a quote by Karl Marx inscribed on the artpiece on the front sidewalk. But attendance has increased dramatically, and by that measure, the facility is a success. The old Main Branch, on the other hand, was unceremoniously flattened for a new infill housing development.
Today 23 branches comprise the Memphis and Shelby County Public Library and Information Center, which has a yearly circulation of more than 3.3 million books. That means daily circulation is now around 11,000 books per day, up from the Cossitt's total of 150 in 1895.
And it all began with an unexpected gift from a man who only lived in the city for a decade or so more than 100 years ago, proving that a little Southern hospitality may go a long way.