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Tales from the Dallas History Archives: The J. Erik Jonsson Central Library Turns 40

Downtown’s Central Library celebrates 40 years since it opened. The facility was the only major library in the world to have its entire card catalog on a computer.
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From the Dallas Public Library Archive Collection, Dallas Public Library

Tales from the Dallas History Archives: The J. Erik Jonsson Central Library Turns 40

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Dallas has been in the national spotlight many times, but this month marks the 40th anniversary of one such shining moment that continues to impact the city: the opening of the Central Library building on the corner of Young and Ervay. 

Though the dedication occurred on April 18, 1982, the building owes its existence to a legacy that reaches back to 1901 with the opening of the original Dallas Public Library, a single building funded in part by Andrew Carnegie and numerous civic-minded Dallas residents.

The Carnegie Library building served as the hub of a growing library system that saw branches built in various parts of Dallas in the decades that followed. After 53 years of service, the deteriorated and overcrowded Carnegie Library, which was located at Commerce and Harwood, was torn down. A six-story Central Library building designed by architect George Dahl was built in its place.

However, by the 1970s, the Commerce Library was overloaded and under-equipped for the emerging technology of the time. A bond election in 1972 included the preliminary design funds. The City Council soon approved a 114,000-square-foot site at Young and Ervay across from Dallas City Hall to be the location for the future library. Fisher and Spillman Architects Inc. were selected and worked on a design to complement City Hall’s brutalist architecture style.

The journey to make this new site a reality was over a decade in the making, a large part of which is thanks to people like Library Director Lillian Bradshaw. She was an outspoken advocate and visionary for the library.  Another pivotal figure was Texas Instruments co-founder J. Erik Jonsson, who served as mayor from 1964 to 1971. 

Jonsson proposed plans for a new civic center for Dallas, including a new City Hall, other civic facilities, and a new Central Library during his term. He led fundraising efforts by co-chairing the Citizens Committee for the New Central Library. Bond elections in 1975 and 1978, along with a federal grant and private donations, eventually secured the needed funds. With the help of Elvis L. Mason, Jonsson led a public-private partnership campaign and raised $42.7 million for the state-of-the-art facility. (This would be over $200 million in today’s dollars.)

Texas Instruments donated 80 new computer terminals that allowed public access to a new computerized catalog system. Upon opening, the Central Research Library was said to be the only major library in the world to have its entire card catalog on computer.

Jonsson’s efforts would later be honored when the Central Research Library was renamed the J. Erik Jonsson Central Library in 1986.

To celebrate this Central Library’s “40th birthday,” the Dallas History and Archives Division on the 7th floor has an exhibit focusing on the building’s beginnings. The exhibit will run from April to September 30, 2022.

On display are a number of pivotal images as well as unique artifacts, from the yellow hard hat worn by Lillian Bradshaw at the groundbreaking ceremony, to architectural renderings, to a specially-designed, commemorative photograph case that is one of a limited number given in appreciation to the major donors and leaders in the drive for private financing.

The commemorative case contains letters penned from Mayors Robert Folsom, who served 1976-1981, and Jack Evans, elected in 1981, that informed the recipients of the Library project’s progress. Also included are reports detailing milestones from Dallas City Managers George Schrader, who served 1973-1981, and Charles Anderson, who took over the position in 1981, along with 26 progression photographs of the Central Library.

The following 26 photographs range from a 1976 architectural rendering to the completed building and dedication in April 1982. Take a look in the gallery.

Brandon Murray, a librarian and archivist in the Dallas Public Library’s Dallas History & Archives Division, writes about North Texas history for D Magazine. See more of this series here.

The Dallas Public Library has many other images related to life in Dallas in years past. You can learn more by searching through the library’s online catalog. Go to “Advanced” and use the “Limit By” option to select “Digital Archive” then type in your topic. 

Contact Dallas History & Archives Division at Dallas Public Library at (214) 670-1435 or email [email protected] with questions about the many fascinating photographic resources available.


Brandon Murray

Brandon Murray

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Brandon Murray is a librarian and archivist in the Dallas Public Library’s Dallas History & Archives Division. He writes about…