The following library history was compiled over the years by various Reference Librarians and based partially on an article published in the Valley Town Crier in November, 1982; “A Terse History of the McAllen Memorial Library."
Given our impressive current main library, the humble origins of the McAllen Public Library might surprise you. In 1928 the city commission was petitioned by the citizenry to call for a bond issue of $25,000 to construct a library building, but the bond issue failed. The McAllen Study Club and its president Mrs. W.H. Moon took up the idea of beginning a library in 1932. The group solicited book donations from city residents. As a subscription library, memberships were sold to interested citizens for either 50 cents or the donation of a “good” book to the library's collection. The Chamber of Commerce allowed a room of their building to house the library. Miss Eleanor Hambrick was the first volunteer librarian; the first cataloguer was Mrs. W.C. Stewart, another volunteer.
Club members put much energy into preparing for the library's opening, which was held on November 12, 1932. It was a “brisk” first day: 300 membership cards were issued. The fledgling library had only 60 books and was open only on Saturdays. However, the collection grew rapidly, fueled by donations from the public. Even within the first week of operation, 200 additional books were donated and a call went out for more book cases to hold them. Within a month's time, there were 400 members and 1,144 volumes available to them. As was typical of subscription libraries at the time, there were restrictions on how much an individual could borrow and who could belong to the library. At the beginning, members were allowed to take out only one book at a time, keep it for one week and renew it for one additional week. No students or children were allowed to join. Overdue fines were 10 cents per week.
By 1934, the rapidly growing library moved to a room within the First Baptist Church on Beech Avenue. Two years later, in 1936, it moved to the basement of the Archer Park Bandstand. By then, the collection had grown considerably to 2,575 volumes. Additional days of operation were added, so that members could use it Mondays, Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. It began to be open daily in 1939. By that time, 1,823 members used the collection of 4,429 volumes. The library was popular and growing to the point that a new, larger location was needed.
In 1944, the library petitioned for municipal status with the understanding that the city would oversee its operation but without investing any money in it. Many fund-raising drives were held, with the goal of $65,000 for a library building to be constructed. Years were needed to raise enough money, perhaps due to it being wartime (World War II). Meanwhile, the Archer Park Bandstand had become overcrowded with materials and part of the book collection was placed into storage.
By 1949, enough funds had been raised to select land for purchase. The former main library at 600 N. Main Street was purchased for $10,000 from Pete Bonneau. Construction began late that year, as fund-raising continued. The architect was Zeb Rike and construction was by Marchant Brothers of Mercedes. The price of construction: $23,751. Because the citizenry had not been able to raise the entire cost, the balance was financed through city taxes.
The McAllen Memorial Library was dedicated and opened for operation on May 28, 1950. It was meant to be a memorial to McAllenites who served and died in World War II. The Children's Department was housed in the original part of the building. Over the years, additions were made to that original structure, including a second floor mezzanine and third floor for administrative offices. The total size of the building was approximately 34,000 square feet. Two smaller branch libraries, the Palm View Branch Library at 3401 Jordan Avenue in south McAllen and the Lark Branch Library at 2601 Lark Avenue in north McAllen opened their doors for business in January 2001. Each is housed within the community center bearing the same name, Palm View and Lark. The community centers are approximately 31,500 square feet each; the branch libraries each occupy approximately 11,000 square feet within the community centers.
Over the years, the community and the library finally outgrew the Main Street location. In December 2011, after much planning and hard work, the library finally moved to a new location in a redesigned former Walmart on the corner of Nolana and 23rd Street. The former Walmart building was abandoned and listed for sale, and the City of McAllen recognized what huge potential it had as a new library. It was designed by the Meyer Scherer & Rockcastle architectural firm and is the largest single-story library in the United States, covering 123,000 square feet, or 2 1/2 football fields. The building is an environmentally sustainable design with elements that symbolize movement, migration, and local wildlife. The collection and staff have grown also, to a system-wide total of over 376,310 items and 90 full and part-time staff members. In the new library's first month of operation, new patron registration for library cards increased 23 times from the same period the year before.
From its modest beginnings in borrowed space, the McAllen Public Library system has grown to include three branches, the Main branch of which has made national news for its innovative design and repurposing. We expect that the library will continue to build on its historic foundations and be a strong and valuable community resource to the people of McAllen and the rest of the Rio Grande Valley.