In 1897, the Tennessee General Assembly passed the Library Law, which authorized cities of 20,000 or more to establish and maintain free public libraries and reading rooms. Before that time, city governments had no authority to use tax money to support libraries. Nashville's first public library was the Howard Library, established in 1898. The City of Nashville, acting under the provisions of the Library Law, appropriated $2,500 for the Howard Library.
By 1899, the Howard Library was circulating books, but borrowing was not free like it is today. Patrons of the library had to purchase a "reader's card" for $2. In 1901, the city increased the appropriation for the Howard Library to $5,000. The reader's card fee was abolished, making Howard Library the first free circulating library in Nashville.
In 1901, Andrew Carnegie offered to donate $100,000 to Nashville for a new library building if the city would appropriate $10,000 a year for its maintenance. Nashville accepted the terms of Carnegie's donation and the charter for Carnegie Library of Nashville was granted. On April 27, 1903, the cornerstone was laid for Carnegie building.
1904 - Carnegie Library of Nashville opens to the public at 225 Polk Ave. on September 19.
1905 - Children's Story Hour begins.
1912 - Carnegie donates $50,000 for two new branch library buildings.
1914 - South Branch Library was opened in the old Montgomery Bell Academy Building at South Park.
1915 - North Branch Library opens at the southwest corner of Monroe Street and 10th Avenue.
1916 - Negro Branch Library opens at 12th and Hines Avenue.
1919 - East Nashville Branch opens at the junction of Main and 11th Streets. Carnegie donates $25,000 for the building. Nashville agrees to appropriate $2,500 for maintenance.
1931 - Business Branch of library established in old Chamber of Commerce Building.
1933 - Library budget cut from $55,000 to $45,000 during depression.
1934 - Library budget cut from $45,000 to $35,000 because of depression. Name changes to Nashville Public Library.
1938 - Tom Tichenor's first marionette show Puss in Boots premiers on November 19.
1941 - State Library Project furnishes a bookmobile which makes weekly demonstration rounds through Davidson County.
1942 - South Branch Library burns, destroying 6,000 books.
1947 - Bookmobile service starts and Young Moderns Department for teen-agers opens.
1948 - Music Department established. The 12th and Hines Branch, no longer conveniently located for its patrons, is sold.
1949 - Bookmobile service extends to all the city population. Sound films added to the library collection.
1949 - Library begins lending 16mm films on July 23.
1950 - Nashville Public Library begins free service to county patrons, who had previously paid $2 for a book card.
1950 - Main Library quietly desegregated.
1951 - Library begins lending fine art prints.
1952 - A new branch building is constructed at the entrance of Hadley Park and is named the Hadley Park branch.
1953 - Business Information Service begins. Booketerias, small self-service collections, are set up in supermarkets.
1956 - Bookmobile service extends to county patrons.
1957 - Friends of the Nashville Public Library organizes on December 6.
1958 - Business Branch created in the new Chamber of Commerce Building.
1959 - Nashville Public Library formally turned over to the city.
1961 - Richland Park Branch on Charlotte Avenue opens.
1961 - On September 16, City Council approves building of new Main library and five new branches at a cost of $2.5 million.
1962 - Nashville Public Library opens the first branch library reading room ever to be established in a Municipal Airport. WPLN (FM), the broadcasting service of the Nashville Public Library, goes on the air.
1962 - WPLN’s first broadcast airs on December 16. WPLN becomes independent of library in 1996.
1963 - Nashville Public Library is a part of the General Service Area under new Metropolitan Government. Central Library moves to temporary quarters at 161 8th Avenue North. New Main Library building starts. New Bookmobile unit placed in operation from Hadley Park Branch.
1964 - Two lots purchased for the construction of two additional branch buildings; one on Lebanon Road in Donelson and one at 12th Avenue South and Horton Street. Nashville Library System takes over the operation of the Old Hickory and Goodlettsville Community Libraries as branches.
1965 - Thompson Lane Branch opens, bringing the number of branch libraries to seven.
1966 - On January 16 a new Main Public Library, the Public Library of Nashville and Davidson County, opens. New Library costs $1.9 million.
1966 - Donelson Branch opens.
1968 - Edgehill Branch opens.
1969 - Green Hills and Inglewood Branches open.
1970 - On October 21, the Library Board approves wearing of pant suits by women staff with stipulations.
1976 - Looby and Bordeaux Branches open.
1977 - Margaret Ann Robinson joins the Library Board.
1977 - Madison Branch opens.
1977 - On June 5, Main Library named for Ben West.
1984 - Bellevue Branch opens.
1986 - Metro Archives opens.
1986 - Margaret Ann Robinson becomes Library Board Chair, a position she holds until 2011.
1992 - Southeast Branch opens.
1993 - Pruitt Branch opens. A new addition will be added in 1998.
1995 - Hadley Park Branch is completely renovated, doubling in size.
June 24, 1997 - Metro Council approves building of new Main Library and five new branches. Cost $98 million.
April 30, 2000 - East Branch reopens after complete restoration of historic Carnegie building.
May 13, 2000 - New Bordeaux Branch opens.
August 5, 2000 - New Madison Branch opens.
August 26, 2000 - Hermitage Branch opens as a part of a grouping of community center, playground, and police station.
October 28, 2000 - New Green Hills Branch opens.
December 20, 2000 - Edmondson Pike Branch opens.
March 10, 2001 - Renovated Edgehill Branch reopens.
March 15, 2001 - Renovated Thompson Lane Branch reopens.
June 9, 2001 - The new 300,000 sq. ft. Main Library opens to the public at 615 Church St. Building designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects.
2010 - Nashville Public Library is awarded the National Medal for Museum and Library Science.
2011 - New Goodlettsville Branch Library opens to the public. At 16,000 square feet, the state-of-the-art facility is four times the size of the old library at Brick Church Pike.
2014 - New Southeast Branch opens.
2015 - New Bellevue Branch Library opens.
2016 - Renovated Edmondson Pike reopens.
2017 - Nashville Public Library named Library of the Year by Library Journal and Gale.
2018 - Renovated Madison Branch reopens.