Libraries could be found in Modesto as early as 1884 with a series of free reading rooms. In 1905 the Rodgers Free Reading Room merged with a reading room sponsored by the Women’s Improvement Club of Modesto to form the Modesto City Library. The library was funded by $120 from taxation and $1,000 from fees on the town’s pool hall operators. Oramil McHenry’s 1906 bequest of $20,000 and partial ownership of three downtown properties led to the building of the Modesto Library (aka McHenry Library or McHenry Memorial Library) at 14th and I Streets. That library opened on April 29, 1912.
A spacious facility at the time, by the ‘20s the library had outgrown the space. A $30,000 addition was completed in 1927-28. Modesto’s population grew from 4,034 residents in 1910 to 9,241 in 1920 and just kept increasing. It tripled from 1950 to 1970 when the population reached 61,712.
The county purchased a bookmobile in 1951 to provide book access to more people and improvements were constantly being made to the McHenry Library and its services, including a drive-up book return, film usage and the rental of long-play records (LPs, remember those!). But there just wasn’t room to expand the physical footprint of the McHenry Library.
FOML Co-President Pat Glattke recalls that the April 19, 1970 groundbreaking coincided with Modesto’s 100th anniversary. The new library was funded through a federal revenue sharing program. At that time, and up until the library sales tax began in 1994, each city in the county contributed to branches located in their city. The city joined the county library system in 1911, left it in 1954 and rejoined in the mid-60s. The City of Modesto raised the funds for the new library building and then turned over it and all library services to the County. However, the parking lot remained city property.