The Houston Public Library began with the efforts of a group of Houstonians to develop organizations similar to Benjamin Franklin's Philadelphia subscription library, Junto, and the American Philosophical Society. Local interest, starting in 1837, succeeded in producing a debating society, a circulating library and reading room, a mechanics'-institute lyceum, and the first Houston Lyceum, chartered in 1848, all prior to the current institution. The Houston Public Library traces its beginnings directly to the organization of a second Houston Lyceum on May 27, 1854, and the establishment of its library with a collection of fewer than 100 volumes. Andrew Daly was the probable author of the first constitution and bylaws for the society that oversaw the originally private institution. Lectures and debates began in 1854, and gifts from Sam Houston and others increased the collection to 760 volumes by 1857. During the Civil War, lawyer Decimus et Ultimus Barziza housed the collection, and after the war the society assumed a new identity as its professional membership increased. New quarters were obtained in 1877, when the Lyceum acquired the library of the Houston Academy and moved into its building. It remained there until 1878, when it moved to the Market House of City Hall with a collection of nearly 2,400 volumes, including periodicals. Musical and literary entertainments, begun in the 1870s, led to the founding of the Apollo Club, which in 1882 became the basis for the library's music department. The Lyceum had 210 members by 1881, and women became voting members of the society for the first time in 1887. Between 1887 and 1904, however, the library and society became separate institutions.
William Marsh Rice's donation of $200,000 in 1892 for a public institution led to efforts by Houston women's clubs and local government to initiate the development of a free public library. The library opened to all users for a fee in 1895; Margaret Hadley Foster, a former Ladies Reading Club staff member became the Lyceum's first librarian. In 1897 the library moved to the Mason Building. City appropriations for acquisitions and a free public reading room for all citizens began in 1899, when Andrew Carnegie agreed to donate $50,000 for a new building (see CARNEGIE LIBRARIES). Chartered in August 1900, the Houston Lyceum and Carnegie Library Association, with the help of the newly formed City Federation of Women's Clubs, raised funds to purchase an appropriate site. In that year the institution incorporated and selected a board of trustees. The city's first central public library opened in 1904 in an Italian Renaissance building in downtown Houston, at the site of the former Thomas M. Bagby residence, and was renamed Houston Public Library at a board of trustees meeting on October 11, 1921. The Carnegie building was replaced in 1926 by a new central library building designed in the Spanish Revival style by architect Ralph Adams Cram of Cram and Ferguson, Boston; the library was subsequently named for librarian Julia B. Ideson, who first oversaw the 14,000-volume collection and who remained with the institution for its next forty-one years. The first two permanent branch libraries were opened in 1925 and 1926. Library use was desegregated in 1953, one year before the Supreme Court decision on the issue.
In 1976 a new six-story gray granite building, designed by S. I. Morris Associates on the block across the plaza to the west from the Ideson building, replaced the former central library. In 1977 the Ideson building was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1979 it reopened as the Houston Metropolitan Research Center, which houses the library's Texas and local history collection, archives and manuscripts, and special collections. In 1989 the 1976 structure was named the Jesse Jones Building. By 1990 the Houston Public Library system had grown to thirty-three branches. The collection contained almost 4,000,000 volumes, 1.6 million microforms, 679,000 government documents, and 130,000 films and audiovisual items.