Julia Bedford Ideson, pioneer librarian and civic activist, daughter of John Castree and Rosalie (Beasman) Ideson, was born on July 15, 1880, in Hastings, Nebraska. Her father owned a bookstore in Hastings, where she and her sister, Margaret, attended the Academy of the Visitation, a Catholic convent school. The family moved to Houston, Texas, in 1892, where Ideson attended public schools and graduated from Houston High School in 1899. She then enrolled in the first program in library science offered by the University of Texas at Austin. While in college, Ideson was an assistant cataloguer in the school library, a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority and the Ashbel literary society, and served as associate editor of the University of Texas literary magazine.
After graduating from the University of Texas in 1903, and with ample recommendations from her advising professors, Ideson was appointed librarian of the new Houston Lyceum and Carnegie Library (see HOUSTON PUBLIC LIBRARY). She held this position for more than forty years and, in anticipation of Houston's rapid growth, engineered a dramatic expansion of the city's public library system. By the time of her death in 1945, the library's collection had increased from 13,228 to 265,707 volumes, and annual circulation had risen from 60,000 to 600,000. Her efforts to improve physical facilities had also resulted in the addition of five branches, a new Central Library built in Spanish Renaissance style, and the first municipal bookmobile in the state.
Julia Ideson served as secretary (1907–09) and president (1910–11) of the Texas Library Association, president of the Southwestern Library Association (1932–34), and first vice president of the American Library Association (1932–33). She served on the Legislative Committee of the Texas Library Association, where she helped to prepare an amendment to the County Library Law of 1915 and opposed a bill that would have abolished the Texas State Library in 1933. Ideson also played a central role in the establishment of the Colored Carnegie Library, Houston's first public library for African American patrons, and volunteered to train its inaugural staff in 1913. Providing library services for Blacks in the South remained one of her primary concerns and was the topic of her address at the American Library Association meeting at Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1923. She also convinced the Texas Library Association to form a special committee on penal libraries in 1925 and later served as a library consultant for the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville. Additionally, she edited multiple volumes of the Texas Library Association's Handbook of Texas Libraries.
Throughout her career, she remained an active supporter of various civic causes and organizations. As a member of the Women's Political Union, she spoke at the first open-air woman suffrage rally in Texas in 1915 and helped to arrange a reception for the visiting Emmeline Pankhurst. Like many suffragists, Ideson turned her attention to the war effort in 1917. She toured Southeast Texas and campaigned for Liberty Bonds as a member of the Harris County Women's Committee, organized a library at Camp Logan in Houston, and served eight months at the field library of Camp Pontanezen in Brest, France, as a member of the American Library Association's Library War Service. In later years she was active in such groups as the League of Women Voters, the Houston Open Forum, the Foreign Policy Association, and the Texas Interracial Commission. Her professional and civic achievements brought her recognition in 1929 as the Torchbearer of the Year and in 1932 as the first Houston woman included in Who's Who in America.
Julia Ideson died of a heart attack on July 15, 1945, while visiting a friend in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. She was interred at Hollywood Cemetery in Houston. The Central Library building, erected in 1926 and later named in her honor in 1951, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. It was subsequently renovated and reopened in 1979 to house the archives, special collections, and Texas Room of the Houston Metropolitan Research Center. Since then, the building has been designated a local, state, and national protected landmark. A new archival wing and an outdoor reading garden were added in 2010, followed by a substantial restoration and renovation effort that concluded in 2011. These efforts have made the Julia Ideson Building the architectural centerpiece of the Houston Public Library system as well as one of the most comprehensive urban history archives in the United States.