Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives

Agency History

History of the Kentucky Department for Libraries & Archives​

​​In November 1935 Kentuckians went to the polls in record numbers to elect young populist Albert Benjamin “Happy” Chandler as Kentucky’s 41st governor. Chandler’s landslide provided a strong mandate for reform. Only 83 days into his term, Chandler called the legislature into special session to enact the most sweeping reorganization in the history of Kentucky’s state government, cutting the number of departments from 26 to 9. Cha​ndler told Kentuckians that his plan would reduce cost and increase efficiency while giving “the Governor a chance to be a good Governor” (Chandler). Quickly passed by the General Assembly, the reorganization brought together the library and archives functions of state government for the first time in the same department.

The new Department of Library and Archives included the Library Extension Division, the Legislative and Law Library, and the Kentucky Historical Society. The Library Extension Division replaced the Kentucky Library Commission and was responsible for developing statewide library service (Acts 1936 38-40).

While the major functions now performed by the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives were first united in 1936, archives and records management, the state library, and public library development originated in state government much earlier.

Archives and Records Management

The oldest of the functions now performed by KDLA, archives and records management, was necessary as a foundation for government. From Kentucky’s beginning in 1792, the Secretary of State was responsible for keeping papers of the governors and legislative records while state government agencies were responsible for records they created. As a result, records were in constant peril from fire, water, and negligent office holders. Major fires in 1813, 1824, and 1825 consumed large quantities of records. Early in the history of the Commonwealth, the lack of records management became problematic. In his message to the Legislature in 1833, Gov. John Breathitt noted that in “looking into the archives of the state, I regret that many important documents in relation to the political history of the Commonwealth are not to be found” (Journal of the House 1833 28).

In spite of these concerns, little progress was made in records management during the antebellum period. In 1862 it became necessary for the General Assembly to authorize the Governor to remove the public archives and documents from Frankfort for protection from the advancing Confederate army (Acts 1861 325). The papers were taken to Louisville for safekeeping (Cotterill 48). Though protected from the Confederates, many of the papers were consumed by a fire in the state’s offices in 1865 (Levstik 2).

The surviving documents remained at risk. In 1881 Gov. Luke P. Blackburn described the state archives as “neglected” and the collection “a ponderous mass of confused and useless manuscripts.” A solution would “require several years of faithful and competent labor to reduce them to order” (Journal of the Regular Session of the Senate 1881 656-7). Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Legislature struggled with the appropriate method for managing important state papers, shifting them between the Secretary of State, the State Library, and the Kentucky Historical Society at various times.

Transfer of records from the old Capitol and nearby offices to the new Capitol in 1910 brought better protection from the elements, but organization remained essentially non-existent. A survey by the American Historical Association showed that Kentucky’s records remained in danger due mainly to the indifference of public officials (Levstik 3). The situation began to change with the election of Kentucky’s first female Secretary of State – and former State Librarian – Emma Guy Cromwell. Upon taking office in 1924 Mrs. Cromwell found documents “piled in all sorts of grotesque heaps” in the basement of the Capitol. Vandals had destroyed many documents by stripping stamps that had been affixed. The Secretary of State’s staff aided by two men from the state Reformatory spent two years arranging the documents in order after which they were returned to the Old State Capitol for keeping by the Kentucky Historical Society (Cromwell 120-1).


State Library

The State Library was first created in 1809 when the General Assembly instructed the Secretary of State to bind a set of federal and state laws and the journals of both houses of the legislature. Laws of other states and territories were to be acquired. The Secretary of State was to be responsible for these books (The Statute Law of Kentucky 65).

In November 1820 the General Assembly adopted “An Act to Establish a Public Library in the Seat of Government.” The Secretary of State was authorized to sell copies of the decisions of the Court of Appeals, Acts of the Assembly and other books with the proceeds to be used to “purchase such other Books, Charts or Maps, as they may think proper.” These materials were for the use of the officers of government and members of the Legislature, Judges of the Court of Appeals and general court (Acts twenty ninth General Assembly 25-26). Unfortunately the State Capitol was consumed by fire on Nov. 4, 1824, destroying all the books that had been collected by the Secretary of State.

By 1833 a new Capitol had been built with the library being located in two small rooms on the second floor. The need for control of the collection prompted the General Assembly to provide for a Librarian of the State to be elected annually by the Legislature. Duties of the Librarian included keeping the library in order, preserving and arranging books and maps belonging to the state, noting all books taken and causing them to be duly returned, annually reporting to the Legislature, and “in all respects perform the duty of librarian.” The sum of $500 was appropriated for purchase of books (Acts of the forty first General Assembly 109). George A. Robertson was unanimously elected the first State Librarian by both houses of the General Assembly (Journal of the House 1833 272).

The State Library was composed mainly of law books for the use of the courts. The limited nature of the library was noted in 1863 when the Library Committee of the House of Representatives complained that out of the 12,000 to 14,000 volumes in the State Library, less than 100 were on the subjects of history, biography and general literature. The Legislature granted $100 per year for books “as relates to the history and literature of the Commonwealth” (Acts 1861 369).

By 1890, the collection had grown to about 100,000 volumes mainly through exchange with other states and gifts. The General Assembly renamed the state library as “The Library of the Commonwealth” in 1893 and set aside the rooms at the left and right hand of the entrance to the Capitol as space for the library. A budget of $500 plus a tax on appeals in the Court of Appeals was designated for the purchase of legal titles while $200 was to be used for the purchase of literary and miscellaneous works (Acts 1891 1493-4). The library, however, remained primarily a law library and was moved to beautiful quarters in the new capitol when it was completed in 1910.

In 1934 the General Assembly reorganized the State Library – separating the Law Library and placing the State Library under the Department of Public Property (Acts 1934 428).


Public Library Development

Library development as a state government function began on March 17, 1910 when the Legislature created the Kentucky Library Commission. Established to build on the work begun by the Kentucky Federation of Women’s Clubs in the late 1890’s in creating public libraries, the purpose of the Commission was to “give assistance, advice and counsel to all school, state institutional, free and public libraries, and to all communities in the state which may propose to establish libraries, as to the best means of establishing and administering them, selecting and cataloging books, and other details of library management” (Acts 1910 82-84). The Commission began its work with a budget of $6000 and a collection of 5,000 books in 100 traveling library cases created by the Federation of Women’s Clubs. Kentucky became the 35th state to establish library extension service (Legislative Research Commission 68).

As the number of libraries increased, the Legislature passed laws for the governing of libraries and increased funding for the Library Commission to $7500, then to $9000 and finally to $12,000. By the end of the 1920’s there were 58 public libraries with 21 being supported wholly or partially with public funds while 20 were supported by Women’s Clubs, 1 by an endowment, and 16 by subscriptions (Nofcier 23). The onset of the Great Depression brought reduction in funding for the Kentucky Library Commission of 42% in 1932, severely impacting its work (Ridgway 8). As of the 1936 state government reorganization, 60 counties still had no public library. The state spent only 10 cents per capita for library service while the national average was 30 cents (Ridgway 12).


Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives

Combining the functions of library development with archives and records management into one agency of government did not happen without issues. State Librarian Ethel Gist Cantrill, now responsible for the mass of papers in the Capitol basement, contracted for removal of the papers for scrap. Dr. Thomas Clark was alerted to the impending loss of the papers by fellow University of Kentucky Professor James W. Martin. Clark rushed to the Capitol in his pajamas while Martin awoke Gov. Chandler at the Executive Mansion to stop removal of two truck loads of papers. The rescued papers were taken to Memorial Hall at the University of Kentucky where they were arranged by WPA workers (Clark 198-199). The papers remained at UK for the next 30 years until returning to Frankfort as part of the State Archives (Levstik 3).

The new department aggressively pursued library development. Advocacy by the Department and the Kentucky Library Association brought the first Librarian’s Certification Law passed by the Legislature in 1938. Effective Jan. 1, 1939, librarians and those filling fulltime professional positions in libraries supported wholly or in part by public funds were required to hold a certificate issued by the State Certification Board for Librarians (Acts 1938 685-9). Faced with scarce funding, the Department’s Library Extension Division established partnerships to assist in its work. By 1939 the Division collaborated with the WPA to operate 30 pack horse and 14 rural libraries. That same year, the Division joined Murray State Teacher’s College and TVA in creating a regional library in Calloway County serving counties in the Purchase region (Ridgway 16).

The State Library, then known as the Law and Legislative Library, underwent major changes in 1948 as the Legislature required the Legislative Research Commission to establish a reference room and library for use by the LRC and the Legislature. The Judges of the Court of Appeals ordered the State Librarian to oversee the division of the library between the Kentucky Historical Society, the LRC and the Library Extension Division. About 500 titles with historical value were transferred to the KHS, about 150 volumes went to the Library Extension Division, and about 60 volumes were claimed by the LRC (Cantrill).

At mid-century, the Department’s role in records management was greatly strengthened. A study by consultant James C. Boyd completed in February 1950 reported that “A considerable amount of records have accumulated since 1852 and some date back as far as 1765.” (Boyd, section II.) In March 1950 the General Assembly created the Records Control Board with authority to promulgate rules and regulations pertaining to the destruction and disposal of public records (Acts 1950 732-3).

Major progress in library development also occurred at mid-century. In 1952 the General Assembly passed the Rural Libraries Law authorizing state aid to local libraries. At that time, 48 counties still had no library service, only 20% of the rural population enjoyed library service, and over half of the books in Kentucky public libraries were in Jefferson County (Library Equalization Bill Recommended for Passage). The legislation appropriated $110,000 for the biennium with grants limited to a maximum of $5000 (Acts 1952 370).

Kentucky’s long history of successful outreach to rural areas using packhorse libraries and traveling libraries prompted Mrs. Mary Belknap Gray of Louisville to present seven bookmobiles to the Library Extension Division in the late 1940’s. The Friends of Kentucky Libraries championed a campaign in 1953 chaired by Mrs. Barry Bingham resulting in the donation of 84 bookmobiles to counties across Kentucky. Eleven more bookmobiles were added the next year. Since that time Kentucky has led the nation in the number of bookmobiles (Kentucky Bookmobiles: A Century in the Making).

The first state grants along with the fleet of bookmobiles created considerable momentum for creating libraries in counties where none existed. Fourteen libraries were established in 1954 alone. In 1944 the state had 37 public libraries while by 1958, there were 98. During that time period, circulation of library materials increased from under 2 million items to more than 7 million (Legislative Research Commission 2, 41).

Another reorganization of state government in 1954 abolished the Department of Library and Archives, making the Library Extension Division an independent agency of state government under the supervision of a Director appointed by the Governor. The State Archives was moved to the University of Kentucky. The State Law Library was established as a separate entity under the jurisdiction of the Court of Appeals and Attorney General (Acts 1954 119-128). For the next 19 years, efforts in library development and records management continued on separate tracks.

Public library development received a major boost in 1956 when Congress passed the Federal Library Services Act. The act required states to establish State Library Administrative Agencies with responsibility for creating a state plan for federal funding. The Library Extension Division served as Kentucky’s State Library Administrative Agency. The new state plan for federal funding called for the creation of multi-county regions as a method of providing rural county library services. The first four regions were formed in 1957. The additional services enabled by Federal funding required more office space, so in 1957 offices of the Library Extension Division were moved from the State Office Building to Berry Hill Mansion. Berry Hill had been built by Frankfort distiller George Berry on a prominent western bluff overlooking the Capitol in 1900.

In 1958 the General Assembly created the State Archives and Records Commission as an independent agency of state government. The administrative unit, the State Archives and Records Service, was funded in 1960 and hired its first director, Charles F. Hinds. The first rules and regulations of the State Archives and Records Commission, effective July 1, 1961, provided procedures to be followed by state and local agencies in the destruction of records. In 1962 the State Archives and Records Service became the Division of Archives and Records as a unit of the Department of Finance. A central storage facility was created for records at 851 E. Main St. in 1964.

At the request of Miss Margaret Willis, Director of the Library Extension Division, the Legislative Research Commission issued a report on public library service in Kentucky in 1959. The report indicated that 87% of the state’s population had library service in 1959 compared with 37% in 1949. Fourteen counties, however, had no service and 30 counties lacked county-wide service. This report also demonstrated that the state was far short of trained librarians, needed more library books, and provided too little support for libraries. The report advised a plan for financing of public libraries through special taxing districts that was adopted in succeeding sessions of the Legislature and remains the foundation of funding today (Legislative Research Commission 60-67). In 1962 the General Assembly enacted legislation allowing county library districts to be established by the voters and in 1964 added creation of library districts by petition. After many court battles, this legislation was finally affirmed in a unanimous decision of the Kentucky Supreme Court in 1978 (Court to Refuse Further Challenges to Law Allowing Library Districts).

In 1962, the Legislature replaced the Library Extension Division with the Department of Libraries. The Director of Library Extension became State Librarian (Acts 1962 431). Services of the department included providing bookmobiles; offering centralized book purchasing, cataloging and processing; distributing state and federal grants; supervision of library construction; providing a film library; and assistance through a network of regional libraries staffed by department personnel. Growth of the Department in the 1960’s was substantial with expenditures tripling and the staff doubling in size.

As local funding was secured, construction of new libraries became a priority. In 1964 Congress passed the Library Services and Construction Act (LSCA) to provide federal funding for library construction. The initial funding built or renovated 17 libraries, the first major library construction program in Kentucky since the Carnegie grants concluded in 1910. Over the next 13 years, 39 libraries would be built or renovated with funding from this program championed by Kentucky Congressman Carl Perkins.

In 1968 Gov. Louie Nunn appropriated funds to establish the Kentucky Talking Book Library. Prior to this time, Kentuckians unable to read traditional print materials were served by the Cincinnati Regional Library for the Blind. The Talking Book Library opened on April 1, 1969 in a warehouse on Clinton Street in Frankfort. After moving to a new facility on Twilight Trail in 1976, two recording booths were purchased so that books of local interest could be recorded for addition to the collection.

In addition to construction, LSCA funding was also used for inter-library cooperation. In 1970 the Department launched the Kentucky Library Communications Network. Librarians were able to refer unfilled title requests and information needs to the regional library headquarters. Requests that remained unfilled went to the state library and then to academic libraries, larger public libraries, or the Library of Congress if necessary.

To fulfill requirements of the Library Services and Construction Act, Gov. Nunn created the State Advisory Council on Libraries in 1971. Over the years many prominent Kentuckians have served on the Commission for the purpose of advising KDLA staff in its work.

In 1972 as part of Governor Wendell Ford’s executive reorganization, the Department of Libraries became part of the new Education and Arts Cabinet. More importantly, after 20 years of being located in separate areas, library development was reunited with archives and records functions when the Division of Archives and Records was moved from the Department of Finance and Administration to the Department of Libraries. The State Librarian was made chair of the State Archives and Records Commission. In January 1974 Gov. Ford issued executive order 74-13 renaming the new agency the Department of Library and Archives and organizing it into five divisions: Public Services, Technical Services, Field Services, Special Services, and Archives and Records.

The new organization brought additional energy to areas of KDLA’s responsibility. In 1974 the Department of Library and Archives implemented the Kentucky Cooperative Library Information Project (KENCLIP) designed to make books from across the state available to all residents. Using the Department’s resources along with those of state universities, the state was divided into 6 districts with headquarters at the state’s regional universities where ILL requests were funneled from public libraries across Kentucky.

The Berry Hill Mansion was clearly inadequate for housing the new department. Though additions to the mansion were built in 1965 and 1977, functions of the Department were scattered in offices across Frankfort. Under the direction of State Librarian Charles Hinds, a program plan for a new building for KDLA was developed. As his last official act, Gov. Julian Carroll broke ground for the new library and archives building on Dec. 10, 1979 (Library Ground Broken).

The opening of the new library and archives building was a significant and historic event. Dr. Thomas Clark, who had worked tirelessly for the building for more than 50 years, declared of the opening “It will be one of the proudest moments in Kentucky history. Kentucky is finally demonstrating that its proud of its heritage by treating its records with dignity” (Long Hard Road). The official dedication took place on October 8, 1982 and the building was named the Clark – Cooper Building in honor of Dr. Clark and C. Vernon Cooper, Jr., longtime chair of the State Advisory Council on Libraries.

The new building allowed all functions of KDLA to be united in one location for the first time with the removal of administrative offices, field services, State Government Information Service, and technical services from Berry Hill; the state archives, records management, preservation and restoration, and microfilming from East Main St.; and the library for the blind from Twilight Trail.

In 1981 State Librarian Jim Nelson announced reorganization of KDLA that included renaming KDLA as the Department for Libraries and Archives. Nelson became Commissioner of the Department with the title of State Librarian. KDLA was organized into 4 divisions: Administrative Services, State Library Services, Field Services and Public Records. Special Services was merged into Field Services and Technical Services was merged into State Library Services. Personnel and the Business Office were moved into Administrative Services. The Division of Archives and Records Management became the Public Records Division to stress the life-cycle approach to records.

With removal of the State Archives to the Clark-Cooper Building, the old location on East Main Street became the State Records Center for holding state government records with temporary value. KDLA could provide this service at cost savings for agencies while maintaining easy access to the records. The ever increasing amount of records generated by state government soon filled the State Records Center and an additional location for storing records was leased at Buffalo Trace Distillery in 1988.

With the establishment of public libraries in almost every county, KDLA staff refocused on developing library service through interlibrary cooperation and technology. In 1990 KDLA developed the first statewide OCLC SharePAC Group Access Capability in the nation. This combination CD-ROM off line product and batch or live access to OCLC for interlibrary loan expanded libraries’ access to collections across the nation. Through this project, staff access computers were provided in many libraries for the first time so that the staff could access OCLC. In 1995 KDLA administered the OCLC FirstSearch Pilot Project with 31 libraries of all types having access to selected OCLC FirstSearach licensed databases. The pilot project grew to include 140 libraries by 1998. The Higher Education Reform Act adopted by the General Assembly in 1998 allowed creation of the Commonwealth Virtual Library in 1999. KDLA played a leadership role in development of a package of statewide databases, a statewide courier service, and the Voyager consortia that provides an on-line catalog for academic libraries along with KDLA.

Technology was also becoming an important factor in the public records functions. In addition to microfilming services that had long been provided, KDLA began to offer digitizing services in the late 1990’s. A study by Gregory Hunter in 2001 funded by the General Assembly recommended nine components for realizing a vision for effective management of electronic records. Among the results of this study was the Clark Center for Digitial Imaging to serve local and state government agencies in digitizing records and KDLA’s E-archives to manage public digital records and make them available.

As access to e-government resources first became important, the Commonwealth of Kentucky launched the Empower Kentucky initiative. Through this program, KDLA expanded internet access in public libraries by providing 194 workstations including PCs, software and printers while paying access costs for 185 public library buildings.

In 1998 the newly created Gates Library Foundation granted KDLA $2 million to provide computers and internet access for more than 70 counties with a poverty level of 19% or more. Funding from this grant placed 637 computers in 187 public library buildings along with technical support and training for library staff. Additional grants from the Gates Library Foundation (later the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) in 2001 and 2005 provided training for almost 300 public library staff members in using technology. Gates funding in 2006 allowed the purchased of 887 computer workstations for public libraries. Another Gates Foundation grant in 2007 provided training in advocacy and strategic planning for 155 library staff members.

In 2010 with assistance of the Gates Foundation, KDLA received a Broadband Technology Opportunity Grant as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Funding from this highly competitive grant was to be used to provide equipment and training in 47 public libraries for assisting unemployed and underemployed residents in developing skills for seeking employment.

State budget cuts as a result of the recession in 2008-2011 brought a reduction in KDLA funding of approximately 30% and the loss of about 45 staff positions. Services were realigned and staff rearranged to continue critical services. As KDLA looks toward its centennial of service to the Commonwealth, it services to the library and archives communities have never been more important.


Sources Cited

Acts Passed at the First Session of the Twenty Ninth General Assembly for the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Frankfort: Kendall & Russells, 1820.

Acts Passed at the First Session of the Forty First General Assembly for the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Frankfort: Albert G. Hodges, printer, 1833.

Acts of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky 1861, 1862, 1863. Frankfort: John B. Major, printer and W. E. Hughes, printer, 1863.

Acts of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky 1891-92-93. Frankfort: E. Polk. Johnson, 1893.

Acts of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, 1910. Louisville: Continental Printing Co., 1910.

Acts of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky 1934. Frankfort: State Journal Co., 1934.

Acts of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, 1936. Frankfort: State Journal Company, 1936.

Acts of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky 1938. Frankfort: State Journal Co., 1938.

Acts of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky 1950. Louisville: Dunne Press, 1950.

Acts of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky 1952. Louisville: Dunne Press, 1952.

Acts of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky 1954. Louisville: Dunne Press, 1954.

Acts of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky 1962. Louisville: Dunne Press, 1962.

Boyd, James C. “Record Survey Report.” 28 Feb 1950.

Cantrill, Ethel Gist. Memo to the Court of Appeals. 29 April 1949.

“Chandler Explains Reorganization,” Kentucky State Journal [Frankfort] 21 February 1936: 1.

Clark, Thomas D. My Century in History. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2006.

Cotterill, R. S. “Capital was Moved to Louisville.” Kentucky Explorer Oct. 1996: 48-49.

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Cromwell, Emma Guy. Woman in Politics. Louisville: Standard Printing Company, 1939

Journal of the House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, 1833. Frankfort: Albert G. Hodges, printer, 1833.

Journal of the Regular Session of the Senate of the Commonwealth of Kentucky 1881. Frankfort: Kentucky Yeoman Office, 1881.

“Kentucky Bookmobiles: A Century in the Making.” Frankfort: Kentucky Department for Libraries & Archives, 1986.

Legislative Research Commission. “Public Library Services,” Research publication no. 65. Frankfort, 1959.

Levstik, Frank R. Historical Records Needs Assessment Final Report. Kentucky Historical Records Advisory Board, 1983.

“Library Equalization Bill Recommended for Passage,” Courier Journal [Louisville] 5 Mar 1952:3.

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Nofcier, Lena B. “History of the Public Library Movement in Kentucky.” Kentucky Library Commission 13th Biennial Report.

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The Statute Law of Kentucky by William Littell, Esq. Frankfort: printed for William Hunter by Robert Johnston, 1814.