Nashville's library history can be traced back to 1813, but it was the late 1800s before Nashville had a public library. 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. The Nashville Public Library grew out of this history.
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 laid for Carnegie building.