The demand for reading in the second half of the 19th century, had been met by the Mechanics Institute, which was founded in Burnley in 1834. It moved eventually to its present location on Manchester Road, and is now occupied by the tourist office.
There was such growing unease about this lack of library provision that, on 13th August 1890, the council expressed the view that it was a great reproach to the inhabitants of a town like Burnley to be without a free library.
Two unsuccessful applications to Andrew Carnegie for a grant towards the cost of funding a library were followed, in 1912, by the presentation of Ruskin Hall to the council by Councillor William Marshall for use as a library. Marshall branch library opened for business on Trafalgar Street on 28th February 1914.
In December 1916, the Carnegie Trust did offer a grant of £15,000 to Burnley towards the cost of a library, increasing in August 1925 to £16,500. Work did not commence on the construction of the present library building until 16 July 1928 but, in the meantime, a Reference Library had opened on Elizabeth Street in July 1921 and a school library service went into operation in February 1924.
Burnley Central Library was officially opened by the Earl of Elgin and Kincardine on 3rd July 1930, the final building costs amounting to £35,000 which did not include the purchase of the most important commodity, the books. Burnley's late start did not impede its progress to the position as one of the top five most used libraries in the country by 1962.
By this time, the chief librarian, Richard Caul, and the library committee were also considering expansion plans for the cramped library, but these were not to be fulfilled until 1993.
The library service was then temporarily re-housed in Adlington House whilst major internal and external building work was undertaken on the Grimshaw Street building. A disabled ramp was also constructed at the front of the library and decorated with a sculptured relief depicting a narrative history of Burnley.
The children's library became the first in Lancashire to benefit from public art and it was imaginatively decorated by an Edinburgh artist with murals and 3D mobiles. The doors of the attractive but modern Burnley Central Library opened for business again on 5th December 1994.
The library's refurbishment was the largest capital project undertaken in recent years by Lancashire County Council and cost £1.7m. All the hard work involved was rewarded by three awards: the Library Association's Building of the Year; the British Gas Properties and Arts Council Working for Cities Scheme; and the Civic Trust.