The first Central Library occupied a site to the south of Edmund Street and west of the Town Hall. The site had been acquired from the Birmingham and Midland Institute (BMI) in 1860 after the construction of their own building in 1857 on the corner of Paradise Street and Ratcliff Place. The BMI building was to include a library, but under the Public Libraries Act 1850 a referendum took place on the creation of a municipal library. After the first vote failed, a second one passed in 1860 causing the BMI and the Corporation to cooperate on the joint site.
E. M. Barry was the architect for the BMI building and it was hoped he could be retained as the architect for the adjoining library, however his plans were deemed too expensive for the Corporation. Martin & Chamberlain’s plans were approved in October 1862 for a tender price of £8,600 with E. M. Barry’s classical facade retained in the design. The Lending Library was opened on 6 September 1865 and the Reference Library was opened just over a year later on 26 October 1866. Initial use of the library was so heavy that the need for an extension was agreed in 1872 but deferred until 1878. On 11 January 1879 a fire broke out behind a wooden partition serving as a temporary wall during building operations. The fire caused extensive damage with only 1,000 volumes saved from a stock of 50,000.
Plans to rebuild the library after the fire had been approved as early as May 1879. The library was rebuilt on the same site by J. H. Chamberlain in a Lombardic Renaissance style with a tall clerestoried Reading Room. At a cost of £54,975 the second Central Library opened on 1 June 1882.
As the number of books increased, the Council resolved in 1938 that a new library was ‘an urgent necessity’, but due to World War II it was not until 1960, and the development of a new Inner Ring Road through the site of the old library that a general specification was agreed. The library and the BMI building were demolished (The BMI moved to premises a block to the east) and the site is now part of the Birmingham Conservatoire and its gardens. The site where the current central library is now situated was originally occupied by Mason Science College and Liberal Club.