The Main Library is an Italian Renaissance four-story building of granite and buff brick completed in 1901. The firm of Brite and Bacon of New York was selected from a competition of forty-seven entries to design the building. Norcross Brothers constructed the building for approximately $208,000.
The distinctive corner building in noted for the contrasting brick and large windows. A frieze with the Greek key is above the row of windows on the first floor. The head of Minerva by Philip Martiny is carved on the keystone over the front entrance. The windows on the first floor also have keystones. Those flanking the entrance depict the seal of Jersey City (right) and the seal of Hudson County (left). Beyond the lobby of the entrance is a broad marble stairway and black wrought iron railing leading to the fourth floor. An extension to the Main Library was added to the rear of the building on Mercer and Montgomery Streets. The eight-story structure, designed by Albert S. Gottlieb of New York City and built by William Robertson & Sons of 15 Exchange Place, is primarily used for the shelving of books in the library's collection. Gottlieb also designed the Greenville Branch on Kennedy Boulevard and Stevens Avenue in Jersey City, the Temple B'nai Jeshurun (now Hopewell Baptist Church) on High Street in Newark, and the New York City landmark Rizzoli Building on Fifth Avenue.
The first floor of the library features the Young People's Room, and the second floor has the Reading Room and Circulation Department. The New Jersey Room on the third floor contains a special collection of material on local, county, and state history.
The first public library in the present Jersey City began in 1866 as a private venture in the town of Bergen. It was located in Library Hall at Ivy Place on the corners of Summit Avenue and Grand Street. Members supported the library with subscriptions. The Bergen Fire Department sponsored two hundred public school students of "superior scholarship" in Bergen to use the private library. Another library room was attempted in Hudson City at the corner of Newark and Baldwin Avenue. But neither lasted due to lack of support.
In 1873 the Jersey City Board of Education established a Public School Free Library and provided one thousand dollars a year for its maintenance. It was located in the Jersey City High School (now Dickinson High School) on Bay Street, but management problems ended the project. In 1884 the New Jersey Legislature passed a law for the founding of free public libraries in cities where a local referendum supported a library. After two failed attempts, the Jersey City voters approved the provision for a public library in an election held on April 9, 1889 by a vote of 15,304 to 345. Mayor Orestes Cleveland appointed a board of trustees to guide the founding of the library. It included community leaders Dr. Leonard J. Gordon, a physician, who was elected president, and William C. Heppenheimer, who was elected treasurer, as well as Michael Murray, Nelson J. H. Edge, and Charles S. Haskell.
Dr. Gordon championed the founding of a public library for the city, coming up against the vote of a municipal referendum. When the approval and appropriations for the library were finally granted, Dr. Gordon became the president of its board of trustees and then the library's director. A memorial window on the first landing of the library's staircase and a bust of Dr. Gordon at the entrance were donated by local residents in February 1907. His brick, Queen Anne-style home by the architect William Milne Grisnell, built in 1888, was at 485 Jersey Avenue, not far from the library.
A temporary library was located on the ground floor of the building of the Provident Institution for Savings on Washington Street. Space in the adjoining Hudson County National Bank building was leased for a reading room. The trustees purchased properties for $47,250 at 286 and 288 Montgomery Street, and adjoining plots on Jersey Avenue, corner of Jersey Avenue and Mercer Streets, and 484 Jersey Avenue. They also selected A.D.F. Hamlin of Columbia University as supervising architect for a new building. On July 6, 1891, the permanent home of the Main Library opened to the public. In its collection were 15,515 books and approximately 300 magazines and newspapers.
Today the Main Library includes a Children's Room, Federal Government Documents, Lending Department, Reference, and the Joan D. Lovero Collection in the New Jersey Room. In 2019 it was named for retiring director Priscilla Gardner, its first African-American director.
In addition to the Main Library, there are also nine branches plus a bookmobile. One of the largest of the branch libraries is the Greenville Branch (1841 Kennedy Boulevard), at the corner of Boulevard and Stevens Avenue. It was designed by Albert S. Gottlieb at the cost of $256,000 and opened in October 1926. The branch was renamed in 2018 to honor the memory of deceased Jersey Journal columnist Earl A. Morgan. The Afro-American Historical and Cultural Society Museum is housed on the second floor of the library building.
Along with the Greenville Branch, the Jersey City Free Public Library system features three other large regional centers: Five Corners (678 Newark Avenue); The Heights (14 Zabriskie Street); and Miller (489 Bergen Avenue). There are also several smaller neighborhood branches. The new Branch Library and Community Center on Martin Luther King Drive between Myrtle and Bostwick avenues opened in 2004. It is the first new public library built in Jersey City since 1962, replaced the Claremont Branch Library, and is named for former Jersey City Mayor Glenn D. Cunningham.