In 2021, the Iowa City Public Library celebrated 125 years of being at the center of community life. The library’s 125-year history includes presidential visits, innovative ideas, four locations, and several remodeling projects. Here, allow me to give you an overview of this magnificent institution – from its humble beginnings in 1896 to its current status today.
At the turn-of-the-century, Iowa City was a community on the move. Over a period of fifty years (1850-1900) Iowa City experienced amazing growth – from a population of 1,250 in 1850 to nearly 8,000 in 1900! Read more about this era in Iowa City history here.
When the state capitol moved to Des Moines in 1857, many wondered if our fine city could survive, but as SUI became one of the stronger universities throughout the Midwest, Iowa City began to take on a character all its own. In 1898, the Honorable E. F. Brockway called Iowa City “the city of education and culture that proudly claims the title – The Athens of Iowa.”
So, one of the first projects the fine people of Iowa City undertook in the 1890’s was the development of a free public library. Early city records indicate that from the very beginning (1896), the library commission – while not yet having any facility to display them – began buying books for the library collection. Written receipts indicate that their first purchase included the works of Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens (see pics above).
In the meantime, plans were made for the library’s first home – and on January 20, 1897, the Iowa City Public Library opened on the second floor of the C.O.D. Steam Laundry Building at 211 Iowa Avenue – also known as the Kenyon Building.
In November 1897 – to benefit the newly-formed library – the play “Honour Before Wealth” was performed at the Coldren Opera House – located on the second & third floor above the Iowa City State Bank – at the corner of Clinton & Washington Streets.
By the turn of the century, the library had outgrown its second floor location on Iowa Avenue, so on June 17, 1901, the library relocated to the Cannon & Pratt Building at 212 East College Street – a location that will come back into the ICPL story eighty years later!
The 1904 edition of the Report of the Iowa Library Commission gives us a wonderful overview of the ICPL’s first seven years (1896 – 1903).
From 1892 to 1917, the wealthy industrialist and philanthropist – Andrew Carnegie – provided grants to build thousands of “free” libraries across America with ninety-nine communities across Iowa receiving money. Iowa City was approved for one of Carnegie’s grants – $25,000 on March 24, 1902 – and the construction for the new Carnegie Library on South Linn Street began later that year.
The new Iowa City “Carnegie” Public Library – located right off College Street at 212 South Linn Street – opened its doors on Thursday, October 27, 1904 – and served as the library’s home for nearly eight decades.
The “official” dedication of the new Carnegie Library was held at the Coldren Opera House on November 29, 1904.
Over a period of 50+ years, the Carnegie Library was one of Iowa City’s most visited downtown destinations. Over that time, there were small updates and remodeling projects, but by 1960, the facility was simply too small for meeting the library needs of Iowa City’s growing population.
In 1963, a much-needed 14,000 square-foot addition was built on the east side of the Carnegie Building – being dedicated on Sunday, November 10.
The 1963 addition helped ease some of the immediate space issues, but ultimately, by the 1970’s, it was very evident that the current facility was not going to meet community’s library needs going forward.
In 1978, a new building campaign was introduced to the city…
The theme was “A New Library For Everyone” and it addressed the growing need for added space, a computerized database, and library accessibility.
Director Lolly Parker Eggers (1974-1994) was the mover-n-shaker behind the “New Library For Everyone” campaign. Read more about this lion-hearted librarian here.
The new ICPL at 123 South Linn Street opened its doors to the public on June 14, 1981 after hundreds of volunteers moved all of the library materials across the street. Did you know that the city came very close to moving the library out of downtown? Read more about Director Lolly Parker Eggers and her fight to keep ICPL where it is today.
Before digital cataloging, libraries arranged their available book titles on cards in alphabetical order, and visitors would flip through them until they found the author or book title they wanted. The Iowa City Public Library launched a historical “first” as the first public library in the U.S. to offer a computerized online catalog. Read more here.
Program Librarian Beth Fisher remembers the day in 2007, when former President Bill Clinton visited Iowa City for the Iowa caucuses.
Bill Clinton was standing in front of the library looking in the window, and we weren’t open because it was eight in the morning. A staff member was brave enough to walk up and say, ‘Hello Mr. President, would you like to come in and look around?’ and he said, ‘Sure,’” Fisher said. “There was a president in the building. And he walked around and looked at books, shook hands, and talked to everyone who was at work.
In 2004 – the doors opened on a major renovation to the 1981 building on June 12, 2004.
The Iowa City Public Library at 123 South Linn Street – 125 Years Of Serving Iowa City.
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.
(BH-143) In retirement, Director Lolly Parker Eggers researched and wrote “A Century of Stories, The History of the Iowa City Public Library, 1896-1997.”