1897-2020: Iowa City Public Library celebrates 125 years serving Iowa City

The Iowa City Public Library staff reminisces over favorite moments from 125 years of service, allowing the community to access its resources virtually.


Jeff Sigmund

Iowa City Public Library on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021.

Grace Hamilton, News Reporter

The Iowa City Public Library is commemorating 125 years of serving the community by sharing its historical progress and allowing people to share their library memories in a digital space.

The library’s 125-year history includes presidential visits, archives documenting popular books from 19th century onward, four locations, and several remodeling projects.

The library created a historical timeline on its website and Director Elsworth Carman said he hopes the community will share their stories about how the library has impacted their lives.

While building the virtual timeline, the library’s staff explored the library’s archives, which feature documentation and photographs from the library’s 125 years of service.

“One-hundred-twenty-five years was a long time ago, but it also wasn’t a long time ago,” Carman said. “It kind of speaks to the elasticity of time and how some things are so different, and yet some things remained the same. I love to see images or references to the children’s programming departments, which have kept a similar vision of engaging kids and getting them excited about books and literacy.”

As an employee of the Iowa City Library for more than 25 years, Program Librarian Beth Fisher said some of her favorite photographs found in the archive were from a 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.”

Collection Services Coordinator Anne Mangano said her favorite documents from the archive date back to the library’s birth.

“Starting from the beginning, the library wrote down every single book they bought,” Mangano said. “In 1896, when they said ‘We’re starting a library. What do we buy?’ the answer was all of Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens books. So, you get to see what the librarians at the time thought were the books worth getting.”

While the city’s first librarians were cataloging the era’s popular reads, the Iowa City Public Library opened its doors in 1897 on the second floor of C.O.D. Steam Laundry Building. Shortly after, it moved to its second location in 1901 in the Cannon and Pratt building on 212 East College St.

Mangano said one of the most significant events in the library’s history was the opening of the Carnegie Library in 1904, which served as the Iowa City Public Library’s home for eight decades.

From 1892 to 1917, Andrew Carnegie provided grants to build 1,680 libraries across America. Iowa City received one of these grants and opened the Carnegie Library in 1904. The old Carnegie Library sits kitty-corner to the library’s current location on South Linn Street, which opened in 1981.

The Iowa City Public Library launched a historical “first,” Fisher said, as the first public library in the U.S. to offer an online catalog.

Before digital cataloging, libraries arranged their available book titles on cards in alphabetical order; visitors would flip through them until they found the author or book title they wanted, she said.

Although the Iowa City Public Library has a rich history to reflect on, much of the library’s efforts have focused on providing its resources in new ways during the pandemic.

Community Access and Services Coordinator Sam Helmick said it’s a great time to capture a unique part of history by broadening the library’s range of services.

The library has events and services taking place every week over Zoom, Helmick said, and the Digital Library is always available for streaming, research, and reading services.

“We’ve been trying to recreate shared learning opportunities that would happen in a meeting room, bookmobile, or story-time room, virtually,” Helmick said. “That means meeting our community where they organically exist online now, whether that’s a Facebook Live event or having them register for Zoom.”

Carman said the library’s circulation of hard materials has decreased 40 percent in the past year but increased by 30 percent in the circulation of online material.

“We’re the center of community life,” Helmick said. “When we’re not the physical space, we are still the tools and the resources you need to connect with other people and achieve what you want to.”