116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Time Machine: Cedar Rapids, Marion libraries get book drops
Big metal boxes for returns were a new thing in 1950s
Book drops or book returns have been a staple for Cedar Rapids Public Library patrons for decades.
In 1956, Librarian James C. Marvin asked the Cedar Rapids City Council to allow the library to install a drive-up book return on the Fifth Street side of the Carnegie library at Third Avenue and Fifth Street SE.
“These drive-up devices are becoming common in use over the country and facilitate the return of books by patrons without the necessity of locating hard-to-find parking spaces,” Marvin told the council. “Since we are circulating well over two-thirds of a million books each year, we are absolutely in need of this kind of facility. The returns are simple in design, well-constructed and attractive curbside equipment.”
In June 1957, during the library’s 60th year, the book return was installed, placed on the first parking space south of the alley, just outside the library’s Fifth Street entrance. The large metal box allowed users to pull up and drop books into it, in the same way the public had begun using drive-up mailboxes.
The book return, manufactured in Oklahoma City, cost $340. It held about 200 books and had to be emptied three times a day, more often on Saturdays.
The Gazette reported library patrons liked the new way to return books.
“One woman was so pleased with it that she told librarians so as she handed over her books at the desk — then discovered that you’re supposed to put them in the box and not just park in the empty spot,” The Gazette stated.
The return boxes had an automatic spring at the bottom of the box that kept books from dropping too far. And patrons who owed fines for past-due books also could put the money they owed in an envelope and drop it in the box.
By January 1958, more than 1,000 books were being returned each week to the drive-up station.
The box’s popularity encouraged the Marion Carnegie library to install a drive-up book return on the sidewalk east of that library, 1298 Seventh Ave., in April 1959.
The Kenwood branch library, 3223 First Ave. SE, wanted a drive-up return box, too, but it wouldn’t work at that building. Instead, a book return was installed that emptied inside the building.
In 1960, more than 95,000 books had been returned at the Cedar Rapids library drive-ups.
Occasionally, a book was found in the return that didn’t belong there. That happened in March 1964 when the “American Heritage Book of Natural Wonders” was left in the box. The library put a notice in The Gazette, saying it would be returned to the owner who could identify the inscription written inside the book’s cover.
In 1970, the library installed a 24-hour book depository in the outside wall of the library’s Fifth Street side, and the outside box disappeared. The new slot reduced weather damage to returned materials and the library staff no longer had to go outside to retrieve items from the box. More than 130,000 books were returned to the book drop.
‘Yours in poverty’
In 1972, some books were returned late in the book drop with a note: “Dear Librarian — I’m awfully sorry about being so late with the books and having to put them in the book drop without paying the fine, but I’m broke. Besides, I figured if I went inside, returned the books without the $, you might not let me out. I will get you the fine as soon as I can. Until then, I shall remain Yours (in poverty).”
The library staff “was inclined to react leniently toward the writer of the letter,” a Gazette report said.
In a week at the end of December 1976, the library declared a moratorium on overdue book fees for one week. More than 200 significantly overdue books were returned, many of them through the book drop. One was so overdue, its fine would have been $547.50 if the library hadn’t limited fines to a $4 maximum.
In 1981, a book drop was included in plans for the new Cedar Rapids Public Library at 500 First St. SE. The small, book return room inside the library had its own sprinkler system in case incendiary items were dropped in there as well.
In 1991, someone dropped an incendiary device in the book return at the Marion Carnegie library at 12:15 a.m. Sunday, March 24. The blast blew out nine library windows and damaged the roof of the Pizza Hut across the street.
In 2011, the library branch inside Westdale Mall installed a conveyor belt next to the book drop. The library’s radio frequency identification system had been ruined in the 2008 flood, and a $500,00 federal grant paid for a new one that also could automatically check in books. The system was tested for possible use in the new library being built at 450 Fifth Ave. SE.
As part of its COVID mitigation efforts in 2020, items returned to library book drops were quarantined for 72 hours before being recirculated — before it was determined the virus didn’t spread that way.
Drive-up book drops are still around today, found at the downtown and Ladd libraries in Cedar Rapids, the Hiawatha Public Library and the Marion Public Library. Wooden boxes also serve as drop boxes inside the main entrances of local Hy-Vees.