116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Since the beginning of its 125 years, history shows that the Cedar Rapids Public Library’s mission of accessibility, inclusion and empowerment was not just something that looked good on paper.
“Do you realize that the library building is the only absolutely neutral ground in the city? Here there are no distinctions of age, race, or religion. Every one, young and old, should feel at liberty to come here freely every day in the year,” librarian Harriet A. Wood wrote in the 1907 Annual Report.
“They were in a time when a lot of society was very segregated,” said Alison Gowans, content writer for the Cedar Rapids Public Library whose history research will be displayed in upcoming exhibits. “As far as evidence found shows, everyone was welcome from the very beginning, which is very encouraging and a major value of the library today. … That’s embedded in our history.”
Perhaps that’s not surprising for an institution that owes its success to women, starting in 1896 — a time when they were excluded from many parts of society. As they exercised their newly-won right to vote on limited tax issues in Iowa, the library was approved by a margin of only 59 votes.
Vote returns showed half the men who voted didn’t vote on the question at all, speculating that the vote could be challenged on the grounds that “the women are illegal,” according to Gazette reports at that time. Ada Van Vechten, who organized women’s literacy clubs to campaign for the library, was elected the library board’s first president and dubbed “the mother of the library” by The Gazette.
What: A spotlight on the library’s history, innovation and adaptation over 125 years through two exhibits, plus one day of craft stations, history film screening and more.
When: Jan. 15 to May 28
Where: Downtown Library’s third-floor gallery at 450 Fifth Ave. SE and the Ladd Library gallery at 3750 Williams Blvd. SE
Details: One distinct exhibit will be open at each location from Jan. 15 to March 13 before switching locations from March 19 to May 28, to ensure patrons of both branches have a chance to view them.
During a Jan. 15 celebration from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., both locations will have family-friendly craft stations, a library history film screening, commemorative bookmarks, complimentary cookies, a chance for visitors to share their library memories and registration for the 125th Anniversary Community Reading Challenge.
Though the conversations about what the library should offer have changed over the years, the guiding principal of getting as many materials to as many people as possible has stayed the same.
“As information access changes happen, that brings in the tough questions about what a library should be. We’ve always fallen on the side of more access, more materials, more thoughts being available to the community,” said Director Dara Schmidt. ”We laugh about ‘the evils of fiction’ today, but I bet those were heated (discussions) back in the day.“
From the beginning, the library strove to ensure information access was a matter of outreach, not simply an unlocked door at its building. By 1911, books and magazines were available to factory workers in places like Quaker Oats and T.M. Sinclair Packing Co.
“The library stepped up and said, ‘These are our people, let’s make sure our education is accessible to people working these jobs. That’s the backbone of our community,’” Schmidt said.
Friends of the library ensured the librarian had a horse or automobile to travel to rural areas and schools in other townships. By 1918, the library had 22 stations to support its goal of having books available within walking distance of every section of the city.
“We provide access to everything that we can because we want our citizens to be well educated … and want people to be curious,” Schmidt said. “It’s not about content. … It’s about access.”
Bookmobiles starting in the 1950s grew in popularity over the following two decades as another means to meet residents where they were.
With over a dozen building changes, additions and moves over the years, the library has remained a reflection of Cedar Rapids, through thick and thin.
For an institution of its age, Schmidt said the library is unique in the sense that is has two locations less than 10 years old. That’s due to the flood of 2008 that claimed 160,000 books and media items, gutting the Downtown Library.
But through all the changes, Schmidt said the library’s proven ability to flexibly reach as many people as possible proves that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Early in its history, the library ensured access to German and Czech language books for its immigrant populations. Now, it ensures access to French books for newer immigrants from Africa.
The bookmobiles that started in the 1950s got an upgrade in 2021 with the Mobile Technology Lab loaded with laptops, 3D printers and robots to reach both children and adults in various neighborhoods.
“We’re bringing resources out to people instead of keeping them in the building,” Gowans said.
Looking to the future, the library is considering its permanent locations and technology to reach a growing, more diverse population. After the pandemic dramatically changed the appetite for digital access to the library’s materials, the role of digital access will become a larger part of future conversations.
With digital information access more ubiquitous than ever, the role of librarians has changed from being gatekeepers of information to being navigators of it.
“These are big picture things we're working on. They’re not anything different from what they've done, but the approach might be different,” Schmidt said. “How do you walk into the library and know this is the place for you, no matter who you are?”
A living legacy of connections
Perhaps the best way to measure the library’s legacy over 125 years is not through its circulation numbers or attendance statistics, but the stories embedded in Cedar Rapids memories for generations.
“If you ask people about (library) memories, they’re quick to talk about what the library meant to them,” said Gowans. “That shows the importance of the library in the community.”
And with decades of memories still alive with patrons today, everyone has their own library story.
“People remember when they went to the Kenwood Branch as a kid, or when the bookmobile used to stop at their grandma's house, or a baseball mitt chair in the library basement that flooded,” said Schmidt. “That's been an amazing thing — helping people connect to their personal story as we connect to our history as an institution.”
And while the anniversary is a celebration of books, access and history, the reflection of the library in personal, human connections is what has made the library’s story more than a good novel to check out.
To learn more about the library’s extensive history over the last 125 years, visit crlibrary.org/our-history. There, you can read more about fascinating excerpts such as:
- The instrumental role of women in the library.
- The library’s role through World War I and II.
- Pandemic responses throughout the library’s history — COVID-19 was not the first.
- How children’s librarian Evelyn Zerzanek curated original illustrations from illustrators, like a sketch of Dr. Seuss’ dog and H.A. Rey’s Curious George, for the library’s original collection.
- Photos of the library’s physical changes over the last 125 years.
1895: Ada Van Vechten organizes the City Federation of Ladies Literacy Clubs, which campaigns to establish a library.
1896: Women are allowed to vote in municipal tax issues and help pass the library levy by 59 votes.
1897: The new Cedar Rapids Free Public Library opens in a room in the Granby building on Jan. 15, at Second Street SE and Third Avenue SE.
1900: The library moves to the Dows building, at Second Avenue SE and Third Street SE.
1905: The new library building, funded by business tycoon and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, opens on Washington Square, now known as Greene Square.
1909: The library begins looking for ways to reach new people, opening stations — small library outposts, putting books in schools, grocery stores, drugstores, hospitals and factories. By 1918, there are 22 stations around the city.
1930: A new Kenwood branch opens in a Spanish adobe-style building.
1952: The first library bookmobile arrives, taking over for the library stations. A second arrives in 1954.
1963: Kenwood branch expands.
1971: First two bookmobiles are retired in 1971 and 1972. Edgewood branch opens at 221 Edgewood Rd. NW.
1985: A new 83,100 square foot library opens at 500 First St. SE., thanks to a $6.8 million grant from The Hall Foundation, city-issued bonds to secure a site for the building and $1.3 million raised from 18,000 donors by the Library Foundation and Friends of the Library.
1988: A new branch opens in Westdale Mall. The Edgewood branch closes.
1992: Kenwood branch closes; new branch opens at Town and Country Shopping Center.
2008: The library loses about 160,000 books, movies and media items after the Cedar River inundates 10 square miles of downtown Cedar Rapids, forcing the building to be gutted. With the downtown library closed, the library expands inside Westdale and opens a small storefront location in the Armstrong Centre.
2013: Ladd Library opens, replacing the Westdale location. The new Downtown Library opens adjacent to Greene Square.
2017: The library receives the 2017 National Medal for Museum and Library Services, the nation’s highest honor given to libraries.
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