On March 2, 1896 the city of Cedar Rapids was to make a vote on whether or not they would have a public library. Due largely to the work of a group of women called the City Federation of Ladies Literary Clubs led by Ada Van Vechten, the vote was favorable. On January 15, 1897, the first public library was to open its doors to the citizens of Cedar Rapids. It was located in a small room of the Granby building.
After a few years, the library had outgrown the room. It was moved to the Dows auditorium in May 1900. Andrew Carnegie was contacted in late January 1901 to request money to construct a dedicated library building. He agreed to give $75,000 if the town would pledge $7,500 in taxation annually to support the maintenance. In early 1903, the library chose Ely corner at Third Avenue and Fifth Street as the future site of the Carnegie library. On June 23, 1905, the new library was open.
The years to follow were filled with a variety of strategies to expand services within the town and beyond. In 1910, E. Joanna Hagey became the librarian. She was the driving force behind the extension work for nearly three decades. Books were brought to schools, drug stores, and workplaces for extra convenience. Surrounding townships had contracted for library services.By 1928, six library stations were in operation. In 1930 there was a new Kenwood Park station, the first branch building owned by the library.
During the Great Depression, circulation had reached record highs for the library. Beginning in 1933, the circulation began to fall as it had for other libraries across the nation. Everything started to normalize towards the end of the '30s. In 1940 there were 15 people staffing the library. The head librarian, who had replaced Hagey at the end of 1939, was Miss Alice Story. Another librarian that would later have a lasting effect on the library and the community, Evelyn Zerzanek, worked under Miss Story as the head librarian of the school and the children's department.
Evelyn Zerzanek worked hard to not only get books into children's hands, but also to think for themselves and be creative. Under her direction, the summer reading programs and story times had increased in popularity. Evelyn also loved children's book illustrations. She started a collection that would grow to over 850 original paintings and drawings.
In the early 1950s, two bookmobiles were purchased that had replaced all of the stations. Together they would make twelve stops each week at regular locations. Instead of many rented stations, the library now consisted of the two bookmobiles, the Kenwood Park station, and the main building.
Crowding became a pressing issue for the library throughout the '60s. Much of the material had to be stored in the basement. New materials had to be turned away due to the space restrictions. In 1969, the library proposed to expand the current building and to establish a west-side branch. It failed to reach 60% voter approval. In 1971, a branch was established on Edgewood Road NW. The first two of three bookmobiles were retired by 1972.
For the next twelve years, the library would be unsuccessful at securing a majority vote. The library had changed its proposal from remodeling the library to constructing a new facility during that time. In 1981, the Hall Foundation offered over 25% of the $7.9 million bond issue if the city would pay the remainder, but again, the 60% voter approval would not be met. About four months later, the Hall Foundation of Cedar Rapids offered to pay $6.8 million over the next ten years on the condition that the Library Foundation, established in 1972, could obtain $1 million in private donations. By the end of September, $1.3 million in private contributions had secured the amount necessary to move forward with the plans for a new library.
The new library at 500 First Street SE opened on February 17, 1985. The floor space of the new building was 83,000 square feet compared with 29,000 square feet in the Carnegie building. Space issues were not the reason for moving as they had been in the past.
The Iowa flood of 2008, considered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to be "one of the worst and most costly floods in Iowa--and even U.S. history,"destroyed the building at the previous downtown location of the main branch, along with over half of the library's collection.The flooding of the library may have been the worst natural disaster to affect a public library. The new Cedar Rapids Public Library opened to the public on August 24, 2013. More than 8,000 people attended opening day festivities. In the first year of service, the new library saw over 660,000 visits from the community, and over 100,000 people used the meeting room spaces, including the new 200-seat Whipple Auditorium.
The flood of 2008 had taken out much of the adult and reference collections. The children's books on the upper level, along with the Zerzanek collection, were all saved.
The library would lease space at the Westdale Mall where they had already established a library branch in August 1988. The branch material would be consolidated with the library's surviving collection in the former Osco Drug Store space. In February 2013, the Ladd Library was opened, establishing a permanent west-side location/. On May 5, 2012, construction began on the new downtown location, which opened to the public in August 2013.
In May of 2017, the Museum and Library Services announced the Cedar Rapids Public Library as one of 10 recipients of the 2017 National Medal for Museum and Library Service, the nation’s highest honor given to museums and libraries for service to the community. For 23 years, the award has celebrated institutions that respond to societal needs in innovative ways, making a difference for individuals, families, and their communities.
The Cedar Rapids Public Library was selected due to the impact of its programs and services within the city of Cedar Rapids. These programs are designed meet the strategic goals of the Library to invest in young minds, build and strengthen community, and transform lives. The recipients of the National Medal for Museum and Library Service have employed powerful programs and services that exceed the expected levels of community outreach, in some cases changing the lives of those who enter their doors.
The history of Cedar Rapids has been recorded in the pages of our local newspapers for over 160 years. Now, by partnering with the Gazette, the State Historical Society Of Iowa, Advantage Preservation, and with the generous support of our community via the Cedar Rapids Public Library Foundation, Cedar Rapids history is more accessible
In June of 2017, the Cedar Rapids Public Library joined the State Historical Society of Iowa and Advantage Preservation in the mission of actively preserving and ensuring access to the history contained within Iowa’s newspapers CRPL is once again demonstrating their importance to the Cedar Rapids community by providing access to its rich history as recorded in the Gazette and the Cedar Rapids newspapers predating it. As Cedar Rapidians, we believe that the preservation of our collective history is a shared responsibility. CRPL recognizes the importance of the history recorded in the pages of Cedar Rapids newspaper and is ensuring that Cedar Rapids “first draft of history” is available for current and future generations.