From the Past: Library Priorities for the 80’s

125 years of Iowa City Public Library History Est 1896

The Iowa City Public Library started the 1980s in a new building with cutting edge technology. Staff added two touch screen terminals to the digital catalog, which were used to search the catalog. Although there were some complaints about leaving the physical card catalog behind, the new computer catalog was used by three times as many people as the physical catalog. The 1980s also saw the beginning of the Library Channel – a cable channel that provided library programing and other content to the public. A cable station was built into the new building, and trained volunteers helped staff record content for the channel. Today, you can find recorded library programs at our YouTube channel.


In 1982, the Library Board established the Iowa City Public Library Foundation, a non-profit corporation that helped the Library fundraise. The need for the ICPL Foundation became clear when Library staff and board members created the first ‘long-term’ plan. During the planning process the committee members took surveys of the community and collected data on Library use. This helped them write their final report, called “Library Priorities for the 80’s”, which set service priorities for the next ten years. This planning process still happens today, although it is now called strategic planning. The Iowa City Public Library’s current strategic plan is always listed on


The year of 1982 was riddled with computer troubles! The computer system installed in 1979 had been running perfectly for four years. However, a combination of new utility lines and updated computer equipment knocked the computer system out for weeks in the spring of 1982. The availability of the computer catalog varied by the hour throughout all of April, May, and June. The Library remained open the whole time, hand writing around 200 transactions per hour. It was almost impossible to search for a particular book in the Library during these months, although the community were pleasantly surprised by how knowledgeable Library staff were about the collection. In the end, staff found out that receiving four defective circuit boards in a row caused their computer troubles.


By the mid-eighties, the Library was feeling the effects of a tight budget. The new, larger building combined with increased community use proved very quickly that the Library would need to hire more staff to meet demand. However, staff knew that the City Council wouldn’t approve new jobs for the Library right after completing construction on the new building. Instead they focused on how to continue to provide quality services, which, at the time, meant cutting hours. During previous staffing shortages, the Library Board had closed the building on Sundays, which had been very unpopular with the community. This time, they closed the building on Thursday evenings and all-day Friday, which were the days with the lowest use. The Library remained closed on these days for 15 months, until they were allowed to hire two and one half more full-time staff. There also wasn’t room in the Library budget to expand the collection of materials in the new library. In the new building the number of card holders and circulation numbers both doubled. There was also a rapid rise in inflation in the 1980s; the cost of a hardcover book went from $9.50 to $25.50 in ten years. The combination of these two factors meant that Library staff were struggling to repair and replace books that were already in the collection, and didn’t have much money to purchase new items. Until about 1986, the Library was adding 20% fewer new books than they had in the Carnegie building.


The Iowa City Public Library also had not anticipated the mass-popularization of the VCR tapes that happened in the 1980s. The Library expanded their collection of VCRs as much as they were able to, and went from loaning around 3,000 a year in 1982 to loaning 67,000 a year in 1988. The end of the eighties also saw the introduction of the Library’s newsletter, The Window, and the beginning of the annual Community Reading Month.

To read more about the history of the Library, take a look at our timeline or check out Lolly Egger's book, A Century of Stories.


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Well done Miss Olivia.

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