From the Past: A New Library for Everyone

125 years of Iowa City Public Library History Est 1896

By the early 1970s, Iowa City had completely outgrown the Carnegie Library and grown tired of it too. There were few places to sit in the building, no handicap accessibility, and the restrooms weren’t heated or ventilated. The Iowa City Public Library closed several times throughout the early 1970s because of disasters and disrepair. It was agreed that the Library needed a new building, and the Library Board approved the Recommended Building Program in 1976.


By 1977, the City Council and the Library Board had agreed upon the Linn and College St location, even though it was not the Library Board’s first choice. The Library Board and architect, Hansen Lind Myer, agreed on a building plan that cost $5 million. The City replied that the most they would approve for the Library would be $3.5 million. This resulted in the removal of basement space, the reduction of first and second floor space, as well as a reduction in furniture and equipment.


With the building plan finished, the Library began a public campaign for the new building. The campaign slogan was "A New Library for Everyone". Susan Craig completed a slideshow which featured dramatic photos of the deteriorating library conditions, and used it to promote the building campaign. Despite opposition from the local Chamber of Commerce and newspapers, and the challenge of needing at least a 60% approval rate from voters, the measure passed by 2%, or 244 votes. With the new building officially approved, the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Library was held October 11, 1979. The overall construction went well, finishing on time in 1981 without any major changes.


Director Lolly Eggers spent a lot of time managing the interior design of the new Library to ensure that the building would meet community standards. This included fundraising to cover the full cost of the furnishings. The new Library building was larger with more service points, which required more staff. However, due to budget cuts, the Library was unable to hire more staff and actually moved into the building with less staff than they had previously. To make it work, 40 jobs were divided up between 28 permanent staff members, with most staff working in more than one department.


May 27, 1981 was the last day that the Carnegie building was open. Staff member Susan Craig took over much of the planning for moving books into the new building. The Library considered professional moving companies for the project, but due to the prohibitive cost they decided that they would rely on the help of about 600 volunteers to move all the books. Craig wrote a precise moving plan that detailed how the books would get taken out and put back, and her plan went off without a hitch! Every volunteer team finished successfully and early, drawing attention from all over town.


The new Iowa City Public Library building opened on June 15, 1981. It became clear that the demand for service in the new Library was going to strain the limited staff. The Library had been closed for 18 days, so there was a backlog of returned books that needed to be reshelved – often in the thousands. Staff were checking out 240 books an hour, the amount of people entering the building every day doubled from before, the amount of reference questions doubled, and the rate of library card registrations tripled!


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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