From the Past: A Place for the Community

125 years of Iowa City Public Library History Est 1896

1920 – 1930: 

In the beginning of the 1920s there was a high turnover rate for librarians, as the pay was low and the Library budget was small. The Iowa City Public Library began the decade under the direction of Acting Librarian Ethel Tiffy. Tiffy was replaced by Librarian Carolyn Ware in 1921, who was herself replaced with Librarian Jessie B. Gordon in 1923.

Jessie B. Gordon was a business woman, and she was president of the Altrusa Club in Iowa City. Gordon heavily prioritized children’s services, which allowed her to see a large increase in staffing and funding early in her career. She was able to establish and staff “branch” libraries at the Horace Mann and Longfellow schools. Gordon issued children library cards through their school so they could utilize the “branch” libraries, a precursor to our current AIM library card program through the Iowa City Community School District. She also advocated for the construction of a playground area for the youth because of the amount of time they spent in the Library.   

Great Depression:

The Great Depression hit while Gordon was still the Head Librarian. Throughout this time, record amounts of people came in to use the Library, drastically increasing circulation of materials. There are anecdotal records of people coming in for warmth, free methods of entertainment, and to learn essential job skills. 

1934 – 1940:

Around 1934, Library use rates began to drop down to what they had looked like in the late 1920s. That year, the budget decreased by almost 25%, which was due to lower property taxes from the lack of new land development during the Depression. With this smaller budget, the heavily used collection was unable to be repaired, and the Library was unable to increase the collection to meet demands. The Library had to reduce staffing, cut Sunday hours, and implement item-based limits (4 books and 4 magazines per person). They also added an exterior book drop to allow people to return overdue books without shame.

However, this time period wasn’t only marked by the economic downturn. The summer of 1934 was the first time the Library put on a children’s summer reading program! Helen Davis, the Children’s Librarian at the time, also began creating youth book clubs, and on Nov. 26, 1935, they celebrated the Carnegie Centennial, honoring Andrew Carnegie’s large contributions to public libraries.  

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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