From its humble beginnings almost 150 years ago in the basement of a Methodist church to the technology-driven “virtual library” it has become today, one thing has never changed about the Des Moines Central Library: its mission of serving the community for the public good.
“The library is basically available 24-7 without ever leaving your home, but we’re still in the business of proving information and hopefully lifelong literacy,” says Jan Kaiser, marketing manager of the library.
The Public Library of Des Moines began in 1866 when Hiram Y. Smith, a lawyer, circulated a petition in support of one. Many settlers to the area — Des Moines was about 20 years old at the time — had brought books with them, but there were no large, private libraries. The petition garnered 134 signatures, membership money and books were collected. The library opened in the basement of the Methodist Church, located on Fifth Street, between Walnut Street and Court Avenue, according to “Bridging a Century,” a history of the first 100 years of the Public Library of Des Moines.
A year later, the Des Moines Library Association was formed and rented rooms in the B.F. Allen Bank Building at Fourth Street and Court Avenue. Charles A. Dudley, another lawyer, served as the first librarian. The library floated to other buildings in the downtown area, including the building that is now the Randolph Hotel at 204 Fourth St.
In 1882, after much concern over the finances of the library, its operations were turned over to the city of Des Moines to establish a free public library, according to “Bridging a Century.” The library’s located shuffled a couple more times until the city levied a tax to purchase riverfront property (for $35,000) and construct a new Main Library building.
Construction began with the cornerstone laid on May 19, 1900. The cost of the building was more than expected, and there was not enough money to finish the project. The building, still in an unfinished state, was opened to the public in October 1903. The library could not be open at night for several months until the lighting was finished. The reading and reference rooms were not completed until the following spring. In 1906, the City Council approved another tax levy to raise money to finish the library.
Library offerings grow and expand through the years
Eventually, women were encouraged to seek more information about the household, and children were included in the mix in the 1930s and 1940s once libraries began to offer collections for their enjoyment. Des Moines was one of the first public libraries in the country that had a children’s section.
“We were ahead of the game in Des Moines,” Heid says.
The library was in a central location — in a prominent new building along the Des Moines riverfront across from Des Moines City Hall — where it was viewed as a cornerstone of the community. The original collections contained many materials about how to improve one’s education.
According to “Bridging a Century,” the library was considered a social invention. It contained an art gallery (added in 1918 and the home of the Des Moines Fine Arts Association’s permanent collection) in addition to books and was the location of meetings, recorded concerts and story-telling. A large musical collection opened for circulation in 1919, where patrons could borrow sheets of music, opera and oratorio scores, as well as books.
Library books became available by mail in 1919 when customers telephoned in their orders. During World War I, library officials set up a special area within the building for soldiers stationed at Camp Dodge and Fort Des Moines to write letters to family members. Following WWI, the library was accused of providing information about how to make home brew liquor, when Iowa law prohibited the making of liquor in the home, according to “Bridging a Century.”
Through the years, the library also provided services to Des Moines hospitals by placing collections in hospitals and taking the books to patients once a week. Clubs began to partner with the library to increase the collection in various subject areas. The library expanded its outreach to shut-ins, community groups, schools, office buildings, playgrounds and more through a mobile library (starting in 1946). Library officials broadcasted books and library news over the radio from 1928 to 1940, making Des Moines one of the first libraries to make use of the radio.
A new Central Library was built between 10th and 12th streets and Locust and Grand avenues, and opened in April 2006, almost 140 years after the initial basement library began in Des Moines.
The strong tradition of the library continues today, says Heid, who came to Des Moines from the Atlanta area. He says the Des Moines Central Library has more library cardholders than the libraries where he worked in the south.
“People in Iowa and Des Moines really want to learn and want to read,” he says.
Technology begins to play a bigger role in everyday library use
Central libraries were initially viewed as the book repository for library systems. They held the major collections with the most in-depth materials of a subject area and were the warehouses for the neighborhood library. A branch library may contain one copy of a book, but the central library contained dozens more in case of book clubs or other uses. This was no different in Des Moines.
“It was a warehouse, for all intensive purposes, and you also had you very in-depth reference department where all questions would be answered downtown,” Heid says.
As computer usage became more accessible and the Internet more widely used, the role of the central library began to change. Libraries divested themselves of books that were rarely read and began to turn to electronic offerings. By the late 1970s, the library began to use an online catalog system. All card catalogs were removed by 1990.
In Des Moines, the “virtual library” was born. It offers electronic books, audio books and magazines that can be checked out from any location. Some collections have been digitized. It includes a two-way interactive reference service in which patrons can text a question or Skype with a reference librarian to ask a question or receive information without stepping foot inside the library. A service called Tumblebooks allows parents to log in to the library and access educational programs for their children to view from home.
“We still use all of the services, but we don’t have to have all of the shelf space because it’s all electronic,” Heid says.
Library transforms to fit patrons’ needs, becomes a home away from home
More access to library materials and programs online is planned in the future.
Librarians plan to videotape their own children’s programs and story times, which will then be available for viewing on the website. They also want to include a special historical program called Retro Iowa/Retro Des Moines that is popular among attendees. Filming these programs will give patrons an opportunity to experience them again from the comfort of their home, Heid says.
This year, library officials will roll out a series of personas attached to particular topics of interest such as gardening. The “gardener” persona on the library’s website will share a list of the best books about gardening, links to other websites with gardening information, and be available to answer questions. A similar persona is planned for mysteries and mystery writing and another for crafts. The library has several librarians who are subject specialists and will be in charge of the personas and answering questions similar to how the library currently does with its social media pages and website.
“We’re going to tailor the search to the specific person,” Heid says.
Library officials also are expanding the special collections area to include as many historical photos of downtown Des Moines as possible. Heid says this service is a tool that previously has been used by historians and restoration enthusiasts who have restored some of the larger historic homes along Grand Avenue and wanted to see interior photos of the houses. The thought is that those who are purchasing or renovating an old building downtown into a loft or condominium would be able to see the inside of the buildings as they were originally constructed.
The Central Library also is expanding its business section to accommodate the numerous start-ups and smaller entrepreneurs that are making a home in downtown. Materials include information about how to create a start-up business, how to put together a business plan and how to find and apply for grants, as well as information for people who want to contribute to start-ups.
Regardless of all of the services offered online and inside the library, the Central Library remains a place where people like to congregate, Heid says. It’s a home away for home for many — almost a second living room.
“Libraries are becoming one of the last places in major urban areas where you can go into free of charge and have a safe, comfortable, warm place to go,” he says.