Long-time residents on Des Moines’ west side may remember the quaint neighborhood libraries that served their community years ago when branch libraries were scattered throughout the city in store fronts and other small businesses.
These libraries were opened limited hours and had few reference materials. Their main purpose was to provide library materials to neighborhoods and residents who could not travel to the larger libraries in the city.
The Public Library of Des Moines started long before the branch libraries were even dreamed. It began in 1866 when lawyer Hiram Y. Smith circulated a petition. 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, and the library opened in the basement of the Methodist Church, located on Fifth Street in downtown, according to “Bridging a Century,” a history of the first 100 years of the Public Library of Des Moines.
The library floated to other buildings in the downtown area, including a former bank building and the building that is now the Randolph Hotel.
In 1882, after financial concerns, the library’s 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, which opened to the public in October 1903.
Library services expand as Des Moines grows; branch libraries become necessary
As Des Moines’ population grew, so did the need for branch libraries throughout the city.
The Waveland Branch of the Des Moines Public Library, located at 1141 42nd St., operated from 1925 to 1953 at that site. A prominent businessman loaned the building to the city rent-free for the first couple of months so the library could get started, according to “Bridging a Century.”
The library was widely used, and services grew to the point where it moved to a larger location around the corner at 4110 University Ave. The neighborhood library operated in that spot until 1964 when the building was torn down.
The 28th Street Branch opened at 549 28th St. in 1924 in a corner store. Its usage soared by 1931, but the city closed the branch in 1936 to save money.
West-side residents also used the Downtown and Mid-City libraries, but mostly the West Side Branch Library, located at 50th Street and Franklin Avenue, which opened in 1965. It was 14,000 square feet in size and replaced three smaller branch libraries (Waveland, University and Beaverdale). It was the first library that followed a plan created by Frederick Wezeman, a professor at the University of Minnesota who had surveyed the Des Moines library system and its programs and recommended replacing smaller branches and stations located throughout the city — at one time there were 32 — with four major, full-service regional branches, one for each quadrant of the city.
The new library had a reading room, a multipurpose meeting room and parking for 70 vehicles. It became a popular after-school hangout for students from Franklin Junior High and Roosevelt High schools. In 1981, the West Side Library, the busiest of the branches, was remodeled. The library also was renamed to the Franklin Avenue Library to avoid confusion with the rapid growth that was occurring in the city of West Des Moines.
“It’s very family-oriented here,” says Pam Deitrick, the branch manager of the Franklin Avenue Library. “I always say we serve people from the cradle to the grave.”
In 1966, Des Moines library officials oversaw an agency known as The Model Cities Reading Center, located where today’s John R. Grubb Community YMCA branch is at 1611 11th St. It served as the first library in the center city, other than the Main Library.
The branch moved to a former barbershop at 13th Street and University Avenue in 1976 and was renamed Mid-City Library. The library didn’t have the use initially anticipated by a consultant’s report, so officials considered closing it. Neighborhood residents and others publicly opposed the closure and worked to find an alternative. The result was a partnership with businessman David Kruidenier who paid for a new building to replace the dilapidated structure. City officials agreed to pay for employees and materials for the library.
The Forest Avenue Library opened on June 21, 1992, at 1326 Forest Ave.
“It has remained a low circulation but a high-usage library,” says Susan A. Woody, branch manager for the Forest Avenue and South Side libraries. “People are coming in and out of the doors every day. It’s more of a destination or a community center.”
Library offerings grow and expand through the years, attract a wide range of patrons
Public libraries began as a place where young men could go and improve themselves and become more knowledgeable in order to gain better employment, says Greg Heid, director of the Des Moines Public Library for the past four 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.
Branch libraries function differently from the main downtown library, says Jan Kaiser, marketing manager for the Des Moines Public Library.
“They’re very much a part of their neighborhoods,” she says. “They serve as a community center for their neighborhoods.”
The Franklin Avenue Library has served as more than just a repository for books. In the 1970s, Des Moines did not have a large performance space for live theater. The library organized bus trips to take people from the library to nearby locations in Iowa to attend professional touring company performances.
It has also been home to an annual high school photography competition in the 1970s and 1980s, and was the site of adult education classes in the 1970s on topics that ranged from yoga to antiques to books. The library’s extensive collection about the study of antiques became regionally recognized.
The Franklin Avenue Library also was the home of an oral history project that was recorded onto audio cassettes in the early 1970s. Almost 100 public officials and individuals with connections to Des Moines business history were interviewed about their knowledge.
The Forest Avenue Library has a very popular public access computer area, which is highly used by job seekers and even those who check email.
“It’s very much still a library, but a lot of the appeal is computers,” Woody says. “To get computers in a mid-city neighborhood was key, especially back then (in 1992) very few people would have had access to computers. Believe it or not, some people still have little access to computers.”
Forest Avenue also has a Homework Hide Out that is open after school for students to use laptops to complete homework, write papers and perform other school work. There are free homework supplies for use, and students can print for free.
The Language Learning Center, unique to the other Des Moines libraries, is housed in Forest Avenue. There are four computers with programs such as Rosetta Stone that are dedicated to learning a new language. Conversations and Coffee is another popular program, where English-language learners come to the library and talk with a native English speaker.
Forest Avenue holds children’s story times and teen programsm as well as an annual Martin Luther King, Jr., essay and art contest. The children and teen’s work is on display at the library, and a program is held where the winning essay is written.
In 2014, Forest Avenue Library officials started a special scholarship, the Forest Avenue Library Love 4 Learning Scholarship (FALL 4 Learning) for a graduating high school senior. The student writes an essay, must be a cardholder and shares how he or she uses the library. Applications are available in the library for the $900 scholarship.
Today’s Franklin, Forest Avenue libraries serves young and old alike
Deitrick says neighborhood support of the library is “phenomenal.”
The Franklin Avenue Library has a unique relationship in that it is next door to the Northwest Community Center. Seniors often eat their lunch at the community center and come next door to the library either before or after lunch to check out books and utilize other library services. West of the community center is a new senior living facility that also attracts individuals to the library.
Patrons heavily use this library branch, which serves a community of all ages that includes many college-educated patrons that use services remotely. The library also is always packed with children and has very popular children’s programs.
The library has two book discussion groups — one meets during the day, the other at night — where as other branches only have one group and offers homebound delivery services. The library’s reference services are highly used by all ages. Forest Avenue also has an active book discussion group.
Both libraries have conference rooms that are popular among neighborhood groups and clubs.
Forest Avenue also has literacy stations for young children to develop fine motor, language and creativity skills and kindergarten readiness.
Regardless of what services libraries offers, Heid says it continues to be a place where people like to congregate — a home away for home for many that is almost like 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.