Library History

Central Library wide shot

The Des Moines Public Library began as the Des Moines Library Association in 1866 in the basement of the Fifth Street Methodist Church (today known as First United Methodist Church). In its early years, the library was supported by contributions and public charity. By 1882, finances had been precarious for several years, and it was decided to turn the library over to the city for establishment of a free public library. After much discussion and contention, the city purchased riverfront property in 1898 for $35,000. This is the site of the former Main Library building at 100 Locust Street. The cornerstone for the building was laid in 1900, and the building, constructed of salmon pink Minnesota limestone, was opened in October, 1903. 

In the 1920's, the library provided a home for the Cumming School of Art and it was the birthplace of the Library Bill of Rights in 1938 under director Forrest Spaulding. The Library Bill of Rights set forth a program to combat "growing intolerance, suppression of free speech and censorship affecting the rights of minorities and individuals." The bill is still in use today by the American Library Association to ensure diversity of viewpoints in all library materials. 

Over the years, the library developed and changed. The Boys and Girls Department opened in 1937 in new and large quarters on the ground floor. Also in the 1930s, Des Moines artist Harry Donald Jones began painting a mural on the 1,091 square feet of wall space on the ground floor as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project. Entitled "The Social History of Des Moines," the mural traced the growth of Des Moines from prehistoric times to present days.

In the 1950s, the music department developed, featuring a large collection of circulating vinyl records, a listening room with piano and record player, and a series of free concerts of recorded music presented weekly in the library's auditorium. The fountain and ornamental steps on the east lawn of the library by the riverbank were removed in the summer of 1955. The black library building turned pink in the summer of 1956 when the accumulated soot and grime of more than fifty years were sandblasted off, the first time the exterior had bee cleaned since 1903. As Des Moines expanded, a new program of building branch libraries was put into place, with the opening of the West Side Branch Library (now Franklin Avenue Library) in 1965. Several other branches followed (we have further info about each of the branches' remodeling in the FAQ brochure).

By the mid-1990s, it became evident that the Main Library (now rechristened the Central Library) was too small and lacked the technological capacity needed to serve the needs of twenty-first century users. After an extensive selection process, London architect David Chipperfield was selected to design a new Central Library, to be located at 1000 Grand Avenue and spanning two city blocks. This new building, which opened on April 8, 2006, featured room for some sixty public computers, a colorful Children's Library, meeting rooms available for community use, study rooms for individual use, a Teen area, and free wireless Internet access.