Rock Island Public Library

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Main downtown branch, seen on a cloudy evening

The Rock Island Public Library is located in downtown Rock Island, Illinois. The Rock Island Public Library traces its beginnings to 1872, making it the oldest public library in Illinois. However, fee-based public libraries started in 1855 in Rock Island and have contributed to the history of Illinois' original library system.

Association Library 1855-1857[edit]

On June 23, 1855 Joseph B. Danforth, the editor of the Rock Island Republican printed an editorial explaining four reasons why Rock Island needed a start a public library.[1] Then the following week on June 27, 1855 an anonymous letter was published in the Rock Island Argus, formerly the Republican, offering to give $100 to build a book collection if nine other men would promise to give $100 and if they city promised to give the ten men lifelong membership and a building to store the books.[2] However, nine other men did not pledge $100. Which the $1,000 needed to build a collection, Rock Island's citizens decided to have a meeting on September 15, 1855, to decide how a library could be created in Rock Island. The meeting created the Rock Island Library and Reading Room Association, a board of officers and a committee to draft a constitution.[3] However, since Illinois law did not have a provision that allowed the city to tax the residents to fund a library, the board of officers decided have a library that was open to the "public" as long the man was a Rock Island resident and could pay the yearly members fee. By the end of the September 15 meeting, the men had raised $500 from their own personal funds, set up another committee designed to raise money for the library and a fee schedule. The library fees ranged from $3.00 for a yearly membership to $100 for a family lifetime membership as long as the children are under 21 years old.[4] However, for unexplained reasons by the end of 1857 the Association Library closed, forcing library members to store the books at their own homes for safekeeping until another library would be opened in 1865.[5]

Young Men's Literary Association 1865-1871[edit]

On January 12, 1865, a notice printed in the Rock Island Argus informed the public that there would be a meeting on the 16th for the purpose of creating a new library.[6] An informal constitution and library board was created before meeting in the hope that a new library would be created. The first meeting of the Young Men’s Literary Association was on January 23, 1865, and that night the constitution was adopted and officers were elected.[7] The yearly fee of membership was set at $3.00 per year. After setting the business of the library, the next step was to retrieve all of the books that were left at former members' homes when the Library Association closed in 1859, leaving about 1,500 books available for checkout.[8] However, almost 1,000 books were never recovered and were lost forever in former members' homes.[9] In April 1866, the library opened six days a week, closing on Sunday. In 1868, the library hired Miss Ellen Gale as the new librarian. Miss Gale worked at Rock Island Public Libraries for 64 years, the longest tenure of any librarian in the history of Illinois. The Association Library closed three years later to start the free Rock Island Public Library by giving the new public library their entire book collection.

Rock Island Public Library 1872-1901[edit]

In 1872 the Illinois State Legislature created a law that allowed city councils to create public libraries, by giving city councils the power to tax citizens for public library funding.[10] Soon after the law was signed into law the Rock Island City Council was quick to implement the new tax, and the Rock Island Public Library opened its door on November 25, 1872 with Miss Gale as the head librarian.[11] The new library's received their supplies and books from the collection own by the Young Men’s Literary Association, whom served as fee-based public library from 1865-1971.[12] The library was located in the same rooms at the second floor of the Mitchell & Lynde Building on Eagle Street (now the location of the First of America Bank) that the Rock Island City Library and Reading Room Association was housed during it existence from 1855-1859.[13] The library board decided that for all citizens to be able to use the library is had to be open seven days a week, since many people only had Sundays off. By the end of the first two weeks the library was opened over 1,000 books had been checked out and the library board decided to rent another room to increase space for new books and additional reading room for patrons.[14]

Over the next ten years the library would continue to have budget and space problems. By 1891 Miss Gale, by the request of the citizens had organized the books by subject (history, travel, poetry and fiction) and alphabetical order within their subject. To raise money for more books at the library, Miss Gale sold copies of the books catalog for $.15 a piece.[15] In 1899 the library had 14,866 books in their collection, 1,070 of them children's books.[16] The Rock Island Public Library had out grown their three rooms at the Mitchell & Lynde Building and the library board started to look for land and financing to build a new library to support the library's collection of books and the growing population of Rock Island readers. On April 3, 1900 the library board purchased a lot for the new library and on January 10, 1901 the board chose to the design plans for an Ionic building finished in Italian Renaissance Architecture.[17]

Rock Island Public Library 1902-present[edit]

On August 23, 1902 a cornerstone was laid at the northwest corner of the future public library.[18] In September 1902 the decorative frieze was placed around the top of the building. The twelve authors carved into the sandstone are the last names of Homer, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Virgil, Victor Hugo, William Shakespeare, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Robert Burns, Esaias Tegner, Alighieri Dante, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and George Bancroft.[19] The total cost of the library when it was completed was $90,448.20, $30,000 over the proposed library budget.[20] The Main Library building opened on December 15, 1903 in downtown Rock Island for browsing. When the library first opened it was called the Rock Island’s Temple of Literature and was hailed by the Argus as one of the most "handsomely appointed in the State outside of Chicago."[21] On the main or first floor was divided between an Adult Reading Room, Children's Department, Reference Department, and enough stacks to hold 16,000 books.[22] The second floor had two unfinished meeting rooms, the Director's Office and a room to hold local artwork.[23] The only artwork in the local art showroom was a model of the battleship Illinois, made by David Thompson.[24] The basement housed the heating plant, an unpacking room, and a storage room for back issues of the Argus and local historical documents.[25] On May 3, 1937 Miss Gale resigned as the librarian of the Rock Island Public Library.[26] However, The library continued to grow over the next 100 years by adding two branch libraries, additions and renovations to the downtown library and an expanding collection.

Main Library[edit]

Main Rock Island Library

The Main Library building opened on December 15, 1903 in downtown Rock Island. When the library first opened it was called the Rock Island’s Temple of Literature, but the name has been changed to the Main Library since the introduction of the branches. The current layout of the library has changed from its original opening in 1903. The basement houses the large Children's Department, including children's study area and children's computer lab. The basement has its own Circulation Department, bathrooms and an art exhibit titled Story Mountain, which was completed in 1985. The main floor or first floor houses the reference and circulations Departments, computer lab, and a small local history collection of Rock Island history. The main floor houses the fiction-mystery, romance, western, new, DVD & VHS, newspaper & magazine, and reference collections. The second floor houses the business office of the Rock Island Public Library, local art exhibit room, and the non-fiction collection. The basement, first, and second floors each have study areas and wireless internet. During the winter and fall months the library is open seven days a week and during the spring and summer the library is open six days a week, closing on Sunday. An addition was added to the Main library in 1986 and it was extensively remodeled in 2006.[27] The Main library's phone number is 309-732-READ, which was designed so patrons would be unable to forget the number. The Rock Island Public Library is a member of PALS (Prairie Area Library System) a consortium 186 lending libraries.

30/31 Branch Library[edit]

30/31 Branch Library

The 30/31 Branch library is located at the intersection of 31st Avenue and 30th Street, which is why it is called the 30/31 Library. The branch was formerly a fire station, which was closed when Rock Island's fire stations consolidated in the 1950s. Soon after the fire station closed the city council decided to open it as a branch library to serve the information needs of Rock Island's citizens that could not travel to the downtown library. After extensively remodeling the fire station, the branch was opened in 1957 to the public. The branch has wireless internet access, a computer lab, children's and adult reading areas and a self-checkout machine. The branch features a drive-up book pickup and book drop. The branch is open six days a week and closed on Sundays. The branch also holds the Friends of the Rock Island Library Coffee Shop and Book Sale room, which raises money for library improvements and children's programing funding. The south side of the branch has an Illinois native wildflower garden and table set for patrons wanting to enjoy nature while reading.

Southwest Branch Library[edit]

Southwest Branch Library

The Southwest Rock Island branch is located in Southwest Rock Island, an area that is south of the original city of Rock Island and is separated by the Rock River (Mississippi River) and the village of Milan. The Southwest branch was created to conveniently serve the information needs of Southwest Rock Island citizens, because of the distance to the Main and the 30/31 libraries. The Southwest Library is attached to the Rock Island Fire Station #2. In 1974 a small library was added onto the side of the fire station, and it opened soon after to the public. In 2001 the branch was renovated adding bathrooms, a community room, children's room, and computer lab and study area. The community room is used for Library Board meetings, story times, Book discussion club and special Rock Island City Council meetings; it is also available to non-profit organizations groups by contacting the library office. The branch has wireless internet, computer lab, children's and adult reading areas and a self-checkout machine.


  1. ^ Diane Oestreich, "Rock Island Public Library 19th Street and 4th Avenue," Rock Island Argus Newspaper, December 30, 2001, C1.
  2. ^ Roland Tweet, Miss Gale's Books: The Beginnings of the Rock Island Public Library, (Rock Island, IL: Rock Island Public Library, 1997), 5.
  3. ^ Roland Tweet, 4.
  4. ^ Roland Tweet, 5.
  5. ^ Diane Oestreich, C1.
  6. ^ Roland Tweet, 7.
  7. ^ Roland Tweet, 9.
  8. ^ Roland Tweet, 11.
  9. ^ Roland Tweet, 9.
  10. ^ Roland Tweet, 15.
  11. ^ Roland Tweet, 15.
  12. ^ Roland Tweet, 18.
  13. ^ Roland Tweet, 9 & 18.
  14. ^ Roland Tweet, 23.
  15. ^ Roland Tweet, 25.
  16. ^ Roland Tweet, 31.
  17. ^ Roland Tweet, 34 - 35.
  18. ^ Roland Tweet, 36
  19. ^ Roland Tweet, 37.
  20. ^ Roland Tweet, 36.
  21. ^ Roland Tweet, 38.
  22. ^ Roland Tweet, 38.
  23. ^ Roland Tweet, 38.
  24. ^ Roland Tweet, 38.
  25. ^ Roland Tweet, 38.
  26. ^ Roland Tweet, 38.
  27. ^ Libraries, City of Rock Island, (accessed November 21, 2008).

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 41°30′31″N 90°34′22″W / 41.50861°N 90.57278°W / 41.50861; -90.57278