As the first library to actually open to the public in the State of Illinois, the Rock Island Public Library is considered by many as the oldest public library in the state.
Its remarkable history goes back to its beginning in 1855 as an “Association” library, funded by donations from local business leaders and subscriptions from the general public. Citizens who wanted access were required to pay an annual fee of $3.00. This original effort at a city library ended after only two years.
A second attempt revived the library in 1865 with the privately funded “Young Men’s Literary Association.” Sponsored lectures featured some well-known speakers, from Clara Barton to Ralph Waldo Emerson. The lectures provided a stream of revenue which the association used for the purchase of more books.
The Young Men’s Literary Association functioned until 1872 when the State of Illinois authorized communities to assess taxes in order to provide public libraries. On November 25, 1872, the Rock Island Public Library opened its doors as the first public library in the entire state of Illinois. It was housed in one rented room, measuring only 24' x 48', in the Mitchell and Lynde Building just north of 2nd Avenue at 17th Street (now the site of the National City Bank).
The building now in use, at 401-19th Street, was completed and opened in 1903. It was first called “Rock Island’s Temple of Literature.” Much of its funding came from the donations of two contemporary Rock Island businessmen, Frederick Denkmann and Frederick Weyerhaeuser, his brother-in-law, who would later become giants in the American lumber business.
For those who take a moment to notice, the building’s columns support an original “frieze” that surrounds the building, in which are engraved the names of a dozen notable authors. The original library’s stone walls were quarried in North Amherst, Ohio, and were initially gray in color. Their exposure to the elements has turned them to a mellow gold, perhaps due to tiny amounts of iron in the stone which has oxidized over the years.
The library building has been updated and refurbished several times. Its collections of books and resources are continually replenished. In 1985, the building was enhanced by the construction of a large addition. As a finishing touch, the Harris and Katz family donated a sculptural fountain for the north side of the new addition. The official name for of the fountain is “Essere Umano” (to be human), although it is commonly thought of as the “library swans.”
Today the library operates in three locations: the Main Library, which continues to serve the larger community from its site in downtown Rock Island; the 30/31 Branch; and the Southwest Branch. The 30/31 Branch has been expanded and remodeled to include a computer center, a drive-up window, and a ‘Friends of the Library’ Coffee Shop and Book Sale room. Similarly, the Southwest branch has expanded and renovated its facilities, nearly quadrupling its space. It now enjoys a much larger collection, expanded computer access, and a community room. Both branches have specialized homework resources and materials of interest to children and youth as well as the adult population.
The Rock Island Public Library belongs to the RiverShare Library group, a library consortium that networks member libraries into a shared system. Residents of Rock Island can now access the area’s libraries’ catalog listings from the convenience of their home computers. Card holders can place reserves, see what they have checked out, and request books to be delivered from other libraries.
Today the Rock Island Public Library houses well over 200,000 volumes. The collection includes not only books and magazines, but also musical CDs, books on tape and CD, multimedia kits, educational and entertainment videos and DVDs, and books in Large Print format. The library provides free access to the Internet and makes available some specialized electronic databases.
Additionally, the Rock Island Public Library offers programs for children and adults, including Story Hours, Parent/Tot programs, and special outreach programs to the community and its schools. The library hosts a popular “Frieze Lecture” series, sponsors displays by local artists on its 2nd Floor Gallery, and hosts a variety of other programs.
Library Directors @ Rock Island Public Library