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History of the Library

The Keokuk Public Library has a long history, one which predates the civil war, when many of the establishments west of the Mississippi were still in their infancy. On June 1, 1864, the first Keokuk Library opened in its doors in a hall above 80 Main Street (presently the south side of the 300 block of Main), the blue X in the photo below.

In the fall of 1851, a few of Keokuk’s civic-minded residents met to discuss the organization of a library association. However, because there were no guidelines in place for a librarian and only half of the necessary funding had been collected, this attempt failed. In 1854 another attempt at library services was made, failing again due to lack of funding.

On November 28, 1863, a meeting was held at the county courthouse and the Keokuk Library Association was established. Stockholders were sought at $10 per share with a meeting of stockholders to be held when $500 had been collected. This call for funding did not take long as the meeting of stockholders was held on December 3. By December 10, the constitution and articles of incorporation were reported and adopted.

Work continued on establishing the library and on April 4, 1864 bylaws were adopted and a fee schedule was put in place. $50 constituted a lifetime membership. For $10, an individual would be considered a stockholder with an annual tax of $2. At a cost of $3 per year (or $1 for three months) a subscriber would be granted basic use of the library and reading room, but had no vote at the annual election.

On June 1st, the library officially opened its doors for service at 80 Main Street (the red X in the photo). The hall was 39 feet long by 20 feet wide and was rented to the association for $75 per year. There were four lifetime members and 181 stockholders. The collection within the library contained 2,479 volumes, 20 pamphlets, 6 engravings, and 2 maps. The total value of the library, including books and fixtures was estimated at $5,000.

Given the success of the library in its first year of operation, on May 2, 1865, a committee was appointed to determine a more suitable location for the growing institution. The second story over George C. Anderson & Co.’s bank at Main Street was rented as this location adjoined the existing library hall. After closing briefly due to the move, the library was reopened with modified hours. The new hours kept the library open every day from 2 to 10 PM.

The library continued to run very successfully after its expansion. On September 22, 1879, a large endowment was given by the estate of Judge James Lathrop Rice. This donation meant that the board could begin to seek a new location for the library. Combined with other donations and funding, the total amount available for the new library building was nearly $20,000. Third and Main became the desired location for the construction of the new library. The cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1881 and by February 24, 1883 the building was ready for occupancy. The building was 33 feet wide and 140 feet long. The ground floor became a clothing store operated by A. L. Connable, the middle store room was occupied by John Helwig who maintained a shoe repair shop, and the alley was available to Vic Story to open a barber shop. These rentals provided a steady income for the library, which occupied the second story of the building. At the time of the new building’s opening, over 7,300 volumes were housed in the collection. The facility was open every afternoon, Monday through Saturday.

By April 2, 1894, the library had been open for nearly 30 years. An act passed in the state led to a local election in which the people were called upon to determine if the city should accept responsibility for the library to become a public library. This meant the city would be required to lease the library and its properties from the association as well as appoint trustees, the librarian, and staff. The measure carried and in July 1894, the lease was signed by Mayor S. W. Moorehead and the institution became formally known as the Keokuk Public Library.

Miss Nannie Fulton, shown in this photo with an unnamed assistant, served as one of the first librarians of the new public library. She began her work in 1897 and retired in 1946.

The children's area at the Main Street library was a beloved place for many area kids.

Youth services continues to be a favorite aspect of our current public library.

In September of 1962, the present facility at 210 North 5th Street officially opened as the home to the library. Reports from opening day show that more than 300 patrons checked out materials...before noon!

The new building provided a much needed change in available space and upgrades and renovations have been made since 1962 to make your library even better.

The current library houses fiction and non-fiction books for all ages, audiobooks, DVD’s and CD’s, cake pans, an extensive genealogy and local history collection, microfilm for local newspapers dating back to 1849, and computers for public use and internet access. The library also offers a wide variety of databasesebooks, and downloadable audio books for all ages.

We also offer programs for all ages, outreach services and literacy initiatives, education, employment, business, and personal resources. Other services include general information and reference assistance, basic computer classes, and other means of community support and enrichment.

Residents of Keokuk and the surrounding communities and beyond have enjoyed the services provided by the Keokuk Public Library since its earliest days. The library has grown and changed in its 150+ years of service and will continue to strive to provide the highest level of service to our patrons.

What's that big block in the yard?

It's our original cornerstone from 3rd and Main, the one laid by George B. Van Saun, Grand Master of the Iowa Masonic fraternity in 1881. The date appears to be July 4, A. L., 5881. The term Anno Lucis (A. L.) is used by Freemasons to denote the Year of Light, approximately 4,000 years before the beginning of the Common Era. "Year of Light" refers to the biblical account of the creation of the universe wherein God spoke and said "Let there be light,...and there was light." (Genesis 1:3).


Members of the Masonic fraternity were often called upon to lay cornerstones in new constructions and commemorate the event with a grand celebration. The Keokuk Library was no exception! The cornerstone was laid on the 4th of July in 1881 with a variety of items enclosed. These items include a subscription list of original patrons of the library, graduates of city schools, newspapers and historic items of the day, letters, photographs, and business cards. Many of these items are still held in the library's archives along with many other fascinating pieces of days gone by.

Stop by and check out this amazing (and heavy!) piece of local history.

Cornerstone from 3rd and Main Library
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