Library History

The library has a long history that dates back to 1870. Over the years the library has moved, rebuilt and expanded. What has remained the same is our commitment to being a place of learning and providing equal access to all.

Detailed History

A History…

Topeka in the 1870s was little more than a frontier town striving to survive. 1870 brought financial panic and a grasshopper plague worse than any could remember. Approximately 8,000 people lived in the area around the current downtown area. A hot news item was the reporting of a new iron toll bridge that linked the separate municipality of North Topeka and Topeka proper. For 10 cents there was omnibus service between 10th & Kansas and the Kansas Pacific depot.

Also in the news was the new Lincoln School. The new school was the last word in public education, and newspapers were lavish in their praise. The local government was concerned with the question of whether or not cattle should be allowed to roam at large throughout the city between sunrise and sunset. Also of concern were bogus 50 cent notes that were circulating and creating a stir with businessmen.

Whiskey was under attack by the temperance forces. In 1870-71, Lorenzo Costa’s new Opera House opened to house a theatrical company. Topeka’s Black population had celebrated the passage of the 15th amendment and received favorable comments from the press because of their industry and interest in the city’s progress. The city street department was accused of “utter shiftlessness” because of the streets and sidewalks. If it rained, there was an over-abundance of mud in downtown Topeka. Topeka had its problems in the 1870s, but overall it was a good place to live and on its way out of its frontier childhood.

The financial climate was such that certain residents could give serious thought to cultural advancement. The stage was set and the timing right for the organization of a library association that would eventually grow into today’s Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library.

The Ladies of Topeka hurriedly organized the city’s first Library in response to an effort by some gentlemen members of Topeka Post No. 2, G.A.R. to establish their own library. The Grand Army of the Republic’s members felt this library could “be a place where young men can meet and spend their evenings in reading or social amusements to improve the mind, and help keep them from saloons and other places of vice.” The Ladies disapproved of the gentlemen’s intentions and formed their own Library November, 1870.

Events of the 1870s

1870–Ladies Library Association formed.

1872–LLA became the Topeka Library Association. Men allowed to attend meetings for first time.

Until November of 1872, there had been three attempts at starting a library in Topeka. Each had been sponsored by men’s organizations. The following is an editorial written by a member of the men’s military group the Grand Army of the Republic of Topeka Post No. 2. It was printed in the Daily Commonwealth newspaper on November 3, 1870 and describes the desire for such an organization:

Let us have a place where young men can spend their evenings in reading or social amusements that will tend to improve the mind, and help keep them from saloons and other places of vice.

Well, the ladies of the town’s upper crust who had been discussing starting a subscription library took this as quite a shock. They had heard tales of the wild stag parties at the proposed men’s club where the library would be located. They could only imagine the kind of trashy literature with which those young ex-service men would stock their shelves. Only 48 hours after readers read about the above proposed men’s Library Association, they read another brief announcement about another library project proposed by some of the ladies in Topeka:

All ladies interested in forming a “Ladies’ Library Association” in this city are requested to meet at the residence of Mrs. T.L. King, corner of 8th and Monroe streets….

The attempts by the G.A.R. Post No. 2 failed, and the Ladies Library Association was officially organized with Mrs. Noah C. McFarland elected President, Mrs. J.M. Spencer as Vice-president, and Mrs. Henry King, wife of the editor of the Kansas State Record, Treasurer.

A committee was appointed to prepare a constitution and bylaws. This historic meeting took place in a second floor lodge room over the J.W. Davis Dry Goods Store, on the east side of Kansas Avenue, between 7th and 8th streets. At the December 10th meeting, the Commonwealth reported the following:

The all-important committee charged with the selection and purchase of the association’s initial stock of books, was announced….Following four months spent in recruiting members who were assessed $3.00 a year, and pouring over catalogues in view of selecting an initial stock of 150 volumes, “suitable for a ladies’ library,” the fifty members of the association were notified that their very own library would be opened on Saturday afternoon, March 11, 1871, for three hours, and on Saturday afternoons thereafter, from 3 to 6 p.m.

1883 – Statehouse Library Opens

1883–Library dedicated on Statehouse grounds.
Edward Wilder, Secretary-Treasurer of the Santa Fe Railroad and President of the Library Board, convinced the Union Pacific Railroad and the Santa Fe to jointly fund a building for the Library on the State House grounds.

The grand dedication of this building was held on a “balmy” night in April 1883.

1885–Two years after the new library building opened on Capitol Square, an attempt was made to burn it down. Fortunately a passerby smelled the oil smoke and rushed to the side of the building where a small blaze, near an open basement window, was in progress. The fire was extinguished and left no visible signs of damage. The newspaper reported, “The attempt was a bold and a uselessly wicked one, as no one could be benefited by the destruction of the library…If the would-be incendiary could be found, and the proof against him were strong, there would be little chance of his encumbering this sphere very much longer.”

The Topeka Public Library remained on the State House grounds until it moved to its present quarters at Tenth and Washburn in 1953.

Events of the 1900’s

1901 — Edward Wilder gathered treasures in Europe as the foundation for the library’s fine arts collection.

“As a result of Edward Wilder’s trip to Europe. The Topeka Free Library will come into possession of a splendid collection of chinaware, glassware and pictures collected by Mr. Wilder while on the continent.” Mr.Wilder said, “I have tried to collect a representative assortment of choice glass and chinaware…I believe the collection will be of some assistance to the people of the city…”

1908 — Langston Hughes, well-known African-American author, lived in Topeka when he was about 7 years old. He attended Harrison school during the 1908-09 term. Hughes wrote in his autobiography The Big Sea about how books came into his life. He tells of his mother taking him to the vine-covered library on the grounds of the capitol. “There I fell in love with librarians,” he wrote, “and I have been in love with them ever since – those very nice women who help you find wonderful books! The silence inside the library, the big chairs and long tables, and the fact that the library was always there, and didn’t seem to have a mortgage on it, or any sort of insecurity about it – all of that made me love it. And right then books began to happen to me.”

1915 — The library received a bequest of 3,000 volumes, part of the personal library of Captain Henry King, a former Topeka newspaperman and editor of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. The books were given in memory of Captain King’s late wife, Maria Louise, who was one of the founders of the library

1918 — A branch library system was established in cooperation with the Topeka school system. By 1932 there were branches at Curtis and Holliday junior high schools and Washington, Lafayette, Randolph and Gage Park elementary schools.

1925 — Governor Ben Paulen, acting for a legislative commission, served notice on the library to vacate statehouse grounds site. Plans for a new site and building, with voter approval, got underway. The vote failed and the library remained on statehouse grounds.

Library had 15,000 borrowers and a total yearly circulation of 135,656 books.

1929 — Library observed 46 years at the statehouse grounds site.

1933 — Heirs of the estate of David W. Mulvane presented his home at 11th and Mulvane to the library for future expansion. It was determined to make this home into the children’s library. After much hard work and fundraising, the Mulvane Girls’ and Boys’ Library was formally opened on September 16, 1939.

1942 – Because of lack of funds, and the inability of the board of education to help with expenses, the branch libraries are forced to close. Topeka once again was limited to the central building on the statehouse grounds. Mrs. Fred Martin was appointed to the library board, the first woman to serve in 56 years.

1943 – The library hit the road. A Chevrolet coupe and converted house trailer became the first traveling branch. The inside walls of the trailer were lined with shelves that could hold 1,200 books; at the front was an L-shaped desk for the librarian and cupboards for supplies. The trailer was heated with a kerosene stove and there were colorful curtains at the windows. The library on wheels made 10 stops each week. It was an unqualified success.

1946 – Innovative librarian, Anna Muller announced a new list of can do’s at the library. Want to bring Fido along? That’s just fine, as long as he is well behaved. “…if he gets to cutting up, out he goes.” Want to bring your typewriter? Come ahead, there’s a special room in the reference area which makes an ideal spot for writing. Renew books by phone? You bet you can, call and it will be done. “And, last but not least, …you can leave your children at the Mulvane children’s branch…while mama goes downtown on a shopping spree.” Modern changes for the modern age!

1947 – A bond issue for $650,000 was brought before the voters in April for the construction of a new building; an overwhelming majority approved the issue. Planning for a site and new construction began. After many suggestions it was decided that the new library building would be placed on the grounds of the Westlawn Park, located at 10th and Washburn. There were some who were unhappy about this location. They felt it was just to far away from downtown, and people would not want to go “ way out there” to visit the library!

1952 – Adelaide Bolmar, a 50-year employee of the library, turned the first spade of dirt for the new building in Westlawn Park. Miss Bolmar had presided over the reference room of the library for fifty years. She began her library career in 1903 and retired in 1952, choosing not to move to the new library on west 10th.

1953 – December 14, 1953, the new library building was opened. The rally call went out to save the old building on Capitol Square; a committee was formed and a petition drive was started. More than 30,000 signatures were received in the effort, but time would not save the building. After several years the state legislature passed a bill to raze the old structure. In 1961 it was torn down and the site cleared and leveled.

1954 – Would you like to receive a book by mail? For a small fee of 25 cents this can be done. Come in fill out a card and when the reserved book is available it will be sent to you. Or make your request, pay 5 cents and a postcard will be sent to you telling you the book is waiting for you at the circulation desk. Just one of the special services offered by the Public Library.

1956 – Library began Sunday hours on a trial basis. The schedule included several educational and cultural programs. Full library facilities were available from 2 to 6 p.m.

Several pin oak trees between 40 and 50 feet tall were transplanted from Gage Park to the front and west sides of the new library building. They replace existing trees that died during the construction process.

1962 – Unruly youths at the library; the board voted to have a night patrol. “Library hooligans will be controlled by a plainclothes policeman working five nights a week…” Those who cause disturbances were ejected. A new policy was in place, stating that students must be using library books to remain in the building.

East Topeka branch library opened at 6th and Teff Dec. 17. “…library board considers this the first real working branch library in the city and will view it as a pilot…for possible additional branch libraries…”

1964 – The “Tenth Year Report” of the library indicates that, since moving to the new location at 10th and Washburn, the population using the library has increased from 42 percent to 53 percent. In 1954 users averaged reading eight and a half books each. In 1963 the average was nearly 10 books each.

Library installed a new coin-operated copy machine. Cost for copies was 25 cents per sheet.

Library made available a movie-rating sheet, a new service to aid parents in deciding whether certain movies are suitable for children. “The Green Sheet” was provided through the cooperation of the Motion Picture Association of America.

1968 – Planning for expansion of the library building was undertaken. “…members of the Shawnee County legislative delegation were invited to a dinner in the library basement, to view the congestion, the thousands of currently useful books exiled to the now crowded storage stacks…”

Senator Pomeroy introduced legislation in the 1969-70 session to allow, with the consent of the electorate, a pay-as-you-go building expansion program.

1970 – Friends of the Topeka Public Library group was established. Formed to help with the bond issue for the bill passed by the legislature to levy a one-mill tax for five years to support the cost of expanding and remodeling the library building. The referendum passed on August 4, 1970.

The first officers of the Friends group were W. F. Hardesty, president; John Ripley, vice president; Mrs. Mabel Moses, secretary; and Glenn Swogger, treasurer.

The library celebrated 100 years. November 12, 1870, the Ladies Library Association was founded. The Shawnee County Historical Society, commemorating this event, published a bulletin relating the library’s history.

1972 – His sons present Chester Woodward’s library to the public library. The late philanthropist and collector had one of the finest private libraries in the area. It would become an integral part of the public library’s future special collections. The stained glass windows from the Woodward library were also given.

Ground was broken for the Technical Services/Extension building, the first phase of the library’s five-year building program.

1974 – The final phase of the TPL building program was underway. A two-story addition was scheduled to be built on the south and extensive remodeling done in the rest of the library. Included in the work was be a 200-seat auditorium, a Gallery of Fine Arts and a Topeka Room to be furnished by the Friends of TPL.

1976 – The remodeling and expansion program was completed. An open house was held on Sunday, January 4.

The library’s Community Information Service (CIS) began in January to provide the community with information about services and organizations that are available in Topeka.

1975 – Talking Books (Dept. of Blind & Physically Handicapped), a multi-county service, began in October.

1978 – The Friends of the Library presented a Steinway grand piano for use in the auditorium.

1981 – A Readers’ Theatre production of “On Golden Pond” was presented as a part of the library’s Music for a Sunday Afternoon series.

1986 – Topeka Public Library ranked 29th in nation according to a study conducted by the Library Research Center of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign of 8,000 public libraries in the United States. Two hundred libraries representing 40 states were selected for their quality of public service and general administration. TPL was 29th of that 200. In that year the library had 55,00 registered borrowers and circulated 1 million books annually.

1989 – The Library and Stormont-Vail Regional Medical Center join forces to purchase the Medical Arts building at 10th and Horne. The library is looking for parking lot expansion.

1990 – An exhibit, “The Paintings of Dwight David Eisenhower,” was featured in the library’s Gallery of Fine Arts. David Eisenhower, the president’s grandson, and Julie Nixon Eisenhower were present for the opening.

1991 – The library joined the computer age. The card catalog and the circulation system was automated. There was no longer drawers of catalog cards; all information was available from a computer terminal.

Bob and Hazel Lingo gave a gift of $50,000 to the library for expansion of its children’s section. The Lingo Story Room is the result of that gift.

1992 – Jeanne and Dr. Cotter Hirschberg donated their African art collection to the library. The Hirschbergs both served on the library board and their long-standing relationship with head librarian Jim Marvin helped ensure the African collection would go to the library.

A November ballot asked whether a countywide library district should be formed to expand the library’s tax base to include county residents. New statistics showed non-Topekans used library more than those who pay for it.

The voters of the city and county approved a new Topeka and Shawnee County Library District. The library’s name changed to the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library.

1993 – Friends of the Library opened a used bookstore. The Booktique was located in the library’s portion of the Medical Arts building at 10th and Horne.

Bookmobile service celebrated 50th anniversary.

Bob and Hazel Lingo presented $62,000 to the library to purchase a new 36-foot long, state of the art bookmobile. The bookmobile carried 4,500 items to 25 stops in the city and county.

1995 – The Library observed its 125th anniversary. Honored guests included Barbara King Wilson, Elizabeth Bowers and Carolyn Stewart, granddaughters of two of the original founders.

An architect firm was lined up for future library expansion. A contract with Van Doren Hazard Stallings Inc. was signed. Van Doren hired Michael Graves, a world-renowned architect from Princeton, to work on the design team.

1996 – A $23 million bond issue to expand and renovate the library was approved by voters on August 8.

Michael Graves, lead designer of the library’s expansion and renovation project, visited Topeka to open a library gallery exhibit of some of his recent works.

The Friends Booktique moved to Fairlawn Plaza Shopping Center, as the space that was being used in the Medical Arts building will be razed for new library expansion.

The library purchased Sumner Elementary School to house books and operations for three years while its expansion project was under construction. Sumner is on the National Register of Historic Places for its role in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka case.

1997 – It was announced that the library will remain open and operational during the expansion project.

The library purchases Stormont-Vail’s half of the Medical Arts building for the expansion project.

1998 – Ground was broken for a 100,000-square foot addition to the library. HTK Architects led the project and internationally renowned architect Michael Graves designed the project.

An endowment gift of $150,000 was received from the Sabatini family in memory of Alice C. Sabatini. In gratitude for this gift, the art gallery in the new building was named the Alice C. Sabatini Gallery. The income from the fund will be used to annually stage an art show for children.

To the present

A $23 million bond issue was passed in 1996 to expand and renovate the Library. Internationally renowned architect Michael Graves was hired to design a landmark facility. In 1998, ground was broken for the 100,000 square foot addition. The Library remained open during the expansion project. On January 12, 2002 the Library opened its new doors to the public.