Even though a public library has operated in Rock Island since Nov. 25, 1872*, the Rock Island Public Library occupied leased facilities for nearly 30 years before construction of its first building at 401-19th Street began in 1901. The building opened to the public on Dec. 15, 1903 to critical acclaim, with local newspapers calling it “Rock Island’s Temple of Literature.” The original library included a rotunda and skylight that illuminated a circulation desk below. Though the rotunda was later bridged over, a 1985 addition and renovation restored many of the building’s original features, including the marble foyer, skylight dome with ornamentation, original oak doors, brass door fixtures and 2nd floor stair railing. The building is a historic landmark.
A ground floor accessible entrance on the south side and an expansion to the west were also added in 1985. As a finishing touch, the Harris and Katz families 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 more commonly known as the “library swans.”
*Locals are proud that the library was the first to open to the public after the passing of the 1872 Illinois Library Act. To the surprise of those who assume that it is a Carnegie library, much of the funding for the 1903 building came from two Rock Island businessmen, Frederick Denkmann and his brother-in-law Frederick Weyerhaeuser. In November 1900, Weyerhaeuser, who began his business in Rock Island with partner and brother-in-law Frederick (F.C.A) Denkmann, offered a $50,000 advance for a "fireproof library building, on the lot recently purchased, which will be an ornament to our city." His offer stipulated that 5 percent of his advance would be paid back out of taxes, and offered an additional $10,000 donation for book stacks and furnishings (later used with permission for construction.)
Weyerhaeuser eventually donated $17,869.32 out of the total cost of $90,448.20. Architect L.M. Drack, of Drack and Kerns, designed the building in Classic Ionic style with Italian Renaissance finishes. Materials included Berea sandstone, quarried in Amherst Township, Ohio. Originally canyon gray, the sandstone has warmed to a mellow gold due to natural oxidation. Other materials used include Carthage marble, oak, brass and marble.
Visitors may also want to take a look up at the historic building's decorative frieze, which contains the names of 12 authors considered notable enough to engrave in stone by the library board of 1903. Other notable historical elements include the record-breaking tenure of the library’s first director, Miss Ellen Gale. Miss Gale started as the librarian for the library's predecessor, the Young Men’s Literary Association, at just age 15 in 1869. She continued to serve Rock Island Library from 1872 to 1937, making her the longest serving municipal library director in the nation at the time of her retirement. Pictures of Weyerhaeuser and Miss Gale hang on the library’s first floor.
Modern visitors to the Main Library location will find free public WiFi, public internet, extensive browsing collections, a used book store, Children’s Library, and walking tour brochures for Rock Island’s historic neighborhoods. Library reference staff are also able to help visitors with directions and other local information.
For more details, please download the documents "Rock Island Library: Our History Since 1872" or
"Building the Main Library, 1901-1903" from the library website, Rock Island Library mission and history