Library History

A Brief History of the Washington Free Public Library


The Washington Public Library was established by a group of dedicated volunteers in 1877 with a combination of private donations of money and books and a small public tax.   For the first several years the library was housed in an upstairs room in the building that now houses the Stone Mill and later to an extra room in the old Washington City Hall, now called the McCreedy building.   Many of the original books held by the Washington Public Library came from the private collection of Gen. Hiriam Scofield, a civil war general from who lived in Washington and held one of the largest private libraries in the nation.   After his death his personal library was split between the cities of Washington and Wellman.   The Wellman Public Library is named after Gen. Scofield (The Wellman-Scofield Public Library).   The Washington Library still owns most of these books, though they have begun to deteriorate somewhat. 


In 1901 Jane A. Chilcote, widow of Dr. Alexander Chilcote, bequeathed her house at 120 E. Main to the City of Washington to use as a public library.   In her honor, the library was affectionately known as the Jane A. Chilcote Library for many years.   Original portraits of both Jane and Alexander Chilcote can be seen on the second floor of the public library, behind the information desk.   The Chilcote house was extensively remodeled to serve as the library.   A lovely painting of the Chilcote Library by Edna Jones can be seen in the second reading room of the public library above the globe. During the late forties and early fifties the house had begun to seriously deteriorate.   The foundation had begun to crumble and the walls and floors were infested with termites.   In 1952 the city undertook the construction of a new building on the site funded in large part by major donations by Fort Sherman and Ralph Smith.   The Chilcote house was demolished and the main portion of the new E. Main building was constructed. The building built in 1952 was about 7,100 square feet and included an upstairs meeting room and a storage / research room that now houses the genealogical library. The gallery was remodeled in 1971.


From 1952 until the early nineties, the Washington Public Library succeeded as a modern library; however as early as 1988 it was abundantly clear that the Washington Public Library was in need of more space.   According to documents from the mid-eighties, the library had expanded its children's programming, created a genealogical department, the art collection, and begun to provide access to computer technology with one public access computer. Photographs from that era show an exceedingly cramped and crowded space with little room for patrons and staff to work and virtually no programming space. The library leadership decided that they wanted to create more usable space by moving some of the public access services to the second floor and also to make the building more handicapped accessible.   In 1988 the Library Board initiated a $50,000 fund raising campaign in order to construct an elevator.   The primary reason for the "elevator project" as argued by Chuck Hotle, then president of the library board, in fund raising letters and newspaper articles was to increase accessibility to the handicapped.   The project soon developed into a plan to expand the library 18 feet to the west to utilize the space that existed between the library and the Jones-Eden Funeral Home. Ironically, some of the photographs from the period illustrate long narrow aisles and measurements of aisle widths of between 23 and 26 inches.   Photographs also show very cramped working conditions behind the circulation desk, a problem which only increased in later years.


In 1991, using privately raised donations, the serious space needs faced by the library were addressed with the construction of an addition to the west side of the building, between the library and the Jones-Eden Funeral home.   With the additional space, the library was able to move its children's collection to a separate room.   An additional entrance, new public restrooms, an additional meeting room and a remodeled and relocated circulation area was also added.   The addition increased the library's space from approximately 7,100 square feet to approximately 11,200 square feet.   The cost of this project was about $226,000.   The 1991 expansion project was an attempt to deal with great changes that have and continue to take place in the area of library service.   The electronic revolution has had a great impact on both how libraries do their work and what services we can offer and are expected to offer our patrons.   Whereas in the past libraries were primarily providers of books and printed periodicals, the electronic revolution expanded the number and types of materials and services libraries are expected to provide.   Furthermore, modern libraries are expected to serve a more diverse population with more specific needs.   For example, libraries now generally all provide a separate young adult's section ideally with a youth oriented lounging area. According to photos taken in 1988, the large print collection, which in 1988 numbered somewhat under 250 items taking up a single bookcase, has expanded approximately 465%.   The large print collection now has 1,163 items, some of which we lend on an extended basis to two local retirement homes.   This collection constitutes about 2.5% of our collection and 4 % of our circulation and has continued to grow larger until  we have ran out of space.   The last six years have also seen the addition of Spanish language material at the library, as our population of Latino residents has steadily increased over the last decade.   All three of these collections compete for space with other traditional library collections.   The Young Adult collection cannot grow anymore without taking space from Adult Biography.   The Spanish Language Collection and the Large Print Collection both compete for space with the Adult Non-Fiction Collection.   Add to this the fact that all public libraries are now expected to collect music and software on CD, movies and documentaries DVD, books on CD and that we have a collection of circulating art prints supported by one of our David Elder Trusts.

The Washington Free Public Library Foundation purchased two buildings on the south side of the square in Washington and donated them to the City of Washington for the express purpose of being the site of a future public library.   In 2005 the Foundation hired OPN Architects, Inc. of Cedar Rapids and in June of that year hosted a 2 ½ day design charrette during which input was taken from the community at large regarding the building design.   In September the results of the charrette were released to the public.   After more public feedback final conceptual designs were released to the public in fall 2005.   Since that time the Foundation has actively sought donations and grants and in a little over one year was able to secure donations and pledges in excess of $2 million. During the fiscal year 2006-07, circulation rates continued a steady rise with another 2.2% increase.   Circulation has increased 5.5% over the last five years.   This includes a two-year 43% increase in circulation in our newly-expanded young adult area.   Additionally, last year saw the library break the milestone of 13,000 uses per year of our public access computers and the provision of wireless access to the internet as the library became an internet hotspot.   Use of public access computer has increased over 200% (quadrupled!) since 2000.   Library programming also continues to expand as the staff and Friends of the Library seek to serve our community to the very best of their abilities.

By 2008, the entire amount for the new building project had been raised with over 50% of the funds coming from donations and grants.  Unfortunately the buildings on the new site were deemed unfit for further use and had to be demolished.  Portions of the building, an iron beam and sections of the tin ceilings, were salvaged and incorporated into the new structure.  Also, the facade of the new library was specially designed to blend with the historic styles of the other buildings on the square.  Construction continued throughout the winter and faced numerous unforeseen obstacles including the collapse of a portion of a neighboring building and an early cold snap which delayed the enclosure of the structure and postponed much of the interior work until spring.  Finally, with the help of numerous community members to move the collection to its new site, the new Washington Free Public Library opened to the public on October 1, 2009.


Today the library enjoys increased use in many forms.  Circulation has gone up, computer/internet use has increased with 12 computers instead of 4, and a lot of use of the various meeting and study spaces which now feature two reading rooms, private study rooms, and the large meeting rooms on the second floor.  In addition, the library is much more accessible to the handicapped with larger aisles and other spaces to accommodate walkers, wheelchairs, and motorized chairs.  We are also proud of the green emphasis throughout the building which emphasizes natural light, water efficiency, an underground heating/cooling system, and automated lighting to help save resources.

COPYRIGHTED IMAGE - Used with permission from Main Street Iowa.

In 2009 the library won a
Best New Construction
award from Main Street Iowa


The library became LEED certified in 2011:

"The LEED® green building certification program is the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction, and operation of green buildings."

The 'LEED® Certification Mark' is a registered trademark owned by the U.S. Green Building Council® and is used with permission.

The library continues to expand in various ways including our Spanish language collection, extended programming for all ages, and continuing pursuit of technological advances in circulation, materials, and information access.  Our goal is to continue to serve the area of Washington County well into the 21st century!