130 Years of Library Service

Posted by Anita on April 2, 2018

(written by Anita Taylor Doering, Archives staff)


The original library building was located in the same spot as today, at the SE corner of Main and 8th Streets, ca. 1900


In preparation for the Library’s 130th anniversary and the celebration of National Library Week, the Archives will lead behind the scenes tours of their area called “If These Walls Could Talk,” on Wednesday, April 11, 2018.  Tours will depart every half-hour starting at 2pm and the last one beginning at 5:30pm.

How did the La Crosse Public Library come to be?  Thanks to a bequest of former Wisconsin governor and Civil War general Cadwallader C. Washburn, a public library building was constructed in La Crosse and opened in 1888 as the La Crosse Public Library.  By the turn of the 20th century, a decision was made to become more community-friendly and the Board of Trustees decided to hire a professionally trained and educated librarian.


Children's Room in the old library building, ca. 1965 -- Generations of little feet would climb the turret stairway to reach the Children's Room

Not long after, a children’s department opened in 1905 under the direction of a professional children’s librarian and proved very successful.  Until that time, children under 14 years of age were not allowed to use the library.  The staff undertook outreach activities for the first time and book stacks were opened up to the public.  Because of these popular changes, use of the collection rose dramatically.  In 1909, a building addition opened, nearly doubling the size of the library’s physical structure.


Original library building at Main and 8th Streets with addition to the East, ca. 1940s


By 1915 the staff had grown to five full-time librarians and the book collection stood at 23,982 items excluding government documents.  The library staff and collections continued to grow to meet the ever increasing demands of the community.


The Reference Reading Room in the original library building, ca. 1965


By 1964, space issues for the collection, public meeting space, and reading room space had gotten to a critical point.  A group known as the Friends of the La Crosse Public Library formed and helped to pass a building referendum by a 4-to-1 margin, unheard of at that time.  The original building was razed in 1966 and replaced with a new facility that was opened the following year.  The structure received two architectural awards.


New library building at SE corner of Main and 8th Streets, ca. 1967 designed by La Crosse architectural firm Hackner, Schroeder and Associates



New library building dedication, 5 November 1967; Library Director Gertrude Thurow speaking


Another bequest in the 1970s from sisters Susan and Edyth Swarthout provided monies for an addition to the library as well as space for the La Crosse County Historical Society.  As a result, an 18,000-square-foot Swarthout Memorial Addition was added to the building and opened in 1980.  It housed the historical society’s museum, offices, and the library’s Archives and Local History area.  The museum space and historical society offices were vacated in 2014.

In 1981 the library became a city department after 93 years as a private, non-profit corporation.  Computers entered the library in 1985 when the check-in and check-out procedures were automated.  In 1988, the 25 millionth book was checked out and the library celebrated its centennial. New technology and the growth of specialized services and staff, increases in programming and outreach, expanding archival and local history collections, and improved reference services, and teen gaming give a flavor of the changes in the library’s focus since 1888.


Library 9th Street entrance, ca. 1996 (photo by Roger Grant)


A $4.7 million expansion and remodeling program of the main library was completed in 1996, adding more square footage to the second floor and remodeling most of the interior spaces.  The Friends of the La Crosse Public Library have a bookshop from which to sell books and an area in the lower level for book sales.  A strong and long history of civic support, leadership and generous contributions has made it possible for the library to meet its challenges.


North Community Library


The exterior of North Community Library, ca. 1960



Likely Logan High School students doing homework at North Community Library, ca. 1956

In 1905 a branch library was opened in the Brakke Drug Store at the southwest corner of Logan and Caledonia streets, starting with a collection of 225 books.  By 1914, the collection had grown to more than 2,500 books and its circulation rate represented one-fourth of the total library circulation. 

By 1933 it was apparent that both the north and south side branch libraries needed new facilities.  North suffered from poor lighting and ventilation and had a severe shortage of space for collections and programming.  The North Community Library was completed in 1942 at Kane & Gillette Streets after construction delays, caused by a number of issues including wartime conditions.  The north facility was remodeled in 1992 as part of the building’s 50th anniversary.

The North Community Library today is a popular materials center and is a neighborhood gathering places for all ages.


South Community Library


An old educational barracks served as the South Community Library at Powell Park until 1952 when the current building at Farnam and 16th streets was completed



The newly completed South Community Library at Farnam and 16th, ca. 1952


South Community Library dedication program in 1952

In 1914 the “Webster Outlet” was opened in Webster School at 1402 Redfield Street, although the South Branch Library wasn’t a reality until 1922.  The library moved into a former school barracks at Jackson Street and West Avenue, on the south side of Powell Park, in 1924.  It was cold in winter and so hot in the summer it had to be closed many afternoons.  Like its sister to the north, the South Branch Library also suffered severe space shortages for collections and programming.

While a new facility had been in the works for many years, it wasn’t until 1952 when a new library building at 1307 16th Street opened for business.  In 1993 the building was remodeled and transformed from a post-World War II bland building to a Prairie style functional facility.

The South Community Library today is a popular materials center and is a neighborhood gathering places for all ages.


Collections, services and programming continue to grow and expand at all three locations.  New offerings include board games, children and adult discovery kits, a Lucky Day collection, the Seed Library and much more.

For more history on the La Crosse Public Library, read these books available online, linked here:

A Gift to La Crosse

Into the 21st Century 

Into Our Second Century

La Crosse Public Library Dedication Program, Nov. 5, 1967

Swarthout Memorial Addition to the La Crosse Public Library