History of the Library

History of the Library

A Brief History

The Grand Rapids Public Library was founded in 1871 when members of the Grand Rapids Board of Education agreed to combine their book holdings with those of two other organizations—the Ladies Literary Association and the YMCA. A library committee hired the first librarian, Miss Frances Holcomb, at an annual salary of $500.

In its early years, the Grand Rapids Public Library called several downtown spaces home, including a room above a dry goods store, space in the Ledyard Building, and several rooms of Grand Rapids’ City Hall.

By 1900, the desire for a permanent home began to grow. Attorney John Patton fueled the effort by contacting Andrew Carnegie, one of the wealthiest men in the country, to seek funding; Carnegie promised $150,000 in support. Around the same time, Martin Antoine Ryerson, a native of Grand Rapids and prominent Chicago citizen, expressed interest in funding a home for the library. Ultimately, Grand Rapids has Martin A. Ryerson, arts and education benefactor, to thank for the gift of the Ryerson Building.

The cornerstone of the Ryerson Building was laid on July 4, 1902, and the building was completed and open to the public two years later. Many features make the Ryerson Building remarkable and beautiful. Its exterior is made of milled Bedford Limestone from Indiana. Carrara marble from Italy was used for the steps, and the marble wainscoting inside also hails from Italy.

Over the decades, the library expanded into city neighborhoods to better serve patrons living in different areas of the city. The first branch was the West Side Branch, which was originally housed in an old Michigan Bell Telephone Company building; it opened in 1908. Current branches include Ottawa Hills, Madison Square, Yankee Clipper, Van Belkum, West Leonard, and Seymour.

The Ryerson Building saw a great deal of change in the second half of the 20th century. Overcrowding had gradually become problematic, and by 1962, plans were made to spend $2.8 million on an addition to the north side of the Ryerson Building. The updated building with its large addition was dedicated in May of 1969.

Then, another huge transition occurred around the turn of the 21st century. Architects designed a plan to better marry the original 1904 structure with its 1960s addition. As a result, the Ryerson Building was open to the public again for the first time since 1967. Additionally, the original atrium and skylight of the Ryerson Building were restored, and a large atrium was built to join the original Ryerson Building with the 1960s addition. Pairing the original building with the newly named Keeler wing—named in honor of Mike and Mary Ann Keeler, who made a gift of $1.2 million from the Keeler Foundation—proved to be quite a challenge, as the original building and its addition were made of different materials and in different styles. In 2003, a grand opening was held to dedicate the new Main Branch of the Grand Rapids Public Library.

In 2021, the Grand Rapids Public Library celebrated 150 years of providing a free library for everyone. Throughout its lifetime, the library has experienced numerous evolutions—everything from introducing the Dewey Decimal System to eschewing traditional card catalogs for online catalogs to streaming audiobooks directly to patrons’ devices. In good times and in bad, the library has served as a refuge and a resource determined to provide outstanding customer service and to fulfill its mission of connecting people to the transforming power of knowledge. The library is grateful to its staff and its leadership, including its devoted library commissioners, as well as to its endlessly generous patrons and supportive community members.

If you are interested in reading more about the Grand Rapids Public Library, check out A Free Library for Everyone, written by former City Historian Gordon Olson.

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