Thanks to a bequest from 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. Soon, 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 formerly closed 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.
By 1915 the staff had grown to five full-time librarians and the book collection stood at 23,982. The library staff and collections continued to grow to meet the ever increasing demands of the community. By 1964, space issues for the collection coupled with demands for public meeting 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, which was 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.
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.
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 checkin and check-out procedures were automated. In 1988 the 25,000,000th book was checked out and the library celebrated its centennial.
In 1996, a $4.7 million expansion and remodeling program of the main library was completed, adding more square footage to the second floor and remodeling most of the interior spaces. In 2007, another remodeling project was completed on the first floor to improve circulation workflow, enhance the teen area and provide more merchandising/marketing spaces.
North Community Library
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 shortages of materials and workers. The north facility was remodeled in 1992 as part of the building’s 50th anniversary.
The North Community Library is a City of La Crosse historical landmark. Today it is an active branch with popular materials, and serves as a neighborhood gathering place for all ages and a cultural anchor on the northside of La Crosse.
South Community Library
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 South 16th Street opened for business. In 1993 the building was remodeled and transformed from a bland post-World War II building to a Prairie-style functional facility.
The South Community Library today is a very active branch that features a popular materials collection, a variety of children's programs, and serves as a neighborhood gathering place for people of all ages.