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Kalamazoo Public Library History

Photo Galleries: KPL 1893-1957 | KPL 1958-2005



Kalamazoo Public Library Archives Photograph, uncataloged


A bookplate used by the library for many years

The origins of the Kalamazoo Public Library were humble. In 1860 the local school district inherited 123 volumes from a failed township library. With that tiny collection, a library was opened for a single hour per week, its use limited to students of the school district and their parents. It grew through the Civil War years until it had 2,800 books, and opened to the general public on 12 October 1872. From that modest beginning, Kalamazoo Public Library has continued to grow until it now offers 120,000 people almost 400,000 books and a variety of other media from five buildings. The library continued to function under the direction of the board of education for more than a century until 1990, when voters agreed to form a district library which would function under its own board of trustees.

View: Catalogue of Kalamazoo Public Library: 1890

Growth and Branch-ing Out

The library's early headquarters in cramped rented facilities gave way to a fine new Romanesque structure built on property purchased from local businessman Robert R. Howard and completed in 1893 with a $50,000 gift from Dr. and Mrs. E. H. Van Deusen. By the late 1920s the library had grown so much that it spilled over into the adjacent Peck and Kauffer houses on Rose Street. The depression and World War II delayed a much needed new building, but after a spirited campaign, and a favorable millage vote in 1955, the library's second new building replaced the old one on 25 May 1959. The library continued to grow, filling even this new facility to bursting. The departure of the Kalamazoo Public Museum in 1996 provided the opportunity for a major renovation of the existing building to take advantage of the vacated space, and to add the third floor that was planned when it was built. Over the years, the library also added four branches, Washington Square, Eastwood, Powell and Oshtemo, each of which began in a school and eventually acquired its own building.


Public library, Kalamazoo, Michigan / Patton & Fisher, Architects, Chicago. Published 1891.
Library of Congress

Service Firsts

Library services have grown along with the buildings and the collections. In 1896 KPL became one of the first 10 libraries in the nation to establish a children's room. A depository of government documents was established here in 1907, the only one in the area for many years thereafter. In 1929 it became the first public library in the country to provide moving picture film service. Later it added sound recordings and framed art. In 1972, the massive task of indexing the Kalamazoo Gazette was undertaken. The Gazette index became the first in a series of tools developed by the library to provide local information to its clients. The law library was transferred from the courthouse into the newly renovated library building, thus greatly increasing the hours that the law collection is staffed and available for use.

Movie Lady - Mamie Austin

The “movie lady” (Mamie Austin) taking her projector and screen to one of her many popular programs, c1948, photographed by Ward C. Morgan Studio.
Kalamazoo Public Library Archives Photograph, uncataloged

Embracing Technology

Developing technology has allowed the library to keep pace with increasing information needs. A Gaylord charging machine was installed in 1938 to expedite the circulation of books. Eventually it was replaced by a photographic charging system, and later still by the present computerized version. The advent of microfilm in 1946 gave researchers access to many more materials than there would otherwise have been space for. Now computers allow more flexible ways of locating books, the creation of local databases, and access to worldwide resources with a few keystrokes.

Kalamazoo’s Cultural Development

The library has played a significant role in the development of other Kalamazoo cultural institutions. The origin of the Kalamazoo Valley Museum dates back to a collection of shells, marbles, and fossils that were given to the library in 1881. As the accumulation of artifacts grew, a distinct museum evolved, but it remained part of the Kalamazoo Public Library organization until 1984 and continued to share its building for another dozen years after that. For nearly 20 years, the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts also shared library quarters. The school libraries of the Kalamazoo School District blossomed under the administration of the Kalamazoo Public Library until they were transferred to the jurisdiction of the superintendent of schools in 1966.

National Library of the Year

For more than a century and a quarter, Kalamazoo Public Library has grown steadily from a few shelves of books in a room above a store to the vibrant institution that it is today. The library now has five new or newly refurbished buildings, a continually growing collection, improved technology to meet increasing needs, and a dedicated and experienced staff that is constantly planning for the future. Its efforts in technology, pioneering legislation and collaboration with other community institutions resulted in the national Library of the Year Award for 2002. What will the new millennium bring in the way of library services?

Just imagine...

KPL Reference Area

Second floor Reference RoomCentral Library, 2005
Photo by Keith Howard.

Kalamazoo Public Library Directors



Jennie Wolcott Kent


Isabella C. Roberts


Flora B. Roberts


Jeanne Griffin


William Chait


Mark Crum


Saul J. Amdursky


Ann S. Rohrbaugh 
2017- Ryan Wieber


  • Interview with David Milling, Architect, and Michael Hayden, Artist
  • Kalamazoo: Kalamazoo Public Library, c1996, uncataloged