Postcard showing the Main Library at Ninth and Locust streets, which opened in 1897 and remained in use until 1960. (Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library)
Not quite a century ago, before he’d spawned an American empire, a young Walt Disney boned up on the basics of animation through a book he checked out from the Kansas City Public Library. A couple of generations later, it was a 9-year-old mayor-to-be, Quinton Lucas, who roamed the stacks at the old downtown Main Library, frequented the Library’s L.H. Bluford and Waldo branches, and even plumbed a book-filled kiosk at the old Landing Shopping Center at 63rd and Troost.
His family moved often, Lucas recalls, and “the Kansas City Public Library was my sanctuary.”
There are 150 years’ worth of stories like that, a narrative of sustained service and commitment to a city and community that grew up with — and in part because of — its library. The Kansas City Public Library is celebrating that history with a full year of special programming and other sesquicentennial activities, following the theme 150 Years of Discovery. It kicks off Dec. 5.
It was on that date in 1873 that the city’s school board established the Public School Library of Kansas City. From an initial collection of eight volumes of the New American Encyclopedia, shelved in an oak bookcase that was purchased for $8 and placed in the school superintendent’s office, it has grown into a community anchor with 10 locations across Jackson County and some 800,000 books and other items in its physical collection.
Last year, more than 600,000 people walked through its doors. Digital engagements totaled more than 4 million.
“It’s difficult for a Fortune 100 company to last 150 years. The blue-chip companies that have lasted that long here, we can probably count on both hands,” says Library Director and Chief Executive John Herron.
“The fact that the Library has not just survived but thrived for 150 years shows not only our importance to the city but also how valuable and flexible and dynamic the institution has been, continuing to reinvent itself and the services it provides to the community.”
So, yes, he says, a yearlong 150th birthday party — with all of Kansas City invited to join — is in order: “I don’t think it’s frivolous to say we need to congratulate ourselves on this milestone achievement.”
Highlighting the menu of sesquicentennial activities is a series of quarterly speaking presentations by authors and others “who have made prominent contributions to culture.” Also featured is a planned rotation of absorbingly diverse art exhibitions, including works by contemporary Native American artists and selections from the archives of the Library’s Missouri Valley Special Collections, plus programs by notable children’s authors and illustrators and a birthday-themed Summer Reading Program next June, July and August.
All events are free and open to the community.
Each KCPL location will hold its own party, in many cases in association with Summer Reading. The Central Library also is marking the 20th anniversary of its move into the historic former First National Bank building in April 2004.
The Library has reached out to partners for some imaginative touches. Betty Rae’s is formulating a Library ice cream flavor. Vine Street Brewing will release a commemorative Library beer. J. Rieger & Co. will carry a signature Library cocktail.
Oh, and look for an imaginative, yearlong wrap on one of Kansas City’s streetcars. Coinciding with the anniversary, the Library also is rebranding: a new logo, color scheme and typography, tweaking its visual identity and messaging to better communicate its mission, vision and values.
The Dec. 5 kickoff to the anniversary celebration spills across the Library system, culminating in a public reception at the Plaza Branch and a keynote address by Finnish-born scholar, urbanist and innovative civic leader Tommi Laitio. Appointed nearly two years ago as the inaugural Fellow at the Bloomberg Center for Public Innovation at Johns Hopkins, he’s exploring partnerships for parks and libraries and the need to create public spaces that facilitate conviviality.
Among the speakers following him in 2024 is Margaret Atwood, the iconic Canadian poet, novelist and literary champion whose works include The Handmaid’s Tale and its sequel, The Testaments. She’s set for Sept. 24, in conjunction with Banned Books Week, at the Central Library.
High-profile speakers, of course, have been a Library signature since 2005, the list running from Sandra Day O’Connor, Stephen Breyer and Condoleezza Rice to Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough and three of the past four U.S. poets laureate. It’s but one series of exclamation points in a century and a half of them.
Carrie Westlake Whitney became the Library’s first full-time librarian (akin to today’s director) in 1881 and added what was believed to be one of the first separate children’s areas in a public library in the country — one of her many foundation-laying contributions. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art traces its origins
to the Library. So does the Kansas City Museum.
In 2008, KCPL—separated from the school district since 1988—became the first library in Missouri to win the coveted National Medal for Museum and Library Service from the federal Institute for Museum and Library Services. It since has emerged as a local, state and national leader in addressing inequities in access to digital technology. It has broken more ground in children’s and youth services and programming. Like libraries across the country in the 21st century, it serves marginalized populations and others in need as a conduit to vital social services.
“It’s an asset, a community asset,” says Gloria Jackson-Leathers, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation’s vice president of community relations and initiatives. The foundation has lent the Library invaluable support over the past two decades.
“You have civic engagement. You have entrepreneurial support and learning. Educational programs. All of those things are critical to who we are and what we do,” Jackson says.
Were the Library’s founders in the 1870s able to revisit it today, Herron likes to think they’d approve of what they’d see.
“They would, of course, be shocked by the pace and scale of everything that any citizen looking back 150 years would be shocked by—the rapid changes in technology, the rapid delivery of information,” Herron says. “But it would be my hope that they see an adherence to the core mission they laid out in 1873 still present in 2023. They see that the institution they took such great care to build is, first and foremost, dedicated to the empowerment of this community.
“They would be proud of the generations that followed them in broadening, enhancing, and deepening that tradition.”