Public libraries in western towns were almost always started by women citizens anxious to provide culture for themselves and their families. This was certainly true of the first library in Grand Junction. In 1897, when Grand Junction was sixteen years old, members of two women’s clubs united under the name of the Woman’s Library Association. The goal of the association was to establish a free public library. The first step towards this goal was taken in 1898, when the association opened a subscription library to “anyone whose morals were unquestionably good”.
By 1900, the association had received a promise from Andrew Carnegie to donate $5,000 for a library building, with the usual stipulation that funds be secured for the on-going support and maintenance of the library. The city council was lobbied by the ladies and, in due course, members of the council pledged $1,200 a year to support a library. A site was chosen on the corner of 7th and Grand, and the grand opening of the Grand Junction Public Library was held on July 5, 1901. The Women’s Library Association turned its books and property over to the public library, and the members promptly voted the association out of existence.
The Grand Junction Public Library developed steadily, and the citizens of Grand Junction were well served. Residents of Mesa County who lived outside of the city limits, however, were charged a fee for services. Interestingly, the records show that GJPL did operate a branch library in the Riverside School and gave free library service to the Redlands area from 1923 to 1938. In the 1930s, the library outgrew the Carnegie building and, in 1938, federal Public Works Administration funds were used to construct a new building on the corner of 5th and White. The library was to remain in this building for the next 36 years.
By the late 1930s, several agencies in Mesa County were attempting to find a way to provide free public library service to the rural citizens of Mesa County. With funding from the Works Progress Administration, the Colorado State Library, Mesa County, and several service clubs, the Mesa County Public Library was established. Records are sketchy, but the library was circulating books by 1938 from a location at 220 North 5th.
Funding from the WPA ended in 1942. At this time, the library would have been forced to close, except that a new and possibly-unique way to operate the library was arranged. Mesa Junior College had some money remaining from a Navy contract and, with those funds, it took over the financing and administration of the Mesa County Public Library.
With financing and administration stabilized, the county library eventually operated branches in Fruita, Gateway, Clifton, De Beque, and Mesa. It also made large, long-term loans of books to the town libraries in Palisade and Collbran. At one point, it even operated a branch in Rangely which, although not in Mesa County, was part of the Mesa JuniorCollege District.
Between 1940 and 1959, the library moved twice. Its final location was at 616 North Avenue where, in incredibly cramped quarters, service continued to expand, especially to schools.
Meanwhile, services also continued to expand at the Grand Junction Public Library. In 1963, the library became the headquarters of the Western Slope Demonstration Project. This project was the grandmother of today’s interlibrary loan service. Each day, public libraries from all over the Western Slope would phone GJPL at a designated time with their interlibrary loan requests. Those requests that could not be filled at GJPL were sent by teletype to the Bibliographic Center in Denver.
During the 1950s and 1960s, many people recognized that there would be value in combining the city and county libraries. In order to accomplish this, state legislators from Mesa County sponsored legislation to make it possible for counties to assess up to 1.5 mills for the operation of libraries. In 1967, the city and Mesa College agreed to turn over all the books and library property they owned to Mesa County. Mesa County agreed to assess a property tax to support the library, and to take the library on as a county department.
Bookmobile service was added in 1961.
A major component of the county library’s service was to all the schools in Districts 49, 50, and 51. It was a rare classroom that did not have a customized collection of books for its students’ use.
Although now legally one entity, the library in Grand Junction continued to operate from two sites until 1974.
In addition to the two Grand Junction branches, Mesa County Public Library also operated branches in Fruita, Clifton and De Beque. Libraries in Collbran and Palisade, faced with an end to state funding, soon asked to participate in the system.
In December 1974, after years of hard work on the part of county commissioners, the library board and staff, the Mesa County Public Library opened the doors of a new facility at 530 Grand Avenue. The task of consolidating two libraries into one building was monumental, but the result was better service to the citizens of the county. The library was especially proud of its collections and services available to users with disabilities.
The 1.5 mill levy cap and the economic fortunes of Mesa County did not allow for continuous expansion of services between 1974 and 1990. As funding for staff positions eroded during these years, the hours open also declined. Even so, some progress was made. A new bookmobile was purchased with revenue sharing funds in 1981, and a branch was opened in Gateway in 1982.
The most important addition during these years was the MARMOT on-line, integrated computer system. With MARMOT, which came on-line in 1987, the library was able to provide users with an efficient system for library circulation, as well as expanded access to the holdings of libraries throughout Colorado.
In 1990, the Library Board of Trustees appealed to county voters to increase the mill levy cap to 3 mills. Voters responded by approving the initiative, and 1991 became a banner year for the library. Staff was hired, hours restored, and the materials budget increased. Significant capital improvements were also made.
While all these improvements were underway in 1991, the Board of Trustees was engaged in a series of meetings with the county commissioners. It was becoming clear that the county, faced with providing mandated services, might not be able to continue to support the library if it remained a county department. As a result, the library board petitioned the commissioners to form the Mesa County Public Library District. The district became a legal entity on January 1, 1992.
The next challenge to face the library came in the form of a tax limitation amendment, known as the TABOR amendment, passed by Colorado voters in 1992. By 1997, it was clear the library would face financial hardship if the electorate did not provide relief from the restrictions of TABOR. An election was held in November 1997, at which time the voters of Mesa County authorized a levy of 3 mills for the library, with no limitation on the amount the 3 mills would provide, as well as an exemption from the limits from non-tax revenue sources.
With a secure financial base, the Board of Trustees began an ambitious campaign in 1998 to construct a new Central Library in downtown Grand Junction. In 2001, the first-ever Library capital campaign was created with the goal of raising $2.5 million. Over the next three years, $3 million was raised and used to purchase the property surrounding the Library, including 443 North 6th Street, 550 Grand Avenue, and 536 Ouray Avenue, all of which the Library began occupying and using for administrative offices, technical services and meeting space. The Library was on the ballot in 2003 and 2004, and both times narrowly lost a ballot initiative that would have generated bond money for a new Central Library at its current 5th and Grand location.
Meanwhile, each of the branch locations has either moved into larger facilities or has been remodeled. A plan to remodel the Central Library began in early 2005. Construction on the remodel project started in April of 2006 and included an enhanced entry and vestibule, a larger literacy center, 21st century computer lab, teen area, programming space and a western history room.
Construction for the Central Library Expansion Project began in August, 2012 and was completed in June, 2013. The project has added approximately 9,000 square feet of space to the building and has improved the existing facility from top to bottom. Features include more natural light inside, a new fiction area, a new Regional History Room, a large community room for programs and events, several new small-group study rooms, outdoor patios for adults and children, and a creation studio for audio and video production. For more about the project, please see this blog.