Main Library

Main Library

Main Library

What You'll Find Here

  • Books and journals
  • Food for Thought Café
  • Government Information
  • Humanities Iowa
  • Iowa Women's Archives
  • Learning Commons
  • Library Administrative Offices
  • Map Collection
  • Media Collection
  • Rita Benton Music Library
  • School of Library and Information Science
  • Shambaugh Auditorium
  • Special Collections and University Archives
  • Classrooms and group spaces


125 West Washington Street
Formal Name: 
Keffer and Jones, Des Moines, Iowa (1951)/ Charles Richardson and Associates, Davenport, Iowa (1961, 1965, 1971)

The first freestanding library at the University of Iowa was a long time coming. Growing from an original selection of fifty books that were sent from New York to Iowa City in 1855 by Amos Dean, first president of the University of Iowa (1855–1859), the collection has frequently exceeded the space available to house it. First kept in a cubicle in the Mechanics’ Academy (the first University building), then moved to Old Capitol, Old North Hall (where three-fourths of the volumes were lost in an 1897 fire), Schaeffer Hall, Macbride Hall, and finally the Old Armory, it was not even until additions to the new Main Library were completed in 1971 that there was room enough to accommodate the main collection in a single building. That building provided open stack shelving so students could have direct access to the books and take advantage of the “serendipitous nature” of research and learning, as head librarian Ralph Ellsworth (1943–1958) understood it. The Main Library now serves as the hub of a 4,000,000-volume library system with six branches across campus and a generous lending policy that extends borrowing privileges to any Iowan with proof of residency.

The Main Library, set on a high platform, makes a statement: the building is both a repository of knowledge and a monument to learning. Visitors approach the south façade via stairs that, along with the scale of the building and its massive slab roof, suggest an impenetrable fortress while at the same time announcing the value of what lies within and the need for protecting it. The vaguely medieval-looking design references multiple architectural sources while undermining them with a Modern sensibility. Just below the projecting roof, narrow vertical windows recall the defensive features of a fortified castle, while the powerful plane of the roof itself functions as the capstone. At the entrance, the spaces between the muscular brick piers turn what was solid in classical architecture (paired columns) into voids of tinted glass; and cantilevering at the corners highlights the strength of modern materials. Ornament is banned. The reference to a columnar composition follows the New Formalism phase of Modernism that began in the 1950s with Edward Durrell Stone and which was developed further by others, including Max Abramovitz, who would later transform the Arts Campus.

The original 1951 Art Deco–like central section of the north façade was reworked in 1971 to conform to the Modernist aesthetic of the south elevation of the building. Characteristic of post–World War I American Moderne architecture with its streamlined elements, this original design had strong vertical components with limestone detail- ing projecting above the central block, and geometric patterning in the decorative insets over the entrance windows. The Zigzag Moderne panels flanking the now-obscured central block were also censored, but the wings with their horizontally zigzagging window embrasures remain. A set of nine aluminum panels illustrating a humorous view of the history of education and libraries, commissioned from “Ding” Darling, the Pulitzer Prize–winning cartoonist of the Des Moines Register, were removed from their mountings above the north façade entrance doors at the same time and are now displayed inside on the fourth floor of the building. The sleek aluminum stair railings and the staggered pattern of the cream-and-rose-colored linoleum tiles of the flooring in the original (north) section of the building are surviving remnants of this Moderne design.


The building is accessible to individuals with disabilities

The building has three primary entrances (north, south, and east). All are accessible to persons with disabilities and are equipped with power door openers. Access to library resources is available through computer terminals located on each floor of the facility. Assistance may be obtained at the Service Desk located on the first floor between the Learning Commons and the library collections. Call 335-5299 for information.
Designated accessible parking spaces are located in Parking Lot #3 just south of the building for access to the south entrance. Designated accessible parking spaces are also located on Washington Street near the Becker Communication Studies Building loading dock for access to the north entrance.
Accessible restrooms are located on various floors. An accessible unisex restroom is located at the north end of the main north-south hallway.
Three elevators are available for access to all levels of the building.