Filed Under Libraries

Cleveland Public Library

"The People's University"

The Cleveland Public Library comprises one of the largest collections in the United States: nearly ten million items. The Library’s two buildings on Superior Avenue (the main structure, 1925) and the Stokes Wing (1997) command an entire city block between East 3rd and East 6th Streets. The exceptional collection and iconic buildings demonstrate both the institution's importance as a symbol of democracy and—at a more pragmatic level—the library's popularity.

The development of the Cleveland Public Library mirrored a larger movement in the United States: merging practices from tax-funded school-district libraries with early circulating libraries that required fees or membership dues. Heavily laden in classist ideals of democracy, these early public libraries became increasingly popular in the last decade of the 19th century. The advancement of publicly funded libraries also was a response to rapid social changes—particularly industrialization and a tidal wave of immigrants. Thus public lending institutions focused largely on maintaining large collections of educational materials, even though limited operating hours and a closed-stack system limited their accessibility.

Cleveland's first public library was founded in 1869, following the passage of a law providing library funding as part of the Cleveland school system. Known until 1883 as the Public School Library, the new institution on the third floor of a building off West Superior Avenue was estimated to have 5,800 books on its opening day. Visitors to the 20 x 80-foot room had to submit their requests at a main counter. The item would then be retrieved from the stacks by an employee of the library. This system remained in place until 1884, when William Howard Brett was appointed librarian. Under Brett's direction, the institution became a model for progressive, service-oriented libraries throughout the United States, a fact that led to its popular nickname "The People's University."

The notion of accessibility lay at the core of Brett’s innovations. He made all materials in the adult sections available to the public. Cleveland Public Library also became the first large urban library to institute an open-shelf policy. In addition, Brett developed programs and collections for children, instituted a classification system to group books of similar subject matter, opened Cleveland's first branch libraries, created library stations throughout the city, expanded the collection of fiction, and created the city’s first stand-alone children's room. This trailblazing librarian helped secure both the land and funding for the Cleveland Public Library's permanent home in the city's emerging civic district east of Public Square.

And what a home it is. Designed by the prominent architectural firm of Walker & Weeks, the five-story facility was completed in 1925 for about $5 million. It is one of six buildings conforming to the Group Plan, an ambitious 1903 city-planning scheme built around a massive three-segment public park (the Mall) northeast of Public Square. Like most of the Group Plan buildings, the library reflects a Beaux Arts, neoclassical design. Its interior was modeled in a Renaissance style, making ample use of Italian marble. Vaulted ceilings are adorned with paintings of mythological and historical figures, while grand staircases carved in Botticino marble and elaborately decorated passageways invite visitors to explore the library's various departments.

Library functions were sorely tested during the Great Depression, when restrictions on public taxation reduced funding to libraries. Salaries were reduced, staff was let go, and the acquisition of new materials dropped drastically, even as library usage increased by up to 20 percent. Fortunately, Franklin D. Roosevelt's Public Works programs included the Cleveland library: WPA employees made building repairs, cleaned, painted, and even copied musical scores. In the 1930s, the library also was a recipient of federally funded art. In addition to countless prints and paintings, three WPA murals adorn the main Library’s walls to this day. Six additional murals were painted for branch libraries.

The late 1990s were a busy and productive time for the Cleveland Library system. Massive renovations were made to the building. A second structure—named after former U.S. Congressman Louis Stokes—was built in 1997 on the former site of the Cleveland Plain Dealer which, since 1957 had been used by the library as an annex. Focused largely on science and technology, the Stokes Wing has 11 floors totaling 267,000 square feet and more than 30 miles of book shelves for a capacity of 1.3 million books.

The two buildings are connected by an underground corridor below the outdoor Eastman Reading Garden, named after Linda Anne Eastman (1867–1963), the first woman to head a major U.S. city library system and a pioneer in the modern library system. The garden that bears her name was designed by landscape architecture firm OLIN, and includes sculptures by Maya Lin and Tom Otterness. The garden provides space for concerts, garden shows, book displays, and public art exhibits. Think of it as the center of a cultural sandwich—part of a block-long demonstration of Cleveland’s prowess and historic leadership in the arts and humanities.

Today, the Cleveland Public Library operates 27 branches throughout the city, a mobile library, a Public Administration Library in City Hall, and the Ohio Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Among the main facility’s special collections are the Mears and Murdock baseball collections, the Cleveland Theater collection, 130,000 volumes of children's material, a 74,000-volume rare book collection, 1.3 million photographs, and the John G. White Chess Collection—believed to be the largest and most comprehensive chess library in the world. In 2009, CPL became the first library in the United States to offer e-book downloads.


Cleveland Public Library WPA Murals and Public Art of the 1930s Art and architectural historian Walter Leedy describes the characteristics of WPA murals in Cleveland, Ohio. Source: CSU Center for Public History + Digital Humanities


Main Library Looking East, 1940
Main Library Looking East, 1940 After nearly half a century of moving between temporary locations, the Cleveland Public Library opened the doors of its first designated structure on May 6, 1925. The massive library was funded through a series of bond issues, but was initially delayed in 1916 due to a moratorium on the construction of government structures during wartime. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections Date: 1940
Story Hour
Story Hour During his 36 years as librarian of the Cleveland Public Library, William H. Brett worked to extend access and availability of materials to children. Space was allocated in the reading room until a separate library could be devoted to the institution's young patrons in 1898. Under the guidance of then vice-librarian Linda Eastman, the Children's Library League was formed in 1897. Similar organizations quickly emerged in libraries throughout the country, modeling themselves after the Cleveland Public Library. Guided by the motto "CLEAN HEARTS, CLEAN HANDS, CLEAN MINDS," the league taught children how to properly care for and handle books.
Card Catalog, 1959
Card Catalog, 1959 No uniform concept of a public library existed during the 19th century. Thus different methods were developed to make these institutions more accessible to the public. Melvil Dewey was not a proponent of the open-shelf policy instituted by librarians such as William Howard Brett. Instead, Dewey focused on making libraries more accessible through the development of a flexible and efficient method of organizing information about a library’s holdings. Both the open-shelf policy and Dewey Decimal System have co-existed for more than a century, and have helped build a foundation upon which public libraries still operate. Source: Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection Date: 1959
Drive-Up Book Return, 1952
Drive-Up Book Return, 1952 The development of American libraries during the 19th century forever changed popular conceptions of the institutions' function. The historic role of a library as a depository for the preservation of books was outmoded by the creation of a service-oriented public institution. Nearly two thirds of Americans have a library card. Source: Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection Date: 1952
Dahlia Society Exhibition, 1954
Dahlia Society Exhibition, 1954 Throughout its history, the Cleveland Public Library has acted as a space for temporary public art displays, music performances, and exhibitions. More than most any civic institution, libraries open their doors to the public and consistently maintain a firm stance against censorship. Source: Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection Date: 1954
Kinney & Levan Building, ca. 1920
Kinney & Levan Building, ca. 1920 As suggested by the sign painted on its exposed east-facing party wall, the Cleveland Public Library occupied the sixth floor of the Kinney & Levan Building at 1375 Euclid Avenue from 1913 to 1925. The architectural firm of Walker and Weeks designed this building for Kinney & Levan, which billed itself as the nation's largest housewares store. Walker and Weeks also designed the public library's dedicated home on Superior Avenue, which opened in 1925. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland Public Library Special Collections Date: Ca. 1920
Superior Avenue, 1902
Superior Avenue, 1902 One objective of the Group Plan was to develop a more ordered city through a unified vision of urban development. At the turn of the century, for better or worse, the urban center was an incohesive, haphazard collection of structures. Much of the area surrounding the once prosperous center of Cleveland had fallen into disrepair and was deemed by many as a slum. The Group Plan would not only help restructure this unsavory section of the city, but would centralize civic buildings around a public mall. Pictured above is a view of Superior Avenue near the main library location in 1902. Source: Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection Date: 1902
Symmetry, 1946
Symmetry, 1946 In accordance with the Group Plan, the Cleveland Public Library was built in similar style, symmetry, and size as the Federal Building. The uniformity between structures was to give the urban landscape a sense of order. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections Date: 1946
Newspaper Reading Room, 1946
Newspaper Reading Room, 1946 Due to a lack of available space, Cleveland Public Library's newspaper reading room initially occupied various locations throughout the city. These newspaper reading rooms, regularly crowded with persons seeking shelter or a temporary diversion, could make the most ardent supporters of the populist institution reevaluate their principles. With the construction of a permanent home on Superior Avenue, the newspaper reading room was reunited with the main library. The new library offered an attractive and organized space for one of the library's most popular departments. Source: Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection Date: 1946
Book Drive, 1926
Book Drive, 1926 The American Merchant Marine Library Association, founded in 1921, was an outgrowth of services provided by the American Library Association during World War I to provide books for servicemen. This war time book drive also provided materials for merchant marines, who transported troops and supplies oversees. Following the war, the American Library Association withdrew from such programs out of financial necessity. Cleveland residents Mr. and Mrs. Henry Howard helped lead a movement to continue these services and establish libraries on merchant marine vessels. Source: Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection Date: 1926
Painting on Vaulted Ceiling, 1928
Painting on Vaulted Ceiling, 1928 The vaulted ceiling in the main lobby of the Cleveland Public Library was decorated with four allegorical paintings depicting historical and mythological figures. These interconnected pieces represent the musical arts, the graphical arts, the dramatic arts, and the industrial arts. Source: Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection
The City in 1833
The City in 1833 Reflective of the trend in WPA mural art to depict local and regional themes, William Sumner's mural located in the Brett Memorial Hall presents the artist's vision of Cleveland in 1833. As with all muralists commissioned to work at the library, Sumner was chosen by the director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Wlliam M. Milliken. Completed in 1934 as part of the Public Works of Art Projects, the mural depicts animals being crowded out of Public Square by an encroaching city. Source: Flickr, CC BY-SA 3.0 Creator: Tim Evanson Date: 2016
Athena Rendered in Marble, 2009
Athena Rendered in Marble, 2009 Athena, the goddess of wisdom, watches over patrons as they enter the civic structure. Architectural adornments such as this sculpture are characteristic of the Beaux-Arts style employed throughout Group Plan designs. Creator: Center for Public History + Digital Humanities Date: 2009
Eastman Reading Garden, 1963
Eastman Reading Garden, 1963 The Eastman Reading Garden underwent its first renovation in 1959. The project to transform the space from a haven for the homeless back to its intended function as a reading garden was financed through donations. In addition to its use as an outdoor reading room, the garden offered space for concerts, garden shows, book displays, and public art exhibits. The site would itself become a piece of public art during a renovation in the late 1990s, boasting a new design and gate from renowned public artists Maya Lin and Tom Otterness. Pictured in the foreground is an armillary sundial that was donated in memory of Eva Morris Baker by her husband and daughters. The rod running through the center of the sundial casts a shadow on the encircling bands to indicate the time. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections Date: 1963
Louis Stokes Wing, 2009
Louis Stokes Wing, 2009 The rapid growth of the Cleveland Public Library's collection necessitated expansion by the middle of the century. The library acquired the neighboring Plain Dealer building in 1957, and renovated the structure as a business annex. This structure was demolished in 1994 and replaced by the 11-story Louis Stokes Wing, which was completed at a cost of $67 million in 1997. The new building provides additional space for library services and the institution's ever-growing collection of materials. It contains more than 30 miles of shelving. Source: Photograph by justinknabb (originally posted to Flickr as Labor Day 2010) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons Creator: Justin Knabb Date: 2009


325 Superior Ave, Cleveland, OH 44113


Richard Raponi, “Cleveland Public Library,” Cleveland Historical, accessed July 19, 2024,