Library services in Burlington began in 1868 when a subscription library was formed by Senator James Wilson Grimes (who contributed $5,000) and a number of other shareholders (who paid $10 per share). Those who were unable to join as shareholders were encouraged to purchase borrowing privileges for $4 annually. This library was housed in a series of rented rooms beginning in the second floor of a building located at Main and Valley.

The city established the Burlington Public Library by enacting Ordinance 21 on May 18, 1885. This "free public library" was located in two rooms at City Hall.

The first Burlington Public Library building was constructed between 1896 and 1898 with a combination of tax dollars and private funds. W. T. S. Hoyt designed the building; the construction was supervised by William Sutherland, a local architect, and Philip M. Crapo. That building is now the home to the Des Moines County Historical Society's museum.

In October 2004, the Library Board of Directors broke ground for the current library building at 210 Court Street. The building was funded by the Friends of the Burlington Public Library Foundation, private contributions raised by a capital campaign, the city of Burlington, a Vision Iowa Grant, and Des Moines County.

The library opened in the new building on November 13, 2006. The Burlington Public Library won the Main Street Iowa Award for the Best Community Initiated Development Project in 2007. The library is heated and cooled using geothermal technology. There are 132 wells that are 267 feet deep under the library parking lot that feed the system.

Some of the old building came to Court Street in the form of restored reading room tables in the entry for new books and in the local history room for research tables. The many portraits remained at the Fourth Street location for the Historical Society.

Below are some of the art pieces at the library.

"The Little Drummer Boy," a painting by R. Atkinson Fox, was donated to the library by Katheryne Lutz Ingersoll. Mr. Fox created a number of paintings used on calendars produced by the Lutz Printing and Calendar Company (a Burlington business owned originally by Conrad Lutz). The Lutz family purchased this particular painting directly from the artist, and it was later given to the library. Robert McCannon, an area businessman, sponsored the restoration of this painting after it was found in the attic.

Burlington Waterfront around 1908 - Barbara Kissinger, local folk artist, has painted this historic view of Burlington. It was a gift of the artist in 1990.

Burlington Union Station around 1910 - This painting, which depicts the importance of the railroad to Burlington, was also a gift of Barbara Kissinger.

Photographs of Burlington - This collection of photos chronicles several decades of growth and change in Burlington. The earliest photograph shown here was taken about 1860 looking north from South Hill. A panoramic view that was taken in 1913 is also mounted here. Several aerial views and a view from a space satellite complete this collection.

Lion - Antoine Louis Barye (1795-1875) is the French creator of this cast plaster sculpture which was a gift of Philip Crapo in 1901. Barye was noted for his animal figures; but, despite his artistic success, he died in poverty in 1875.

Pericles - This copy of a sculpture that is housed at the British museum was a gift of Philip Crapo. Pericles (490?-429 B.C.) ruled Athens in the 5th century B.C.

Burlington, Iowa, 1892 - This panoramic view in oil by George Harvey (1835-1922), who lived in Burlington for much of his life, was exhibited at the Columbian Exposition in 1893. The artist and this painting were featured in ART ACROSS AMERICA when it was published in 1990. This painting now hangs in the Local History room.

Melvil Dewey - Melvil Dewey (1851-1931) created (in 1876) the classification system that is used by our library to organize the non-fiction materials for retrieval. Mr. Dewey, founder of the first library school in the nation in 1887, was also a proponent of simplified spelling (as exemplified in this letter hanging in the Technical Services area of the library).

West Band Stand and Coliseum - Crapo Park - This oil painting of historical Burlington was a gift of the artist, Barbara Kissinger, and is also housed in the Technical Services area.

Early Burlington Landscapes - Two early paintings of the Mississippi River as viewed from the bluffs by an unknown artist. These are the earliest known oil paintings of the Burlington area.

Child - This marble bust of a child was created by Thomas Ball (1819-1911), an artist known for more monumental works such as "Emancipation" in Washington, D. C. and the equestrian statue of George Washington in Boston. This bust was purchased in Florence, Italy, and given to the library by Mrs. Anna Squires in 1869.

Mary and her little lamb - This plaster cast was a gift from the Misses Warren specifically for the Children's area of the library.

Book Week Posters - This collection of historic Children's Book Week posters represents the on-going efforts of the library staff to make reading enjoyable and important for young people. These posters were designed by many well-known illustrators of children's books and have been produced each year since 1921.