Library services for Burlington began in 1868 when a subscription library was formed by Senator James Wilson Grimes (who contributed $5,000) along with 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. Some of the art also came to the new facility. The many portraits remained at the Fourth Street location for the Historical Society.