Senator James Wilson Grimes contributed $5,000 to form a subscription library in 1868. A number of other residents 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. This venture did not last, but instead set the stage for forming a public library by demonstrating the value of resource sharing among residents to strengthen individual success and build a stronger community.
Picking up on the work of this small group of residents, 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 and included some of the collection from Grimes' library. A Board of Trustees was formed to govern the library.
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 and 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.
The building at 501 N. Fourth Street served as the home of the public library for over 100 years.
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 its new home on November 13, 2006. The Burlington Public Library won the Main Street Iowa Award for the Best Community Initiated Development Project in 2007.
Fully handicapped accessible, all public services are on one floor. The library is heated and cooled using geothermal technology with 132 wells that are 267 feet deep under the library parking lot to feed the system.
Two large meeting rooms and eight smaller ones serve as a community gathering place for connection. Children and families are supported in early literacy development and school success. Adults of all ages find self-guided and group learning opportunities. A genealogy and local history section preserves unique local resoures to celebrate the community's history. The works of area artists are found throughout the library.