Our Story: The History of the Olathe Public Library

The Ladies Reading Circle
Photo Courtesy of Johnson County Museum

Leading Ladies

1889 - The roots of the Olathe Public Library can be found in the activities of the Ladies Reading Circle, founded in 1883. The Ladies Reading Circle was founded by three Olathe women: Mrs. John P. St. John, wife of the former Governor of Kansas, her sister-in-law, Mrs.Emma Parker, and Mrs.Celestia Stevenson. The Ladies Reading Circle was the first of the Olathe Federated Women's Clubs, and is still active today. 

Although a subscription library was started by the Olathe Library Association in the 1870s, the Ladies Reading Circle was the first to try to establish a public library.In 1889, members began that effort by obtaining a loan of 50 books from the State Library for a six-month period.

1909 - On August 2, 1909, the mayor and city council appointed a twelve member library board. Mrs. T.L. Hogue was appointed to appear before the council at its September meeting to recommend a 4/10ths of a mill for library purposes. The levy was passed; however, they were unable to find a suitable building to house the new library. The committee decided to contact Andrew Carnegie, who responded with the following message:

"If the city agrees by resolution of council to maintain a free public library at cost of not less than $1,000 a year and provide a suitable site for the building, Mr. Carnegie will be glad to give $10,000.00 to erect a free public library building for Olathe."

1911 - On March 3, 1911, at the request of the library board, the city council agreed to donate a lot at 124 North Chestnut, where the main post office currently stands, for the site of the library. Until the building could be completed and furnished, the council granted the use of two rooms on the second floor of the city hall. In November, the library board appointed a committee to buy furniture, not to exceed $300, and an ad was placed in the local paper for the position of librarian at a salary of $30 a month.

ad in the Olathe Mirror asking for city librarian applicants
Olathe Mirror, November 1911
Courtesy of the Olathe News




 The Carnegie Building

1912 - The book committee purchased the first books, ranging in price from 53 to 83 cents per volume. Free newspapers were received from the Register (the Olathe paper), the Kansas City Star, Kansas City Journal, Topeka Capital and Wichita Beacon.

1914 - The Carnegie building was designed by architect Professor J.D. Walters of Manhattan, Kansas. A construction bid, in the amount of $7,869 from Weast and Ekengren was accepted by the board. Over the next eight months, committees of citizens worked to provide books, decoration, furniture, electric lights and other necessities for the new library.

Dedication day for the Carnegie Library in Olathe was Thursday, February 5, 1914. That afternoon, eight women's clubs hosted a function for the women of the town. Nearly 1,000 attendees enjoyed "tea and wayfers" at "one of the most enjoyable social functions of the month." In the evening, approximately 1,500 crowded into the building to enjoy the Congregational Male Chorus and heard an address from former Kansas Governor John P. St. John. The board presented to the City of Olathe the new building and 4,500 books.


Opening Day Program

Olathe's First Librarian

Out of 20 applicants, Lena Bell was chosen to be the new city librarian. Miss Bell was an Olathe native, daughter of Dr. James Bell. She graduated from Olathe High School. With the short-term help of a professional librarian from Kansas City, Kansas, she established the library in two rooms of City Hall, and then moved with it to the new Carnegie building.

Miss Bell's library career was especially characterized by her work with children and with the women's clubs' program committees. During World War I, she worked with the Red Cross, gathering reading matter for the camps and helping with Liberty Bond drives. She presided over the library until her death in 1922. A library board resolution concerning her stated:

"May the remembrance of her be a genuine help to all of the children of the city to whom she has given so much of her time and talent. We loved her because she loved our children. We honored her because she honored and cherished our library."

Her personal collection of more than 100 books was willed to the library.

Expanding Services

1922 - Elizabeth Barr Arthur was appointed librarian on December 29th.

1923 - The Librarian's Annual Report for the year includes 1,822 books added, 311 books mended and 442 overdue notices mailed.

1926 - More than 1,200 reference questions were looked up for patrons. Pearl Edson became the assistant librarian.

1927 - The first story hour for children was offered by librarian Pearl Edson.

1928 - Elizabeth Arthur resigned to purchase the Johnson County Herald, which she operated until 1938.

Elizabeth Barr Arthur

1929 - During the Great Depression, Pearl Edson's leadership and sacrifice saw the library through hardship that might otherwise have closed its doors. Her daughter said that her mother "worked for next to nothing" through those years.

1930s - The fine policy read: "A fine of two cents a day, except Sundays and holidays will be charged for books kept overtime. A further charge of two cents for mail notice and after one week, twenty-five cents for messenger, will be made when necessary."

 Pearl Edson

1940s - A newspaper interview with Pearl Edson quotes her as saying that "...the nicest people in town come to the library. During the war, when things were very unsettled, lonely girls used to come in and sit in the rocking chair by the fireplace and talk to me. When they were being moved to another town they always stopped by the library to say good-bye and thank me."

1950s - The library began assisting at least one book discussion group. The group had to remain small because the library usually only had one copy of the book, which had to be shared within a month's time.

1951 - Nannie Anderson Hogue, an original board member, remained on the board until 1951, when she resigned.

1952 - The Johnson County Library system was established. Although the Johnson County Civic Planning Council recommended a merger of the two systems, the Olathe Library board unanimously opposed the merger.

1958 - A children's reading room was established in the basement of the Carnegie building. The Board approved a bill for ice cream cones for the children who attended the last story hour of the summer.

Ed Compton began working at the library. He was appointed Head Librarian/Director in 1961, and held that position until 1988. In 1974, with the help of Ward Horton, he arranged for a group to meet at the Olathe Public Library to discuss forming a local historical chapter. This led to the founding of the Olathe Historical Society.

1960s - With the development of the Kansas Regional Library System, resource sharing among libraries in Kansas greatly expanded the options available to library patrons in Olathe, resulting in higher quality services and easier access to information.


Ed Compton

1964 - The Carnegie building served the needs of the library for more than fifty years, but by the 1960s a larger building was needed. On August 4th, voters were asked to support a two mill levy for library expansion, but it was defeated.

1965 - A similar measure, requesting a two mill levy to be imposed for five years to create a building fund was passed by ballot in 1965. By the time the fund accumulated to $120,000, however, federal matching funds were no longer available. A search was launched once again for a suitable building for the future.

Carnegie Building Circa 1960s

1971 - The board purchased the Patrons Bank building at 125 S. Cherry. The old Carnegie building was sold to the Urban Renewal Agency, and the building was razed shortly thereafter. With the combination of the sale of the old library, a generous anonymous gift, and accrued interest, the board was able to provide Olathe with a building and furnishings "free and clear." Opening day was August 28, 1971.





Patrons State Bank


 Located in the business district, across the street from the Post Office and only a block from the Johnson County Courthouse and Olathe City Hall, this library was a convenient and popular center of community life in Olathe. Staff and services were expanded to handle the reading and information needs of the people of Olathe. Mrs. Florence Kelly and Mrs. Justine Johnson were dedicated staff members during this busy time, as was Mrs. Emma Adams, the Children's Librarian.


Mrs. Adams guided the children's services to be compatible with trends in child development education. She encouraged parents to read to their children from infancy and carefully selected new books each year. Increased patronage by children highlighted the need for more space. In some years, story hour had to be scheduled before regular library hours. The furniture had to be moved from the adult reading area to make room for all the children.

1970s Children’s Storytime

Rapid change as a basic condition of life had become a realization in Olathe. The Patrons Bank building was expected to meet the needs of the library for at least ten years; however, exponential growth in Olathe in the 1970s soon altered the plan. Within only a few years, the board again began to plan for library expansion.

1976 - The Librarian's Annual Report for the year showed that 74% of Olathe residents had library cards. The library circulated 158,651 books, an increase of 20,000 over 1975. In a single, record-breaking day, Olatheans checked out 1,068 books. Over 3,000 new library cards were issued that year. The library holdings numbered close to 39,000 volumes. Over 150 children attended Story Hour on August 10th with Chucko the Clown. Ten times that number attended Story Hour throughout the year.


1977 - The board signed a contract with architect Kurt von Achen to draw up plans either for an expansion of the existing building or for a new facility. Plans for a special bond election to finance the construction got underway. Under the capable leadership of Mrs. Betty Hodges, the Board took its case for a new building to the Olathe voters and won approval for $1.6 million dollars on November 8th.

A New Building

1979 - Construction of the library expanded over a year. The library was closed Thursday, November 15th, and the John F. Ivory moving company arrived at 8 am the next day to move 45,000 books to the new facility for a $4,270 price tag.

1978 Groundbreaking
Photo courtesy of the Olathe News







Move-In Day




At the groundbreaking, Betty Hodges, the board president said,

"We've tried to work out everything that is humanly possible. We've always told them we wanted a perfect building."

plaque honoring Betty Gibson HodgesSadly, Mrs. Hodges passed away a few weeks before the new library was opened. During the dedication ceremony on December 16th, a bronze plaque was unveiled honoring her contributions to the city and its library. It reads: "For that part of her life and spirit, so freely given here, this library is dedicated in memory of Betty Gibson Hodges."


New Technology

1988 - Libraries in the county, including Olathe, the Johnson County Library system, and Johnson County Community College, switched over to a new computerized check out system through Data Research Associates (DRA). Kent Oliver, who was appointed director that year, commented that it was a step toward modernizing and increasing the sophistication of the Olathe library.

1989 - Online Public Access Computers (OPAC) were installed, allowing patrons to use a computer to search for books in both the Olathe and Johnson County Library systems without the help of a librarian. These computers eliminated the need for a card catalog.

1991 - As Olathe grew by leaps and bounds, the library quickly began to run out of space. Originally designed to serve a population of 50,000 and hold 100,000 volumes, the library was serving a population of 72,500 and contained 112,000 volumes.

Due to its location, expanding the current library was not an option, so a plan was developed to build a branch library on the east side of Olathe. Unfortunately, a 1994 mill levy increase election, which would have funded the project, met with defeat.

1995 - Kent Oliver served as director of the Olathe Public Library until 1995.

Under his direction, the library board developed a plan and written policies. During this time, collection development changes allowed the library to add other formats, such as video and audio tapes. Oliver worked toward more space for Olathe's growing needs. He obtained a grant for the 1996 remodeling, which provided electrical and data lines for more public computers.

1995 - Emily Baker, former assistant director, was appointed library director.

1996 - In order to alleviate crowding, address accessibility concerns, and make better use of the limited space available, a summer-long remodeling project was begun.

Kent Oliver

During the remodeling, the circulation and reference desks were moved closer to the entrance to the building. The meeting room became additional space for the children's department, as well as office space. The remodeling also provided an opportunity to rewire the building to accommodate new technology.

An open house was held on September 21st to rededicate the library.


A New Branch

1997 - After years of planning, a $1.96 million bond issue finally passed for the building of a new branch on the east side of Olathe. The new branch would be 12,000 square feet, about half the size of the main library. It would have space for 50,000 books, videos, audios and more.

1999 - The year the Olathe Public Library celebrated its 90th anniversary, land was found for the new branch at Indian Creek Parkway and Black Bob Road. The groundbreaking ceremony was held in April. Due to a severe storm, the ceremony was held in a building nearby.

The Friends of the Olathe Public Library donated $17,595 for the purchase of a checkout desk and other smaller furnishings. They also began a fund-raising drive to collect $25,000 in order to purchase the rest of the tables, chairs, and other furnishings needed.

2000 - As opening day neared, Olatheans generously donated their time to help their library.

The Olathe Gardeners of America planted a small garden area, with help from the Olathe Rotary Club, who built a path from which to view the various flowers and greenery. Olathe East High School's National Honor Society students planted flowers along the edge of the library's patio, while Brownie Troop 2502 from Green Springs Elementary School planted flowers under the front windows.

Staff and volunteers, including Girl Scout Cadet Troop 5629 and General Services Administration employees, spent many hours filling the shelves with 31,000 books, videos, and other items, as well as unpacking and setting up furniture. Boy Scouts Varsity Team 784 spent an entire  Saturday unpacking and setting up computers, and finally, the Relief Society of the Olathe First Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, put their efforts toward polishing and cleaning the new library before its opening day.

The Indian Creek Branch opened to the public on August 7.




Where Are We Going?

Use of the Olathe libraries has continued to grow, with more than 500,000 visits being made to the two libraries each year. We have expanded programming for all ages, and increased the variety of materials available for checkout through the addition of music CDs, video games, e-books, e-audios, and more. As a result, more than 1.5 million items are checked out each year. Olatheans love their libraries!









In 2012, the mayor put together a task force to help determine the library's future. The result of this was the library's current master plan, which was presented to city council and was well received. This master plan included the recommendation that we renovate or replace the Olathe Downtown Library and expand the Olathe Indian Creek Library, allowing us to add much-needed community space to both locations and enhance services. In the hopes that it would make it easier to proceed with these plans, the library was made a department of the city in 2015.

Unfortunately, just as we were beginning to move forward, disaster struck, in the form of a ruptured water line under the Olathe Indian Creek Library on March 3, 2016. Engineers determined that repairs to the building could cost as much as $1.2 million, and take as long as six months. Rather than begin those repairs and ultimately incur the cost and inconvenience of adding to the building, the City Council believed the most responsible action was to move the library to a new location.

In May of 2016, the City Council gave their approval for the purchase of the vacant Hy-Vee building at 135th and Brougham for the future relocation of Olathe Indian Creek. Group 4 and Gould Evans were hired to assist with planning for the future of both Olathe libraries, and they produced their final programming plans in early 2017, indicating what spaces and services were needed. With Indian Creek taking priority, Group 4/Gould Evans and McCown Gordon were hired to design and transform the former grocery store space into a state-of-the-art library. While planning and construction of the new library took place, a temporary storefront location was used for Indian Creek. The grand opening for the highly anticipated new building was held on October 19, 2019, and it immediately proved popular with the community. As Olathe Library Advisory Board Chairman Tom Glinstra said, “Sometimes, something very good can come from something bad."

Even as the new Indian Creek location was preparing to open, plans for the Downtown Library were beginning to evolve. City officials recognize the importance of having two high quality libraries in Olathe, and in November 2019 they announced plans for a new, state-of-the-art mixed-use project in downtown Olathe. The 5-story building will include space for a new Downtown Library as well as offices and a restaurant. If all goes as planned, the groundbreaking will take place in late 2020. As always, we continue to move forward and achieve our goals through the generous support of the Olathe community. The Olathe Public Library is your hometown library, and with your support, we will always be here to serve you.