1880 - Wilmette had only 419 residents and reading books was a major pastime when about 50 of the residents formed a literary society. Using initiation fees and collections taken up at lectures, the society purchased books for a small library located in the rear of Wilmette's first store, Kinney's General Store.
1882 - The society was incorporated into the "Wilmette Library Association."
1889 - A "Library and Social Club" was organized. Twenty-three members were enrolled at the first meeting. Books were donated, and a small collection was established at the Methodist Church. In April 1892, the group was incorporated as the "Elmwood Library Association."
1895 - A fire destroyed all of the books.
1897 - The Woman's Club of Wilmette rented space over a grocery store and circulated books with club members acting as librarians.
1900 - Taxpayers approved a referendum to establish a free public library by a vote of 62 to 52. A $2M tax issue was authorized. In April of the following year, the first six Wilmette Library Directors were elected. The library was moved to rented space in the rear of a lumber company. The Elmwood Library Association loaned 1,000 of its books to the new library.
1901 - THE NEW LIBRARY OPENED with 1,347 books on its shelves. During the first year of its operation, the library registered more than 500 borrowers and circulated more than 9,000 volumes.
1902 - Andrew Carnegie established his foundation to promote free libraries. In response to an inquiry from the Library Board, he agreed to donate $10,000 for construction of a free public library building, if the village agreed to support the library with at least $1,000 a year and to provide a suitable site free of all encumbrances.
1903 - An advisory referendum was held which presented three options to voters in terms of site.
1904 - The Village accepted Carnegie's offer and subsequently purchased the site of the present library for $2,820.
1905 - A new "Carnegie" library building was opened to the public.
1925 - A Children's Room was opened in the basement of the Carnegie building.
1935 - The library could no longer house all the books in the collection. Books were loaned to various school libraries, and a branch library was located in a vacant school.
1946 - The schools had developed their own libraries, all the branches were closed and the books returned to the main library. As a result, seating space in the library became virtually nonexistent.
1948 - Voters approved a $400,000 bond issue to construct a new library, along with an increase in the property tax rate for library purposes.
1951 - The new building was dedicated. and the old building was torn down. The new building, which received an architectural award for design from the American Institute of Architects, resulted in increased use of library facilities. The architectural firm was Holabird, Root and Burgee.
1959 - It was necessary to convert the second floor auditorium of the new building to a Junior High Room.
1965 - A $140,000 Children's Wing was opened.
1966 - The Wilmette Public Library joined with 21 other area public libraries to form the North Suburban Library System.
1967 - A $150,000 Reference Room/Staff Workroom and Office addition was opened and a basement remodeling project, which provided an Arts Room, was completed.
1975 - A referendum was passed which, effective July 1, 1975, converted the village library to a district library. In December 1976 a referendum to annex the territory encompassed by the village of Kenilworth to the Wilmette Public Library District passed in Wilmette but failed in Kenilworth. (In December 1983, the Wilmette and Winnetka Public Library Districts extended library service to the village of Kenilworth on a contractual basis. This arrangement is currently in effect.)
1979 - A $389,170 project involving an addition of approximately 3,650 sq. ft. and substantial remodeling was completed. This project provided a new central lobby with a single public entrance/exit, an electronic book security system, a computerized circulation system, an elevator, basement shelving space for the back periodicals collection, second floor meeting room, staff lounge and storage space. In addition, it permitted two large storage areas to be opened to house shelving for the library's burgeoning book collection.
1979 - The library joined with a number of other North Suburban Library System member libraries to participate in a CLSI automated on-line circulation system based on the concept of a shared database.
1980 - Wilmette voters passed a referendum to increase the ceiling on the library's corporate tax rate by a vote of 1,813 to 744.
1985 - The Board and staff worked to develop plans for a major addition to the facility. A state construction grant in the amount of $250,000 (33% of the projected construction cost) was subsequently awarded to the library to build Phase I of the addition.
1986 - A $2,900,000 building bond referendum to build Phase II of the four-phase building program simultaneously with the construction of Phase I was held and passed by a substantial (61%) margin.
1988 - The building addition, which essentially doubled the size of the building, was completed.
1994 - A small addition was completed on three levels that added a Friends Book Sale Room, vestibule, and (ultimately) a relocated and expanded Current Periodicals Room.
1996 - The card catalog was closed and scheduled for removal December 31, 1998.
1998 - State Grant funds totaling $650,000 assisted the library in constructing an addition which permitted Youth Services to be expanded. The addition was a small addition that finished off the third floor and allowed an almost total reconfiguration of the library. This addition brought the library's square footage to approximately 66,600.
2001 - Wilmette voters passed a referendum to increase the ceiling on the library's corporate tax rate.
2010 – A Revitalization Project updated the first floor by creating a more open and welcoming space that respected the original building and its historical features while allowing for the evolution of library services and collections. The total cost of the project, $1,200,000 was paid with capital reserves.
2012 - The parking lot of the Library was completely re-engineered to provide an improved surface and better drainage of water by relocating underground storm water pipes and installing a more environmentally friendly permeable paver surface. Capital reserves were used to cover the $300,000 cost.
2015 – The library began a one year, $5,500,000 renovation project that updates the second floor Youth Services area and Current Periodicals room, refreshes and makes fully accessible all public restrooms, installs several sections of new white roofing and replaces nearly all of the library’s heating and cooling systems. In keeping with the library board’s commitment to use environmentally sustainable practices, a portion of the new heating and cooling system is geothermal.
One of the great strengths of the library's building projects is that while no further expansion is anticipated, should that need surface at some distant point in the future, the potential is there. Both the 1986-88 addition and the 1998 addition were constructed to accommodate a fourth floor that would provide another 9,400 sq. ft. It is highly unlikely such further expansion will be required, and there is absolutely no intention at the present time to implement any further expansion.
The library's efforts to be responsive to the wishes of its patrons have won broad-based usage and support. Approximately 94% of the district's residents have borrower's cards, a much higher percentage than the national average. In the last fiscal year (2003-04), 622,470 items were circulated, resulting in a per capita circulation figure of 23.05 (one of the highest in the country).
In the last fiscal year (2003-04), the library staff answered 98,843 reference inquiries. A total gate gate count undertaken during the same time period measured 395,330 individual patron visits.
The library has an effective Friends of the Library organization, which has provided financial assistance to the library, primarily in the form of capital purchases (patron computers and peripherals, audiovisual equipment, furniture, circulation desk, etc.) and original art.
Wilmette residents have come to expect an abundance and variety of library programs. The library as expanded has been designed to function as a cultural center as well as a traditional library.
An Auditorium on the lower level and a large display case on the second floor provide exhibition space for art. The library's exhibits are listed regularly in The Wilmette Life. A juried art show is conducted every spring by the Friends of the Wilmette Public Library. The ten selected artists are each given a specific month in which to display a full exhibit in the Auditorium. Local artists, collectors and artisans provide exhibits in display cases located on the first floor of the library. In addition, the new Youth Services Room display cases are filled with monthly exhibits provided by the library's younger patrons.
Concerts, lectures, travelogues, workshops, plays, seminars and artist receptions are presented in the Auditorium. Projection equipment and an excellent sound system including an FM system for the hearing-impaired are available. A Small Meeting Room equipped with a table and chairs seats up to 20 people. Both meeting rooms may be reserved by community groups for their meetings and activities. A Youth Program Room on the second floor is used for children's programs and storytimes. Community Services coordinates outreach programs to Wilmette and Kenilworth residents. A newsletter (Off the Shelf), which includes a calendar of library events, exhibits and programs is published six times per year and distributed to every household and business in Wilmette.
In addition to Public Access Catalog (PAC) computers and Internet workstations, other computers are available to patrons, some with applications software and some that are reference-related.