Library’s Westport Branch Celebrates 125 Years as a Community Anchor

Monday, February 6, 2023
'celebrate our birthday' with stars on blue background

The Westport community was insistent in the late 1800s: It wanted – no, needed – a library.

One of its leading citizens, Arthur M. Allen, led the campaign. A former Jackson County presiding judge who sat on the Westport school board, he discovered $7,500 in leftover property tax proceeds and, with his associates, pushed a bill through the Missouri General Assembly. It called for the funds to be turned over to the Westport school district to build a “public school library and for no other purpose.”

It took some further legal maneuvering, but a plot of land was purchased for $1,800. Construction started in 1896 and wrapped up the following year, running a hair over $5,000. Doors opened on February 22, 1898.

They remain open today, an entrée into what’s now the cherished, history-steeped Westport Branch of the Kansas City Public Library.

The system’s first branch – the oldest in Kansas City, predating Harry Truman’s haberdashery, Walt Disney’s Laugh-O-Gram Studio, the Power and Light Building and current City Hall – is marking its 125th birthday with a week of remembrances, appearances, and other activities, plus a special art exhibition. The centerpiece is a two-hour celebration on Wednesday, February 22, featuring remarks by local civil rights icon Alvin Brooks.

Brooks has a personal connection to the Library. He regularly stole away to the Westport Branch’s second-floor meeting room to work on his 2021 memoir Binding Us Together: A Civil Rights Activist Reflects on a Lifetime of Community and Public Service.

Events the following day, Thursday, February 23, revolve around students and families. They include a special storytime session led by Julia Kingsbury of the Library’s Youth & Family Engagement department and a musical concert by Ken Shoemaker, an accomplished hammered dulcimer and autoharp player.

Other quasquicentennial activities include trivia, coloring, and crossword puzzle contests; a youth/teen scavenger hunt; daily prize drawings; and other giveaways. Tours of the Westport Branch will highlight both its history and the resources it offers today.

‘We love the community. The community loves the Library.’

Yes, it’s all about a library milestone – “125 years old; it’s time to celebrate,” says Bre Hansen, the Westport Branch’s assistant manager – but she and her staff see it every bit as much as a community commemoration.

“We are the heart of Westport,” Hansen says. “We love the community. The community loves the Library.”

The festivities come ahead of a systemwide celebration by the Kansas City Public Library, marking the 150th anniversary of its 1873 founding in December. A year-long observance is planned for 2024.

As KCPL’s first location outside downtown Kansas City, the Westport Branch occupies a notable place in that century-and-a-half history.

It began operation as the Allen Library, named for the former Jackson County judge who was its primary champion in 1896. His name is still etched in stone above the front entrance. The new library boasted “700 volumes, a reading room with table and chairs and a librarian,” The Kansas City Star reported.

The accession register, or inventory of books, included Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, two copies of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, four of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, and three titles by J.M. Barrie: The Little Minister, Sentimental Tommy, and A Window in Thrums. (Barrie’s Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up wouldn’t be released until 1904.)

When Westport was formally annexed into Kansas City in late 1899, the school district merged with it and the Allen Library became part of the Kansas City Public Library system. The original cut stone and slate building took on a one-story addition in 1915.

The branch survived a period of uncertainty as KCPL struggled with 14 physical locations (four more than today) and an overstretched budget in the mid- to late 1980s. It underwent extensive renovation in 1998, the year of its centennial.

Now, it helps anchor a historic neighborhood that arose from a trading post for 19th-century travelers on the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails. “It’s a gem,” Hansen says. “It’s a treasure.”

To celebrate the 125th birthday of the Westport Branch, old friends Alvin Brooks, KC civil rights leader and author, and Vern Barnet, interfaith minister and author, sat down to talk about the importance of libraries to our communities and in their own lives. Watch the video below.

An array of vital resources and services

The Westport Branch drew 15,241 visitors and circulated nearly 22,000 books and other items in 2022. Patrons – in many instances lacking vital access to computers, the internet, or both – log into an average of more than 22 computer sessions a day. They can get passports processed. They can connect through the Library to an array of social services.

A few steps beyond the double-door main entrance, they also can take in heARTs, the 12-week exhibition that opened at the branch on January 28.

Textile and performance artist KE Griffin, known professionally as Art by .E Lewis, created the series of heart-shaped, mixed-media works in part in commemoration of the Library’s impact on her life. She studied there perhaps three times a week while taking art classes at Penn Valley Community College in the early 1990s.

“Keith Coldsnow (the now-deceased owner of Coldsnow Artist Materials) was right next to the Library. And … I just stayed there, at the Library,” Griffin recalls. “It was an awesome, quiet study spot.”

Her 10-piece exhibition, the first at the Westport Branch featuring a local artist, will remain on display through April 22 … as the branch settles into its 126th year. 

“This is an exciting time,” says Hansen, a native of Blue Springs who joined the KCPL system after 22 years with the Johnson County Library. She became the branch’s assistant manager last August and is relishing her stewardship of this small corner of Kansas City history.

“It brings me back to when I was young and my mom brought me to the library,” she says. “It has come full circle.”