History of the Cowles Library


Although Drake University was founded in 1881, students did not have an official library until the early part of the new century. What served as the library was a collection of “essential” books, some of which were purchased by General Francis Marion Drake, that were located in the original chapel of Old Main.  As the twenty-fifth anniversary of the University approached, then President Hill M. Bell approached Andrew Carnegie with a request for funding. Carnegie granted Bell $50,000 contingent upon the University matching those funds. Despite a difficult fund-raising campaign, success was achieved and ground was broken for Carnegie Library in April of 1907 and dedicated a year later in June of 1908.

Picture showing a reading room in the Carnegie Library.

Like every other building on campus, Carnegie Library served multiple purposes, with the basement serving as a classrooms for preparatory needs and the main floor used for liberal arts. The library collection had been pushed up to the third floor, and after a few decades, it had simply outgrown its home. Although Carnegie Library was structurally sound, changes in requirements had simply made it inadequate as a general university library.


In early 1937, the Gardner Cowles Foundation pledged to provide a new library for the University, and the official ground-breaking ceremony occurred at commencement time late that spring. In Charles J. Ritchey’s book, “Drake University through Seventy-five Years, 1881-1956,”  he writes,

“its location near Twenty-eighth Street gave it a balance to the campus design that is pleasing. The architecture and material are in harmony with Morehouse Hall, the dormitory which stands nearby and is held in the same view”. (p. 214)

The new Cowles Library was a two-story, colonial design structure and was constructed to permit expansion. At 28,000 square feet, this structure was designed to seat 330 students.


The next major renovation and expansion of Cowles Library took place over forty years ago and was made possible by another large gift from the Gardner Cowles Foundation. The addition was constructed in a “U” shape on the east, north, and west sides in 1967. It tripled the floor space and brought the total size of the library to 96,000 square feet. The main entrance was moved from the south side of the library facing University Avenue to the north side facing Carpenter Avenue.

Pictures showing the building exterior and lobby.

This U-shaped addition was constructed on three levels and featured open, free-standing shelves in several reading areas. All service areas, including circulation, reference and technical services, were relocated to the first floor. A lounge area, designed for casual study, was relocated to the second floor. The ground floor included a special classroom designed for instruction and the use of audio-visual aids. Seating capacity increased from 330 students to 1200 students. Cowles Library could now provide space for 275,000 volumes.


Once again, for a third time, the Gardner Cowles Foundation supported a major renovation of the existing facility – including the restoration of the Grand Reading Room and Atrium (seen below), and the expansion of the library service commons.