In 1862, Ithaca resident Ezra Cornell decided he would build a library for all residents of Tompkins County and purchased a building lot on the southeast corner of Tioga and Seneca Streets. In April of 1864, the New York State Legislature chartered the Cornell Public Library Association (the sixth public library chartered by the state and the first in a village). Circulation officially began on March 4, 1867.
In 1868, the first meeting of the faculty of the newly chartered Cornell University met in the library. Early classes and commencement exercises of the University took place in the Library's large lecture hall.
Over the years the Library was home to many businesses and organizations and the large lecture hall was used as the Happy Hour Movie Theater from 1908 to 1929. This became a popular place for citizens to relax and enjoy the latest in entertainment.
Unfortunately, when the depression started in October 1929, the Library could not maintain services and the library had to shut its doors on July 15, 1932, reopening in January 1933.
In the 1930's plans to build a newer library building were shelved due to lack of funds. In 1940 the decision was made to renovate the library building. By the 1950's, however, public support was growing in the community for a new library building. A building fund was begun shortly before the Library Association sold the original library building to the First National Bank and moved to temporary quarters in the Sons of Italy Hall.
The Friends of the Library became established in 1946 and have developed into stalwart supporters and funders of the library, through their annual book sales. Over three million dollars has been donated to the library through the hard work and generosity of the Friends.
In 1967 the County Board of Supervisors approved the construction of a new $1.7 million library building. It had been agreed that the new library was to be chartered and operated as a county library. In January 1968 the Cornell Library Association turned over its books and assets to Tompkins County. The new library at 312 N. Cayuga opened in February of 1969.
In 1982 the Tompkins County Public Library became the first public library in New York State to undertake a computerized card catalogue and check out system. In 1990 a newer system was installed, and a third generation computer catalog, Polaris, was installed in 2005.
In 1983 an asbestos removal project resulted in the closing of the library for much of 1984. Limited library service was offered at Challenge Industries.
In February 1985 the library started circulating videotapes. A circulating compact disc collection started in 1987. In 1995 free Internet access began with a grant from Time Warner Cable. DVDs began circulating in 2001.
The Tompkins County Public Library Foundation, established in 1993, took on the role of private fundraising through donor cultivation, annual mail appeals, grants, investment and management of directed gifts and special events all aimed at improving the financial health of the library.
By the early 1990's, the library had outgrown its space and a space feasibility study was conducted by Cohen Associates in 1996. The Cohen report substantiated the need for more space and outlined several options for the future, including expansion at the current site, building a new library or moving into an existing space.
In 1998 the Tompkins County Legislature approved a plan to move the Library to the former Woolworth Department Store, on the corner of Green and Cayuga Streets. Renovations begin in the fall of 1999 and the library opened in its new space in November of 2000.
A fundraising campaign, conducted by the Tompkins County Public Library Foundation raised more than $1.7 million in private support for the library.
The new library, double in size, attracted thousands of new users. In 2001 visitors increased by 45% compared to the year before, circulation increased by 19% to 952,000 items, and the number of public programs and audience attendance skyrocketed. Staffing levels reached an all time high of 55.7 full-time equivalents. The library opened a Health Information Center, offered public art displays, sponsored Spanish story time, and initiated the Discovery Trail Partnership, collaboration among seven museums and the library.
An Alternative Funding Committee, appointed by the President of the Board of Trustees in 2002, studied the possibility of establishing a public library district in Tompkins County, which would have the authority to tax directly for support of all libraries in Tompkins County. A modified version of this plan was placed on a public ballot in February of 2006 and was defeated.
The library celebrated 10 years at Green Street in November 2010 with a celebration featuring programs, a visit by Ezra Cornell impersonator, Fred Antil, and a cake cutting ceremony. In 2011, the library began circulating e-readers.
The Library celebrated its Sesquicentennial in 2014 with a community-sourced art exhibit, proclamations from state and local officials, an historical presentation by County Historian Carol Kammen and a special storytelling program for our youngest patrons. Even after 150 years, TCPL continues to be a lifeboat for individuals and organizations by promoting the joy of reading, the power of information and the strength of community connections.