Seeing the sights: a trip to the State Library of Iowa and the Law Library at the State Capitol

Board Members of the Iowa Conservation and Preservation Consortium (ICPC) at the Law Library in Des Moines for an annual retreat.

This year I became an official Board Member of the Iowa Conservation and Preservation Consortium (ICPC). The ICPC hosts an annual meeting for preservation professionals in Iowa and the surrounding region SOS (Save Our Stuff), a Preservation Destination program, and training for the Iowa Museums Archives and Libraries Emergency Response Team (IMALERT). As a board member I get to go on an annual retreat with preservation friends, eat chocolates and donuts and discuss organizational business. Life could not get any more fun! Although I cannot shed light on the top secret information that only board members are privy to (just kidding, it’s actually pretty boring), I will share some of the awesome and curious things that we saw during our visit to Des Moines.

Top: State Library of Iowa building. Image courtesy of Flicker. Bottom: The Capitol building. Image Courtesy of RDG Planning and Design.

The board meeting is usually followed by a tour of whatever site hosted the retreat. This summer we were super lucky to meet at the State Library of Iowa. The library’s archivist, Tom Keyser, led us on an extended tour of the buildings and the underground tunnels beneath them. I took pictures of several things that intrigued me, which I will share in this post.

In the reading room of the State Library of Iowa.

Our first stop was in the reading room of the State Library of Iowa. Tom showed us the most fascinating medical “reference book” that I have ever seen – a replica human skeleton! All of the bones and the associated muscles are labeled in Latin. Before the days of medical school residencies in hospitals, young doctors did their training in the private practices of more experienced doctors, often in rural areas. The plastic skeleton was mailed out to young doctors as study material, then mailed back to the library when it was no longer needed.

Left: The key to interpreting the skeleton. Top right: The skeleton’s library accession number. Bottom right: There is a small hook fastening on the side of the skull to keep the top closed (I anticipate that the brain is inside).

Instead of walking out the building and crossing the street, we went to the basement and walked through a series of underground tunnels to get to the State Capitol. Apparently, many people who work in the two buildings walk the tunnels in the winter for exercise.

The tunnels right next to the State Library were built in the 19th century, and as you move close to the Capitol, the tunnel construction becomes increasingly more contemporary.
We saw a seemingly endless corridor that branched off the main tunnel and an abundance of mysterious pipes of varying dimensions and types.
In the oldest part of the tunnels we saw (bottom left) brick panel ceilings,  (top left) large enclosed areas filled with dirt almost all the way up to the ceiling, and (right) the spookiest janitorial closet ever.

Once we finally made it out of the sub-basement and into the Capitol, color and decorative elements assaulted the eye from every angle. I noticed that the beautiful floors in the State Library were made of mosaic, while in the Capitol the floors are tile.

Floor mosaic in lobby of the State Library of Iowa.
Details of floor tiles in the State Capitol

Both buildings feature a dome, although the Capitol’s dome is much larger.

Left: The interior of the dome in the State Library of Iowa. Right: The interior of the dome in the State Capitol

Both the exterior and the interior of the State Capitol had been renovated. The work was divided into 9 phases, starting in 1983 and ending in 2001 with the total bill of $41 million dollars. The Law Library, which is located inside of the Capitol, had been renovated as well.

Left: Interior of the State Capitol. Right: The Law Library.

The reading room and stacks of the Law Library feature some interesting outdated elements. There is a dumbwaiter, which used to carry books all the way up and down the 5 floors of the State Capitol. There is also a lovely sink and mirror combination in one of the side rooms. It does not have a currently functional plumbing unit. Small iron posts sticking out of the tall columns remind the visitors that the library used to be illuminated by gas lighting. The poles, which are difficult to see in the photograph below, were used to mount the gas lanterns.

Left: Dumbwaiter. Center: Historic sink and mirror. Right: Mount for a gas lantern. Image courtesy of the Iowa Legislature website.

The most rare and valuable books in the collection are housed in the locked A.J. Smalls Room. Some of the highlights are an atlas of hand drawn maps of the Des Moines River and an early edition of William Blackstone’s Commentaries.

Left: Hand-drawn maps of the Des Moines River. Right: Fire-charred copies of Blackstone’s Commentaries
The Iowa State Capitol on fire in January of 1904. Image courtesy of the Iowa Legislature website.

The Commentaries suffered fire damage during the 1904 fire. There is anecdotal evidence that diligent librarians were throwing these books out of the window in order to save them.

The 100 County Court Houses of Iowa.

A quilt featuring images of the 100 county court houses of Iowa hangs high up from a balcony railing in the library. The court houses are organized on the quilt in alphabetical order of the county. On the floor underneath it there is a small stand with a printed chart that explains which building is from which county. Even though each square on the quilt bares the name of the county, it is really hard to see the text from down below. Iowa actually has 99 counties, not 100. But Lee County has two court houses – one in the south and one in the north of the county, bringing the total for the state to an even hundred.

Many Mrs. and the lone Mr. Governor of Iowa.

The display case in the Capitol that I found the most fascinating, features doll representations of spouses of Governors of Iowa. The porcelain-faced dolls all have the same facial features, with different hair styles, and include 40+ wives and 1 husband. The dolls wear replicas of garments that the actual people had worn to their spouses’ inaugurations, thus showcasing many decades of fashion. It appears that some of the gowns would benefit from ministrations of a textiles conservator.

Top: Preservation Alert!! Doll with visible signs of damage in the fabric on her dress. Bottom: Commemorative plaque on the side of the display case.

The State and Law libraries have a breadth of material ranging from fiction to notable Iowa-related legal documents, as well as digital resources. Be sure to visit them on your way through Des Moines.

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