Our Historic Library

Early History

In 1857 a small group of local men formed the Winona Lyceum, the earliest library association in the city. Dues paid by the members funded the purchase of new books. In 1863 the group became the Young Men’s Library Association, which by 1870 grew to 268 members with 1,670 books. Debt closed the library in 1875 for two years.

In 1877 Mrs. J. B. McGaughey, Mrs. Thomas Wilson, and Miss Charlotte Prentiss lifted the debt and reorganized the library under a new name, the Winona Library Association. On March 22, 1886, the association donated its collection of 3,500 books to Winona, forming the city’s first free public library.

In the late 1890s, William H. Laird donated $50,000 to the city for a permanent home for the library, which covered the construction costs for a new building. The library association paid for the furniture, fixtures, and shelving. The new library at the corner of Fifth and Johnson streets opened on Jan. 21, 1899, and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The fireproof building was designed by Warren Powers Laird, dean of the school of architecture of the University of Pennsylvania, and Edgar V. Seeler, a Philadelphia architect. The original building was 85 feet by 65 feet with a 3-story stack wing. The copper dome is 56 feet above the street. The brick walls are faced with Bedford stone and the entrance steps, curbs, and walks are Winona limestone. The columns at the entrance are Georgia Creole marble.

Unique features of the library are the glass floors in the book stacks, the ornate copper-faced shelving and stairs, and the Kenyon Cox mural, “The Light of Learning,” under the library’s dome.

William Harris Laird

Bell Art Room

The Bell Art Room, named after Frederic Somers Bell, the first president of the Library Board, is located on the second floor of the library. It contains a large collection of art books and a reproduction of the statue Hebe. The library also hosts many exhibitions and events throughout the year in the Art Room.


The statue of Hebe is a copy in Carrara marble of the original work by Antonio Canova. The statue was donated to the library by Mrs. William H. Laird on July 8, 1899. Mrs. Laird purchased the statue in Florence, Italy.

Antonio Canova is one of the foremost neoclassical sculptors. He was born in 1757 and was orphaned at an early age. He studied with his grandfather, who was a respected stone mason and master builder in Venice. Canova later became the favorite sculptor of Napoleon and his friends.

Hebe was sculpted by Canova in 1796 and is one of his most admired figures for its evocation of airborne grace. The statue was so popular that Canova carved four replicas.

In Greek mythology, Hebe was the daughter of Zeus and Hera. She was the cup-bearer of the gods on Mount Olympus and was considered the personification of the beauty of youth.

Canova’s Hebe is the last figure of Western Art to levitate as if flight were a perfectly natural attribute of humanity. Levitation is implied without wings, without strenuous action, without a single distended muscle. Hebe is captured pouring divine nectar in sight of human eyes but beyond their mortal reach.

Light of Learning

Just outside the art room under the library’s dome is an allegorical mural by Kenyon Cox called The Light of Learning. The painting was donated to the library in 1910 by William Hayes as a memorial to his wife Charlotte Prentiss Hayes. The general intent of the mural is to symbolize the function of a public library as the conserver and distributor of the light of the past for the use of the present.

In the center, robed in the green of eternal youth and wearing a decorative modification of the shield of Minerva, sits Learning, lighting her torches, which are distributed by her winged attendants to symbolic figures on either side.

To the right, Romance, the dreamy-eyed fairy princess of Northern folklore, leans upon Poetry, bearing the lyre and clad in the color of passion. Below them, Art, palette in hand, leans upon a fragment of antique sculpture. To the left, Philosophy looks up at the torch she has already grasped and History writes upon her tablet. Science holds the globe and compasses, signifying the exact knowledge of the universe.















Early History Timeline

  • 1857

    Winona Lyceum

    G. Tanner elected as librarian of the Winona Lyceum.

  • 1858

    Library Collection Established

    Dr. I. R. Cone, librarian, reports collection of 47 volumes.


  • 1863

    Young Men’s Library Club

    Officers elected for the Young Men’s Library Club. Sheldon P. Carey named first president.

  • 1867

    Collection Grows

    Book collection reported at nearly 1000 volumes.


  • 1875

    Young Men’s Library Club Closed

    Library closed due to debt issues.

  • 1877

    Library Reopens as Winona Library Association

    Mrs. J. B. McGaughey, Mrs. Thomas Wilson, and Miss Charlotte Prentiss lifted the debt and reorganized the library under a new name, the Winona Library Association.


  • 1882

    Librarian Hired

    Miss Jeanette A. Clark is named librarian. She will serve as librarian for over a half-century until the year 1936.

  • 1886

    Winona’s First Free Library Formed

    Winona Library Association turns over 3500 books to the city for use for all residents to form Winona’s first free public library located on the corner of 4th and Lafayette streets.


  • 1899

    Current Library Opens

    William H. Laird’s $50,000 donation builds the present-day Winona Public Library on 5th and Johnson St. and opens to the public on January 21st. The Winona Library Association donates $7000-$8000 toward furnishings.

    Frederic Somers Bell elected first president of the Library Board.

    Statue of Hebe donated to the library by Mrs. William H. Laird on July 8th. The statue is a copy in Carrara marble of the original work by Antonio Canova.

  • 1910

    Kenyon Cox’s "Light of Learning" Mural Donated

    Kenyon Cox mural, The Light of Learning, donated to the library by William H. Hayes in memory of his wife and former library employee, Charlotte Prentiss Hayes.


  • 1913

    Library Book Stacks Expanded

    Library collection grows to 32,000 volumes. Additional stack space is constructed with a generous donation of $10,000 from the Laird family, providing space to hold up to 60,000 volumes.

  • 1921

    Children’s Room Opens

    First Children’s Room opens on ground floor with a separate entrance on Johnson Street. This space was previously the library’s Lecture Room. Miss Mary A. Holmes is named the first children’s librarian and in charge of their 5000 books.


  • 1936

    New Librarian Takes Over

    Miss Ethel Binney succeeds Miss Jeanette Clark as librarian. She will serve until 1944.

More Information

For more information, visit the Winona Public Library’s collection of historical documents archived online at the Minnesota Digital Library website and the MNopedia listing for WPL.

Call Now Button