The foundation stone of the two-storey St Ives Public Library was laid in April 1896 by John Passmore Edwards, the Cornish philanthropist, and benefactor. He provided £2,000 for the building, which replaced five cottages at the corner of The High Street and Gabriel Street. Passmore Edwards’ object was to improve the education of the working-class people of St Ives. He also provided £100 for the original book stock.
The building was handed over to the Corporation of St Ives on 1st January 1897, and shortly after opened to the public as a lending library. Nearly 2,000 people borrowed books in its first year. In addition, the Library was used to help a large number of people to be trained to read. From as early as 1899, some rooms were used as Council Offices.
During World War II, one of the rooms on the first floor was used by the Borough Council to provide a Food Office where ration books were distributed. In 1951, this space was taken over by the St Ives Museum under the auspices of the St Ives Old Cornwall Society. However, the Library Act of 1964 stipulated that there must be a certain cubic capacity per person, which meant that these rooms were required by the library, and the Museum relocated to its current home in Wheal Dream.
The building was refurbished in 1968 by the St Ives architect Henry Gilbert, who created a lending library on the ground floor with two mezzanine areas: one for a children’s library and one for art books. Upstairs was a room where people could read the local newspapers, as well as a space for a reference library. In 1973, the Library was taken over by Cornwall County Council.
In 1996, the newly created St Ives Archive opened in the reading room, run by volunteers. It was set up to collect and make available information about all aspects of the history of St Ives and the surrounding area. The charitable organisation remained there until 2004, when Cornwall County Council completely refurbished the building, creating a new entrance and providing expanded computer and other learning facilities as well as a meeting space and exhibition area.
In 1997, major events took place to mark the Library’s centenary, and this involved many sections of the town, including all the schools. Following this successful series of events, a Friends of St Ives Library group (FOSIL) was formed, which was able to raise funds to provide events and publications, which could not be financed through Library channels.