These private libraries were some times housed in stores, restaurants or the YMCA. The Oshkosh Library Association and the YMCA both maintained reading rooms but merged in 1869. This was a fine arrangement until the great fire of 1875 destroyed the reading room and its' contents but the library association rebuilt. By 1889 the public library movement was gaining popularity, fueled by the generous gifts of Andrew Carnegie and a state law which provided that municipalities could levy a mill tax for establishment and maintenance of libraries. In April of 1890, pushed by the Oshkosh Library Association the city council voted to hold a referendum on a city funded public library and the measure failed. The Oshkosh Library Association closed but was replaced in 1894 by another group which too faltered. That same year the city council appointed a library committee to make proposals.Yet another referendum was held in 1895 but it too was defeated, the Library Committee discerned the failure was due to lack of information on the part of the laboring population. The committee persisted in its' efforts to establish a public library when came the news of the death of Abbie Harris the widow of Marshall Harris a promoter of the public library movement. In her will Mrs. Harris bequeathed $75,000 and the Harris property on the corner of Washington and Jefferson for a public library. On the recommendation of the Library Committee the City Council appropriated $1,900 for the establishment of a library in a basement room of city hall, which opened in April of 1896. In 1897 former Senator Pliletus Sawyer made a generous largess of $25,000 toward the library, the Library Committee recommended a bond issue of $50,000 and the City Council approved it
With financing in place the project moved forward, there were many details to be worked out but the Library Committee asked for and got proposals for the new building from three local architects; William Waters, E. E. Stevens and William C. Klapproth. There were also plans drawn by an east coast architect at the behest of Senator Sawyer which never gained much favor. The contest came down to the three most prominent Oshkosh architects of their day. Throughout the month of August 1898 the Oshkosh Northwestern published sketches and plans along with the architects' description of their proposals. From the out set the Library Committee seemed to favor the Waters plan. George Paine, a member of the school board was a proponent of the plans submitted by Senator Sawyer and seemed to be of the opinion that Oshkosh deserved the best and that local architects weren't up to the task. When all was said and done the plans of William Waters were selected and the corner stone was laid in 1899.
As the city grew greater demands were placed on the aging building such that by the mid 1960's it was apparent more space was needed. The firm of Irion and Reinke was engaged to design the addition the plans for which called for expansion along the west and north sides of the original building. Because of limited space and resources a less than harmonious structure was erected. As more time past the inadequacies of the whole library were reviled and in 1992 the city made plans for a complete renovation that in the end would amount to $10.9 million. With a generous gift from an anonymous donor the city realize the financing needed. Architectural firms from Milwaukee and Chicago were selected for the monumental undertaking. Architects Lonn Frye and Barbara Arendt acted as design architects and devised a sensitive addition to the original Waters building. For the duration of the construction the library was moved to the former Radford factory on Wisconsin Ave. In October of 1994 the newly expanded library opened.