Due to conflicting reports it is difficult to discern just when and where the first literary association was formed in Nebraska City. The Young Men’s Literary Association was organized in November of 1867 and the following year consolidated with the Nebraska City Mercantile Library Association.
In 1869, fourteen pioneer women formed the Round Table Club. In the summer of 1881 the women took possession of the library of the Young Men’s Literary Association. This woman’s group was incorporated in 1882 as the Ladies Library Association and they started to raise money for a library.
At this time J.W. Steinhart, a cashier of the Otoe County Bank, had an opportunity to visit with Joy Morton, son of J. Sterling Morton, in his Chicago office. Mr. Steinhart told Mr. Morton about the struggles the women in Nebraska City were having in getting a library started. Mr. Morton proposed to Mr. Steinhart that if he could dispose of an old building located on Central Avenue across from the old hotel, he could use the money to start a library fund. Mr. Steinhart had no luck in selling the property. Mr. Morton responded by offering to build a suitable building for his hometown if they would furnish and grade a city lot, and equip the building.
The public responded to the challenge by raising $1450 to obtain the lot-and-a-half that the building now stands on, and $1500 for the equipment and fixtures.
Since that time in 1896, many changes have occurred in our city and in our library. The additional 3-floor stack room to the south was also a gift of the original donor, Joy Morton, in 1932. In 1970, the name of the Library officially became the Morton-James Public Library to honor the original donor Joy Morton as well as Vantine James, who served as a library board member for 38 years. In 1975, the Strawberry Patch or Children’s Library was built by digging out the lower level under the north side of the library.
The $1.59 million addition, started in 2000 and completed in 2002, expanded the library from the east and south sides. The expansion nearly doubled the size of the library. The main entrance was moved from the north to the south for handicapped accessibility and a new elevator was installed. Improvements included a new computer lab, a larger children’s department, a large adult non-fiction area, and an art gallery/meeting room. The money for the expansion was raised through donations, community groups, and grants. Much care was taken to ensure the original architectural design was left intact. The library is listed on the National Register of Historic Places
In 2008, the computer lab was moved to the main level. The Grace Moller Technology Center provides 15 public computers with Internet access. A used book store was added to the lower level in 2010.