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Celebrating a Century of Service to Children:
A History of Children's Services at the Champaign Public Library, 1899 -1999

Elizabeth Fathauer and Mike Rogalla

At a time when only a handful of America's public libraries offered such services, and nearly eight years before Chicago would do the same, the Champaign Public Library opened a children's department in September 1899. Champaign was a pioneer in responding to the needs of children, and, a century later, is still committed to getting kids "reading and ready for tomorrow"—the theme for the Library's 1999 celebration of 100 years of service to children.

A Place Just for Children

Children's services are such a vital force in public libraries today that it is difficult to imagine a time when young people were not welcome within library doors. Early public libraries in the United States were intended for adults and children were admitted reluctantly, if at all. But with society's changing view of childhood, the expansion of libraries, and the increased availability of books and periodicals for young people in the mid-nineteenth century, the time was ripe for the development of a service designed uniquely for children.

In 1895, the Champaign Public Library offered nearly 700 titles for children. By that time, the library profession was beginning to consider service to children one of its most important missions and a valid area of specialization. What was still missing in Champaign and most other communities was a special place for librarians to reach children. Without a children's room, the Champaign Public Library shelved juvenile books among the adult fiction titles, and children searched for books among the adults—some of whom regarded their youthful presence as an annoyance.

The Bumham Athenaeum, the first home of the Champaign Public Library built expressly for that purpose, opened on December 17, 1896. However, the handsome white building across from West Side Park did not include, nor did its designers foresee, an area just for children. The Library soon decided to try this new approach to children's service and, in 1899, a children's room was created in a first floor room formerly filled with reference materials. With three large windows, an open fireplace, and low tables and chairs, the new room provided a bright, cheerful, and comfortable place for children to explore and learn as a new century was dawning. The room also included pictures and bulletins that encouraged interest in books.

Pioneering Programs

Children's programming was part of the new deparment from the very beginning. One of the first children's programs at the Champaign Public Library was noted in the November 1899 issue of the Library Journal. To celebrate a popular autumn holiday, the library school at the University of Illinois offer local public libraries help from its student workers and collections. "The library school loaned all its Halloween posters. On the following Saturday Miss Bennett, of the junior class, talked to the children about Halloween customs. Each Saturday afternoon some member of the library school is to talk to the children in the children's room." That Saturday afternoon storytime turned into a ten-year-long tradition. Even now, students from today's Graduate School of Library and Information Science use the Library as a training ground in a cooperative venture that benefits Library users, too.

Caring for Books

Librarians in the early 1900s—before the cheap mass production of books—were dedicated not only to giving children an appreciation for the content of books, but also instructing them on the proper care of the books themselves. Two University of Illinois school students, Lillian Belle Arnold and Marjorie Graves, wrote of this in their bachelor's thesis,


Children's Work at the Champaign Public Library, Sept 1901 - May 1902. "A Library League was organized at the opening of the children's room. Its object was the promotion of proper appreciation of books, their care, etc....The pledge was as follows: We, the undersigned, members of the Library League, agree to do all in our power to assist the Librarian in keeping the books in good condition. We promise to remember that good books contain the living thoughts of good and great men and women, and are therefore entitled to respect....When in the Library we will step softly and move quietly, and try not to annoy other readers by any unnecessary noise or talking.... The motto was 'Clean hearts, clean hands, clean books.'"

Growing Years

In 1916, the children's room on the first floor of the Library had become so crowded that the department was moved into three rooms on the second floor. Low shelving was added to give children easier access to books. Within a few years the area was once again congested, so a 16-foot section of the adjacent auditorium was added to the children's room in 1923. The addition of shelving for books of interest to older boys and girls created an Intermediate Department. The growing children's collection now had more than 7,500 volumes.

By 1936, the Library was a place familiar to many Champaign children. The May 24 News-Gazette that year featured a photo section showing children chatting with the Library's Betty Briggs. Not only did Miss Briggs host storyhours and puppet shows, she also provided a place for students to study and find reference books on school subjects. Her contributions are part of the enduring supportive relationship between the Libary and Champaign school students, a forerunner to today's Homework Center and School Liasion program.

Post-War Challenge

When the Burnham Athenaeum celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1946, the children's collection had grown to over 11,000 volumes. The Library was also a place that introduced children to the creators of their favorite books. In 1949, Lois Lenski, renowned author of several children's stories, visited the Library to talk with excited readers and sign her works.

The post-war growth of the community was mirrored by increased activity in the Library. The Library's 1954 annual report showed that 60,217 children's items were checked out (nearly 20,000 by teachers) from a children's collection of 12,244 volumes, and two marionette shows each had attendance of over 200. But a mesmerizing new technology was starting to draw children away from the Library and outshine the quiet appeal of books. Television had arrived.

Expanding Services

The Champaign Public Library had to look for new ways to bring children in — even literally, in one case. In 1959, free Saturday morning bus service from neighborhood stops to the Library was provided under the leadership of Vera Schoby.

Service to young people expanded to include a new 3,000-volume teenage room, a phongraph record lending service, and a summer reading game, while librarians were busy giving talks to Champaign High School English and social science classes and hosting book fairs in the schools. A few years later, in 1964, the Library checked out nearly 100,000 items for kids, representing nearly half of the Library's business that year. The collection had nearly doubled in two decades to 18,000 books. The Friends of the Champaign Public Library, organized in 1966, contributed by concentrating its early efforts on special Saturday children's programs. For many years, the Friends also co-sponsored the summer reading program, an essential program they continue to support today. An active and vibrant children's department was here to stay.

Ready for Tomorrow

During the next decade, the Library's children's department (and its gerbil mascots. Harry and Shorty) survived a 1977 fire in the Bumham building and the 1978 move to the present Central Library building on Randolph Street.

Today, Champaign Public Library's Youth Services department continues to provide programming for all ages backed up by a varied collection of books, videos, compact discs, cassettes, audiobooks, and toys. The Douglass Branch Library, which recently gained its first children's librarian, and the traveling Bookmobile take library service to children in almost every corner of the city. In addition, the children's reference and textbook collections, a professional staff, and especially Internet access have changed the scope of the Library's services for children — but not the spirit.

The importance of the Champaign Public Library to the children of a century ago—and young readers today—was expressed by Melvil Dewey in a Library


Journal article published just two months before the 1899 opening of the Champaign children's room. "At the end of the century a broad conception of the work of the schools in simply this—to teach children to think accurately, with strength and with speed. If it is in the school that they get their start, then where do they get their education?...The thing that influenced those boys and girls was the books they read...Thomas Edison and other great men have said that their whole lives were governed from reading a single book... It is the concern of the richest as to what should be done for the poorest; you should provide free schools and free libraries..."

One hundred years later, despite a century of remarkable change, kids need libraries and librarians more than ever. The Champaign Public Library is proud to say, "we were one of the first," and we continue working to be one of the best.


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