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The Illinois State Library: 1818-1870

Mark W. Sorensen

Part 1: What's Past is Prologue

In 1800, the U.S. Congress established a library in the Capitol in Washington to serve the references needs of federal legislators. In 1839, the "People of the State of Illinois, represented in the General Assembly," met in Vandalia and created a "law and miscellaneous library, for the use of the Legislature and Supreme Court of this State." During the time between these two acts, the Library of Congress was destroyed and rebuilt and Illinois was settled, became a state, had four different state houses and began a wide range of internal improvement projects. Even after Illinois obtained statehood in 1818, the official creation of the Illinois State Library had to await 20 years of attempts to identify and fill the new state government's reference needs.

Less that three months after declaring statehood, on March 2, 1819, while the state capital was still Kaskaskia, the General Assembly authorized the governor to exchange laws with the other states, which was the common practice at the time.1 During the following year, Vandalia became Illinois' second capital. Secretary of State Elias Kent Kane had the few books and records in his office loaded on a small ox-cart and moved through 100 miles of wilderness to the new capital. There, on Saturday, Feb. 3, 1821, Representative William Otwell from Edwardsville introduced a bill to the 2nd General Assembly "authorizing the purchase for the use of the state... [of] a library to consist of such books and maps as shall be designed by a committee of General Assembly." The bill was tabled a few days later and never acted upon.2

The first of three Capitol buildings in Vandalia was a plain, two-story frame structure that had room for the House of Representatives on the first floor, while the Senate met upstairs. State officials had offices and conducted public business in rented quarters near the state house. On the night of Tuesday, Jan. 28,1823, the State Bank in Vandalia, which housed several of these offices, caught fire. When the alarm was sounded, Secretary of State Samuel Lockwood, Auditor Elijah Berry and members of the General Assembly rushed to the bank and removed many of the books and records before these offices were destroyed. In his subsequent report to the General Assembly, Secretary Lockwood stated that he had lost many federal and state publications, but that it was difficult to know exactly how many because members of the General Assembly had freely borrowed law books to do research during the session. A week after the fire the General Assembly passes a resolution that Governor Edward Coles request a complete set of important documents and laws from all the other states.3

At the opening of the 4th General Assembly, Nov. 15, 1824, Governor Coles pleaded with legislators to fund a library because "intelligence and virtue are the main pillars in the temple of Liberty." His written message stated:

As much inconvenience is often felt by every branch of government, and particularly by the judiciary, for the want of a library at the seat of government, I am induced to suggest to your consideration the propriety of making a small annual appropiation to this object.4

Although appropiating no funds because of the "embarrassed state of the treasury," the House and Senate in 1825 resolved that the judges of the supreme court should have use of all books in the secretary's office which might be useful to them "while revising and digesting the statutes." They could take the volumes from the seat of government as long as they gave a receipt to the secretary and returned the books by the first Monday in December 1826.5 Recently appointed Secretary of State George Forquer, a lawyer who believed strongly in the power of books, gladly cooperated with this resolution and may have even loaded some volumes from his personal library.6

* Mark W. Sorensen, Assistant Director, Illinois State Archives/Office of the Secretary of State, Springfield. This is the first article in a 3-part series on the history of the Illinois State Library.


Preoccupied in the 1830s with the creation of railroads, canals and plank roads and concerned about moving the Capitol and surviving state bankruptcy, the General Assembly paid little official attention to the library question. However, in 1833 the secretary of state was made responsible for binding the unbound copies of the laws of Congress, exchanging laws with other states and maintaining all these in his office. Five years later, on Dec. 8, 1838, when the state house commissioners reported on the design of the future Capitol in Springfield, they stated that a 960-square-foot library, adjacent to the secretary's office, was planned for the first floor of the new state house.7

Part 2: The Library Established

The decision to move the state capital from Vandalia to Springfield was made by the General Assembly in 1837, but the details were not worked out until 1839. During this period of uncertainty and in the midst of an economic depression, the legal foundation for the Illinois State Library was laid. A resolution to create a state library was introduced into the Senate on Dec. 19, 1838. In mid-January the library issue, now in bill form, was voted down and returned to committee. The Senate Judiciary Committee asked the three Supreme Court justices for their recommendations. Their six-page report stated that Illinois might be the only state without such a library, and that they had no hesitation in urging the creation and funding of a state library for the use by the judges and members of the General Assembly.8 Three weeks later, after close votes in the House and Senate, Senate Bill 76 stating that, "An Act making an appropriation for a library for the use of the Legislature and Supreme Court," was approved. Feb. 22, 1839, became the birth date of the Illinois State Library.9

The State Library Act - A proposal to create a state library was introduced in 1821 but did not pass until February 22, 1839. The act authorized the governor and judges of the supreme court to select books and provide for their safekeeping. In 1842, the law books were removed to create a separate law library, and the secretary of state was made "state librarian." .

The State Library Act, which authorized the governor and judges of the Supreme Court to select books for the new library and to provide for their safekeeping, was passed during the first session of the 11th General Assembly, the last to meet in Vandalia. On June 20, 1839, Governor Thomas Carlin ordered all state offices to remove themselves and "all Books, Records, Documents, Seals and Papers" pertaining to their respective offices to Springfield "by the 4th day of July next"10 When the officials got there, they found a Capitol with no roof and were forced to open their offices in rented quarters around the square. Amid the confusion of the Legislature meeting in churches in Springfield, and given the impoverished condition of the state treasury, it is not surprising that little of the $5,000 appropiated earlier was spent for the new "law and miscellaneous library."11

Stephen A. Douglas was the first secretary of state to move into the new Capitol and see the space reserved next to his office for the library. The room was 40' x 30' with a 15-foot-high ceiling. After a tenure of only four months, Douglas resigned to become a state Supreme Court judge. Douglas's successor as secretary of state, Lyman Trumbull, gave one of the few early descriptions of the new library in an 1841 letter to his brother. Trumbull related that his apartments in the Capitol were divided into two rooms which were "fitted up in a most comfortable & superior style," and he mentioned "the State Library, which when supplied with books now being purchased will be one of the best libraries in the West."12

Part 3: Secretary of State and State Librarian

On Dec. 15, 1842, Senate Bill 1 made legally effective what already had been done - the secretary of state was named state librarian. This act also established several rules for the use of the library. All law books would be kept by the Supreme Court, which had rooms on the eastern portion of the Capitol's first floor. All other books, maps, papers and charts would be under the care of the secretary of state. The library was to be used by members of the executive and legislative departments during the sessions of the General Assembly, and they could take out no more than two volumes of the "miscellaneous works" at a time and


"Fitted up in a most comfortable and superior style," was how Secretary of State Lyman Trumball described the first State Library. Opened in the Old State Capitol in December 1839, the 30x40 foot room contained four Ionic columns to support its 15-foot ceiling. With more space devoted for chairs and tables than for books, Robert Todd Lincoln remembers it as "quite a social club." (photo courtesy of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency)

retain them for no longer than two weeks. Legislators were required to have all materials returned by the end of each session or they would not receive their salaries. If any person injured a book or failed to return it on time, the law required payment to the benefit of the library of three times the book's value. This law became the basis of state library rules used into the 20th century.13

Thomas Campbell followed Trumbull as secretary to state and state librarian in 1843 and, working without any assistants, brought order out of the chaotic storage of government books and papers. His successor, Horace S. Cooley, reported to the Senate in 1847 that:

the Congressional documents, which now form a large and valuable portion of the State Library, were left in such promiscuous confusion as to be of little or no service. We are much indebted to my predecessor for the systematic order in which we now find them.14

Cooley was the last secretary of state to be appointed by the governor under the provisions of the 1818 Constitution and the first to be elected by the people under the Constitution of 1848. During his tenure, the 15th General Assembly passed a state library law that required the secretary to: (1) sell excess state laws and other surplus volumes and use the proceeds to buy library material, (2) make a library report to the General Assembly at each session, (3) make and publish a library catalogue, and (4) not allow certain special books to leave the library.15

Following this mandate, Secretary of State Cooley filed his report on Jan. 8, 1849. In it he related that even after he had sold laws and purchased books, Illinois' library was still lacking compared to those found in "our sister states." He requested that the library receive an annual appropriation for books and that he be given an assistant to run the library. He also stated that the first catalogue of the state library's collection was prepared and furnished to all members of the General Assembly. Cooley concluded by reporting that no books had been lost during the biennium but that a valuable map of Mexico had been "stripped from its proper appendages, and stolen from the library by some villain, who merits the most condign punishment the law can prescribe."16

This is a reproduction of a map of Mexico currently in the State Library's collection. The map was published in New York in 1847 and prepared by J. Disturnell. The Illinois State Library's map collection comprises the second largest state library map collection and the fifth largest government library map collection in the United States. The collection includes 185,000 maps as well as numerous geographical books, journals, gazeteers, atlases, and cartobibliographies.


During the following 20 years the Illinois State Library collection grew slowly. Most acquisitions were government publications and sets of laws received as gifts or through exchange. Since the General Assembly made no regular appropriation for books, the secretary of state increased the library collection by selling copies of old laws and by taking money from the appropriation for the operation of his office. The biennial reports of the secretary of state to the General Assembly during this period list the number of books held, detail requests more for money and staff, lament the lack of space and poor equipment and, in general reveal the poor condition of the library. "The room used for the library, as now arranged," wrote Secretary of State David Gregg in 1853, "does not afford sufficient space for all books belonging to the state. A large number are necessarily deposited in other rooms, in remote parts of the building, not conveniently accessible when they may be required for immediate use."17 Based on a house library committee report issued that year, which said a great many works were not being well preserved, the General Assembly appropriated $900 to the secretary of state to obtain new shelving and "glass cases in which to keep the most valuable works." Gregg now had a better environment for the library's 1036 "miscellaneous" volumes.18

Secluded between the offices of the state auditor and the secretary of state in the old Capitol, the State Library before the Civil War served as quite an exclusive gentleman's club. As the afternoon sun poured through the western windows of the library, local politicians, lawyers and elected officials gathered to smoke their clay pipes, play chess, used the porcelain and brass cuspidors and read the latest issue of Niles' Weekly Register. Remembering his days as a young man in Springfield, Robert Todd Lincoln recalled in 1917 that the State Library "was a good room, well furnished, and was used for meeting purposes by the friends of the Secretary of State, for the time being quite a social club."19

The collection continued to grow slowly, but Illinois still lagged behind other states in library facilities. Now and then the Legislature allocated $4-$5 a day for a library clerk to work while the General Assembly was in session. On March 5, 1867, the General Assembly passed a law that put the State Library under the control of three commissioners - the governor, secretary of state and superintendent of public instruction. The commissioners were to appoint a librarian at a salary of $500 per year and purchase books annually with the $3,000 that was appropriated for both 1867 and 1868.20

For unknown reasons, none of the $6,000 windfall was spent. When Secretary of State Edward Rummell took office on Jan. 11, 1869, he found that many books had been lost while others were worthless "on account of continued and hard usage." Those that remained on the shelves were in a "dilapidated condition." During the next two years he spent every penny of the library's appropriation for new books. In 1870, he rearranged the library and prepared a new catalogue, reporting that one-half of the 2,536 miscellaneous works were brand new and separate from the collection of 7,000 state and federal publications. In addition, two rooms in the basement of the overcrowded Capitol held 28,606 surplus and duplicate works.21

Part 4: The Lincoln Connection

The Illinois State Library: Register of Books Loaned to Members of the Legislature, Officers and Members of the Illinois State Library is the earliest known record of the State Library. On Friday, Dec. 16, 1842, one day after the Act requiring the creation of the library register went into effect, Abraham Lincoln borrowed The Revised Laws of New York, Volume 7, thus becoming the first person to check out a book under this new law. Because he was no longer a member of the Legislature, he signed the name of his senior law partner, State Representative S.T. Logan of Sangamon County.22

The first entry of the State Library's "Register of Books Loaned to Members..." reveals that on December 16, 1842, Volume I of The Revised Laws of New York was checked out. Since Abraham Lincoln was no longer eligible to borrow books, he signed the name of his law partner, state representative S.T. Logan. Books on loan to other officials included subjects such as laws of Congress, the works of Jefferson, Central America and the French Revolution.


Abraham Lincoln's formal use of the Illinois State Library was also documented on several other occasions. As a Whig candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1854, Lincoln spent many evenings researching and analyzing material related to Stephen Douglas' position of opening more western territories to slavery. On Wednesday afternoon, Oct. 4, with Springfield swelled by crowds visiting the Illinois State Fair, Lincoln spoke at the Capitol for three hours while Douglas interrupted from the side. The Democrat Illinois Daily State Register reported that in preparation for his speech, Lincoln "had been nosing for weeks in the State Library, and pumping his brains and his imagination for points and arguments with which to demolish the champion of popular sovereignty." Writing much later, Albert J. Beveridge stated: "For weeks, Lincoln had spent toilsome hours in the State Library, searching trustworthy histories, analyzing the census, mastering the facts, reviewing the literature of the subject." When the General Assembly met in 1855 to elect a U.S. senator, Lincoln led for nine ballots but finally threw his support to Lyman Trumbull, an anti-slavery canidate.23

"Lincoln and Family" —Even though Abraham Lincoln was an avid reader and frequent user of the Illinois State Library, there are no photos of him reading a book. This composite lithograph pictures Lincoln and his wife Mary in Washington, D.C. with their sons. Produced in Chicago in 1866 by the Kurz & Allison Art Studio, it depicts the family before Willie's death in 1862. The left portion of the lithograph is based on Anthony Berger's February 9, 1864 photo of Lincoln and Tad looking at a photo album in Matthew Brady's Washington Gallery, (photo courtesy of the Illinois State Historical Library)

Lincoln's last encounter with the Illinois State Library came after a more successful campaign. On Nov. 13, 1860, one week after his election as president, Lincoln borrowed the two volumes of The Statesman's Manual, an 1849 set that contained the inaugural addresses and special messages of Presidents Washington through Polk. On the same day, a correspondent from the New York Evening Post reported Lincoln was studying Andrew Jackson's Nullification Proclamation. Abraham Lincoln, thus, was the only president known to write his inaugural speech using materials from the Illinois State Library.24

Robert Todd Lincoln also was a frequent patron of the State Library. While attending the preparatory department of the former Illinois State University in Springfield, the future president's son had permission to check out library books under the signature of his father's friends, Republican Secretary of State Ozias M. Hatch and his chief clerk, John G. Nicolay. The teenager withdrew 27 volumes during 1858 and 1859 and was especially partial to works by Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott and Washington Irving. Young "Bob Lincoln," as he was called at age 15, also entertained himself and perhaps his two younger brothers by taking home copies of Frankenstein and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.25

The next part of this 3-part series of the history of the Illinois State Library will be published in the Spring 1999 edition of Illinois Library.


1. Illinois Laws 1819-21, p. 105.

2. General Assembly (G.A.), "Bills, Resolutions, and Related General Assembly Records, (HB 84) Records Series (RS) 6000.001, Illinois State Archives (ISA).

3. G.A., "Bills, Resolutions, and Related General Assembly Records 1822," R.S. 600.001, ISA; Senate Journal, 1822-26, pp. 249-50.

4. Senate Journal, 4th General Assembly, 1824, p. 20-21.

5. Illinois Laws 1824-24, p. 186.

6. Illinois Blue Book, 1969-70, p. 537.

7. Senate Journal, 1832-33, p. 500; Illinois Revised Statutes, 1833, p. 438; Reports Made to the Senate & House of Representatives, 1839.

8. G.S., "Bills, Resolutions, and Related General Assembly Records 1838-39, File 389, RS 600.001, ISA; Senate Journal, 1838-39, pp. 90, 184,262,387.

9. Illinois Laws 1839, p. 149; Although a State Representative, Lincoln did not participate in voting. See House Journal, 1838-39, p. 465.

10. Sangamo Journal, June 28, 1839.

11. See Senate Resolution of Dec. 31, 1840 concurred with by the


House Jan. 2, 1841 which delayed the appropriation. For information about the general economic conditions see: Robert Howard, Illinois: A History of the Prairie State, 1992, p. 207. Wayne and Sunderine Temple's 1988 Illinois' Fifth Capitol describes the temporary arrangements made for the government on pages 24-27.

12. Temple & Temple, Illinois' Fifth Capitol, pp. 18 & 55,

13. Illinois Laws 1843, pp. 290-90.

14. Illinois Reports to the General Assembly 1847, p. 146. See also: Michael J. Hewlett, Keepers of the Seal: A History of the Secretaries of State of Illinois and How Their Office Grew, 1977, p. 57.

15. The "State Library Law" took effect Jan. 27,1847. See: Illinois Laws Public & Private 1847, pp. 160-61.

16. Illinois Reports to the General Assembly 1849, pp. 85-86; Howlett, Keepers of the Seal, p. 62. The US war with Mexico took place 1846-1846.

17. The secretary of state was paid $100 for his extra work as state librarian and had a budget of $3,000 to run his total office. Illinois Laws 1853, p. 239; Illinois Session Reports 1853, pp. 79-81; Howlett, Keepers of the Seal, pp. 65-66.

18. Session Reports 1852, p.82; Illinois Revised Statutes 1856, pp. 716-17; Illinois Laws 1853, p. 229.

19. Quoted in Temple & Temple, Illinois' Fifth Capitol, p. 56-58. Temple writes that Abraham Lincoln first met his future private secretary, John Nicolay, in the State Library and quotes Robert Todd Lincoln as saying that his father and Nicolay "played a good game of chess...and played many games in the Library in times of Leisure."

20. On January 10, 1857, Secretary of State Alexander Stame reported the library had about 1,400 volumes. He recommended that the General Assembly designate an annual appropriation of materials. Illinois Reports 1857, pp. 569-70; see also: Illinois Laws 1865, pp. 11 & 87. The secretary of state earned $800 per annum from 1849 through 1871. In 1867 the General Assembly paid him an extra $200 for personally re-arranging the books and creating a catalogue. The General Assembly also appropriated $500 per year to finally hire a full-time state librarian, Illinois Laws 1867, p. 28.

21. Secretary of State Biennial Report 1870, pp. 15-16.

22. Secretary of State, "Register of Book Loans," Volume I RS 103.192, ISA; Amy Louise Sutton (Kellerstrass), "Lincoln and Son Borrow Books," Illinois Libraries, XLVII, (June 1966) p. 443. Lincoln's last day serving in the Illinois General Assembly was March 1, 1841.

23. Illinois Daily State Register, Oct. 6, 1854, p.2 col. 1; the quote from former US Senator Albert J. Beveridge's Abraham Lincoln: 1809-1858 (1928) is found in Illinois Blue Book 1929-1930, p. 420.

24. Sutton, pp. 443-44.

25. Sutton


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