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The Illinois State Library: 1870-1920

Mark W. Sorensen

PART 1 Finding a Home in the New Capitol

In February 1867, the 25th General Assembly voted to build a new capitol in Springfield, and a commission to construct a new state house was selected by the governor. The seven-man commission held its first meeting in the Illinois State Library on March 13, 1867, and elected Jacob Bunn as president.1 That July the commissioners selected a construction plan that called for a library to be build in the west wing of the legislative floor. It would be the largest room in the Capitol, 44 feet wide and 79 feet long. Its 48-foot high ceiling would allow for triple-decked bookshelves above the entrances and huge windows along the western wall.

Unfortunately, the construction of the Capitol was plagued with difficulties from the start. Progress was very slow, and after 10 years of effort, the project reached its $3.5 million constitutional limit and staggered to a stop in 1877—the building still not finished. These delays hurt the State Library as appropriations for library books stopped in 1869 because there was no room left in the old Capitol for any more books.2

In July 1875, then-Secretary of State George H. Harlow had the library's nearly 45,000 volumes (most of which were duplicate laws) packed up and the bookcases at the old state Capitol taken apart and moved to the basement of the new unfinished Capitol. In January 1876, some of the materials were moved to the secretary's new "Document Library," located on the southeast portion of the second floor of the Capitol. Because there was no money to finish the room originally intended to be the main library, the new State Museum was allowed to move into the Capitol's west-wing space.3 "Not a day passes," lamented Secretary Harlow in his 1878 report to the governor, "that the library is not visited by a number of citizens of Illinois who express surprise and regret that the State Library is not such as to be worthy of the name it bears."4

The Illinois State Library moved into the newly decorated west wing of the State Capitol's third floor in October 1887. For the previous twelve years, the library was scattered among the Secretary of State's offices and seldom had an adequate appropriation. Looking north in this circa 1888 photo, only one small card catalog can be seen against the far wall. (Illinois State Library photo)

Although not able to secure larger quarters for the library during his tenure, Harlow was able, in 1880, to convince the General Assembly to restore annual appropriations for books and expenses. He also opened the State Library to direct use by the general public. Then, in 1884, Illinois voters approved a referendum to pay for the completion of the Capitol, and Secretary of State Henry Dement set out to create a State Library truly worthy of its name.

As a first step, in 1887, the State Museum's collections were removed to other areas of the Capitol. Then, for $600 the firm of Petrie and Schanbacher was contracted to repaint all the walls and decorate the ceiling, but were obligated to do a better job "than that done in the law library." Soon, wise old owls looked down from decorated ceiling panels as ornate three-tiered bronzed bookcases were assembled around and above the two entrances on the eastern wall. Carpeting was added to the main floor after the completion of the move in late October 1887. For the next 36 years, the space "behind" the 40-foot-high painting of George Rogers dark and Indians at Kaskaskia would be home to the library and thousands of readers and researchers.5

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


People corresponded with the State Library from around the state, students came to consult public documents, and "citizens of the capital city" were allowed to use the facility daily. One such citizen. Brand Whitlock, secretary of state employee and future ambassador to Belgium, loved to read and checked out dozens of books from the library in the 1890s. Thirty years later he reflected that the best things about Springfield "were two big libraries in the Capitol, the law library of the Supreme Court and the State Library; and after the noisy legislature had adjourned a peace fell on the great, cool stone pile that was almost academic." By the turn of the century, the library also had begun to furnish much bibliographical material to smaller libraries and newly established reading clubs around the state.6 The State Library had started on the path toward extension of library services to every individual in Illinois.

PART 2 Creation of Illinois Public Libraries

In 1872, the Illinois General Assembly passed an act authorizing cities, incorporated towns and townships to establish and maintain free public libraries and reading rooms. At the time, this was the most comprehensive law pertaining to the creation of public libraries found anywhere in the United States. It set the pattern that is still used today for creating free, tax-supported public libraries in Illinois. Before 1872, however, very few libraries in Illinois were either free, public or tax-supported.7

Privately endowed and subscription libraries were the norm in North America before the 1870s. Benjamin Franklin's 1731 "Library Company of Philadelphia" is usually cited as the first subscription library in the United States. The first library of this kind in Illinois was founded in Belleville and incorporated by the General Assembly on Jan. 27, 1821. Under the incorporating law, citizens paid a fee to join and sustain "a society for the purpose of acquiring and disseminating general and useful knowledge" In the Belleville Debating and Library Society and the Edwardsville Library Association, both founded two years later, five directors were elected to receive subscription fees, hire a librarian, select books and decide "the manner of admitting persons disposed to become members of the society."8 Similar subscription libraries also developed in Alton, Bloomington, Evanston, Galesburg, Quincy, Peoria, Rockford, Springfield and other Illinois communities. By 1872, 40 libraries of this type had been established in Illinois.9

Erastus S. Willcox was serving as head of the Peoria Mercantile Subscription Library when he drafted Illinois' Public Library Act. In 1891 Willcox became Librarian of the Peoria Public Library and remained in the position until his death in 1915. (Photo courtesy of Peoria Public Library)

Erastus Swift Willcox, the librarian for the Peoria Mercantile (subscription) Library, could never induce more than 286 citizens to become library members at one time, even with annual dues of only $4 per subscriber. Willcox thought that free public libraries in Illinois would promote the use of books by the public, as they had in England. Therefore, in 1871 he drew up a model library bill and convinced Peoria Representative Samuel Caldwell to introduce it in the General Assembly. It was entered as House Bill 563 on March 23, 1871. The bill profited from disaster that fall as the Great Chicago Fire destroyed thousands of volumes in private and semi-public library collections. As donations of books to replace those burned poured into Chicago from England and the rest of the world, the city's state legislators got behind Caldwell's bill. The Public Library Act passed on March 7, 1872. Elgin, Chicago, Rock Island and several other cities and villages immediately took advantage of the law's provisions and established free tax-supported libraries, with Chicago using an old water supply tank as its reading room.

Within a few years after becoming a public institution, Peoria's library boasted more than 6,500 card holders. Willcox, who was now city librarian there, boasted that the 1872 law "was the first broadly planned, comprehensive and complete Free Public Library Law placed on the statute of books of any state in the Union." Even though states such as New


The Public Library Act became law March 7, 1872 and authorized municipalities and townships to establish public libraries and reading rooms supported by a one mill tax on property. The mayor and city council appointed a "board of nine directors" to manage these new libraries. Peoria librarian E.S. Willcox claimed that this law placed Illinois "at the head of her sister States in encouraging the spread of general Intelligence." (Laws of the 27th General Assembly, Illinois State Archives)

Hampshire and Massachusetts had taken action earlier, their laws were permissive rather than directive, and they lacked specific methods for starting and administering free public libraries. Willcox immodestly concluded that Illinois had "placed herself at the head of her sister states in encouraging the spread of general intelligence" among the people of this nation.10

PART 3 The Illinois Library Extension Commission

The exhibition of library material and the advancements in library service shown at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago affected more or less all of the 27 million visitors who attended the fair.

Thousands of people, especially "progressive" women, returned to their communities resolved to improve or establish library service. The Illinois Federation of Women's Clubs (IFWC), founded during the next year, was a strong proponent of continuing education and became particularly interested in the establishment of public libraries. The federation's goal was for citizens in all areas of the state to have access to books. Toward that end, the IFWC library committee reported in 1899 the establishment of the first traveling libraries in this state, perhaps copying Melvil Dewey's traveling library system, which began in New York in 1892.11

In 1900, 66 IFWC traveling libraries already were circulating material in eight different counties. By 1905, when 34 of the 102 Illinois counties still had no public library facilities, the IFWC supported hundreds of small traveling collections. These portable libraries consisted of books shelved in "lynch" trunks, which were freighted around the county from IFWC distribution centers for use by both individuals and organized reading clubs.

The IFWC felt that the Illinois State Library should be involved in this library project, and clubwomen worked with the Teachers' Institute and the Farmers' Institute to promote the establishment of a State Library Commission. The Illinois Library Association (ILA), organized in 1896, also had worked tirelessly toward some form of public library supervision from the state, introducing bills for a library commission in 1897, 1899 and 1901, without any legislative success.

All four groups lobbied the General Assembly to create a library extension board. A proposed 1905 bill went down to defeat, but in 1909, state Senator Douglas W. Helm of Metropolis presented a bill that passed and then was signed by Governor Charles Deneen on June 14, 1909. When it took effect two weeks later, the Illinois Library Extension Commission was created.12

The purpose of the commission, which was a quasi-official part of the Illinois State Library until 1921, was to promote and establish free public libraries throughout the state, to render assistance to those libraries which wished to reorganize on "modern lines," and to stimulate librarians and trustees by advice and consultation to undertake programs that would result in an increase in the quantity and quality of reading.13

The first meeting of the newly formed Extension Commission was held Oct. 16, 1909, in Secretary of State James Rose's office. Mrs. Eugenie M. Bacon of


Decatur and Mr. Joseph H. Freeman of Aurora were selected by the governor as commissioners and were re-appointed every two years during the commission's existence. Mrs. Bacon was chairman of the Legislative Committee of the Illinois Federation of Women's clubs and had repeatedly appeared before the General Assembly urging passage of the library extension bill. She was more responsible for the creation of the new law than anyone else in the state.14

Two of the commission's first actions were to hire a director and establish offices. Reflecting the growing concern for professionalism in library work, the commission selected Millikin University Librarian Miss Eugenia Allin as director, at a salary of $75 per month. Allin, a 1903 graduate of the University of Illinois Library School, immediately began to travel around the Midwest to visit other state library extension commissions and to attend library association meetings. Because there was no space available for them in the Illinois State Library's quarters at the Capitol, the Extension Commission rented two rooms in the basement of Decatur's new Carnegie Library. The commission stayed in that facility until 1914.

Eugenia Allin became Millikin University's first librarian in 1903 after graduating from the University of Illinois Library School. On March 1, 1910 she resigned to become the first director of the Illinois Library Extension Commission. When the Extension service moved from the Decatur Public Library to Springfield, Miss Allin returned to Millikin and remained as Librarian until retiring in 1947. (Photo courtesy of Millikin University)

So as not to compete with the new state extension program, local women's clubs donated to the commission their entire stock of traveling libraries along with the steamer trunks. The commission accepted the 225 portable libraries containing more than 11,000 volumes, and Allin set out to review, repair and re-catalogue those books, which would join the ones purchased by the State Library for use in the extension programs.15

The work of the Extension Commission was well received. Books were loaned free of charge to individuals and study clubs anywhere in the state for one-month periods. Community libraries and schools could obtain sets of book for three-month intervals. Shipping was paid for by the receiving patron.

Anna May Price, who in February 1914 replaced Allin as "traveling secretary," compiled the first complete library statistics since 1904. The new information revealed that Illinois had 179 public libraries, up from 121 ten years earlier.16 She also started the State Library's regional library conferences, one-day sessions held at sites around the state for library staff and trustees. In addition to these programs, the Extension Commission made 128 presentations and loaned 14,204 volumes 1916 alone.17

During World War I, the commission acted as the agent for the state and collected books for soldiers' camp libraries in this county and overseas. It turned over 250,000 volumes as well as $285,141 that it had collected for the American Library Association war service. The commission also loaned nearly 34,000 volumes of its own collection to Illinois servicemen.18


The Illinois State Library reference room was refurbished about 1920 with new lighting, carpeting and the latest in library furniture. Looking south past racks of periodicals and seven card catalogs, one can see James W. Berry's 1840 copy of George Washington's portrait. This portrait, along with one of the Marquis de La Fayette which hung on the north wall, is now located in the Old State Capitol. (Illinois State Library photo)


During its 11-year existence, the Illinois Library Extension Commission advised librarians and trustees about library problems, collected annual statistics, produced bibliographies, recommended starter collections for small libraries, advised trustees about hiring staff, assisted with new building construction plans, started an art collection, arranged library institutes and, of course, loaned books. In 1953, Assistant State Librarian Helene Rogers wrote:

Unquestionably, the biggest single factor in the Illinois State Library's phenomenal growth as a service institution was the decision of the General assembly in 1909 authorizing the state to offer supplementary library materials to local libraries and to assist local communities in establishing their own service through the Library Extension Commission.19


1 Wayne C. Temple, "Alfred Henry Piquenard: Architect of Illinois' Sixth Capitol" Capitol Centennial Papers, Mark W. Sorensen, Ed., (1988), p.17.

2 For an overview of the capitol construction see: Mark W. Sorensen, "The Illinois State Capitol," Illinois History, Vol. 42, No. 3, (Dec. 1988) pp. 54-57. Section 21, Article V of the new 1870 Illinois Constitution required that the secretary of state deliver a biennial report. Edward Rummel presented the first one to Gov. Palmer Dec. 1, 1870. Subsequent reports reveal that no appropriations for materials were made between 1870 and 1880; see: Illinois Reports to the General Assembly, Vol. 1, 1873, pp. 100-103 and Vol. 1, 1875, p. 368, and Secretary of State Biennial Report, 1878, p.34.

3 Illinois State Journal, July 23, 1875, p. 4, col. 1; Illinois Reports to the General Assembly, Vol. 1, 1877, pp. 283-4.

4 Biennial Report of the Secretary of State to the Governor of Illinois, Oct. 1, 1878, p. 33.

5 Illinois Reports to the General Assembly, Vol. 1, 1881, p. 1322; Chicago Tribune, Oct. 20, 1887, p. 7; Board of State House Commissioners (Second Springfield State House), "Specifications, Bids, and Contracts,"' RS 512.006, ISA.

6 Brand Whitlock, Forty Years of It, (1925) p. 69; Illinois Blue Book 1903-04, p. 480 and 1929-30, p. 420. The Illinois State Capitol was constructed between 1868 and 1888 and contained gas fixtures. Between 1894 and 1896, Secretary of State William Hinrichsen wired the building for electricity. In the state library, "the chandeliers were wired to support the incandescent light without affecting their usefulness for gas lighting forming combination fixtures at a small expense." Secretary State Biennial Report 1894-96, pp. xix-xx.

7 Illinois Laws, 1871-1872, p. 609; Illinois Revised statutes : 1874, Chap. 81, pp. 662-64; Illinois Libraries, Vol. 4, No. 4, Oct. 1922, pp. 141-46. According to the 1927-1928 Illinois Blue Book, pp. 445-49, only three free public libraries has established in Illinois prior to the 1872 State Library Law.

8 Illinois Laws, 2nd General Assembly, 1820-21; Ibid., 3rd General Assembly, 1823, pp. 100-02.

9 For a summary of Illinois public library history and service see: Illinois Libraries, Vol. 4, No. 4, Oct. 1922, pp. 141-46 and April 1934, pp. 24-25.

10 Newton Bateman, Ed., Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois, Chicago, 1901, p. 335.

11 Illinois Libraries, Vol. 4, No. 4, Oct. 1922, p. 142; Illinois Blue Book 1927-1928, p. 442.

12 Mary Jean Houde, The Clubwoman: A Story of the Illinois Federation of Women's Clubs, Chicago, 1970, 27-31 & 52-54.

13 Illinois Blue Book 1915-1916, p. 267 and Ibid. 1917-1918, p.380.

14 Houde, p. 54, "Mrs. George Robert Bacon" was a good friend of fellow clubwoman Jane Addams, and both were very active in the Woman Suffrage movement. Eugenie McKenzie Bacon served as a member of the commission for its first 10 years. See: Illinois Libraries, July 1930, p. 75 and Illinois Blue Book 1913-1914, p. 57

15 Secretary of State Biennial Report, 1910, pp. 18-21.

16 Katherine Sharp, founder of the UIUC library school, compiled the 1904 statistics. Illinois Libraries, Vol. 8, No. 3, July, 1926, pp. 31-33; Illinois Blue Book 1921-1922, p. 327. The 1928 book-jacket label from an ISL Extension Division book reads: "Books Loaned Free. Books are loaned to individuals and study clubs for one month, and are sent to communities and to schools for a period of three months."

17 Illinois Blue Book 1917-1918, p. 380.

18 Ibid., 1919-1920, 0. 394.

19 Illinois Blue Book 1953-1954, p.397. While the Illinois State Library assisted the library practices and materials, it did not at that time help communities construct facilities. In 1919 there were 18 of 102 counties in Illinois with no public libraries and 33 counties with only one library. Andrew Carnegie helped create 105 public library buildings in Illinois at a total cost of $1,635,800. He required local communities to contribute funds for land and upkeep and stated: "I choose free libraries as the best agencies for improving the masses of people, because they give nothing for nothing. They only help those who help themselves." Illinois Libraries, Vol. 1, No. 1, Jan. 1919, p. 4 & Ibid., No. 4, Oct. 1919, p. 64-65.


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