A New State Librarian and Director

After 16 years at the helm of the State Library, Bridget Lamont’s tenure as Director came to an end in early 1999. She left to become Director of Policy Development for newly elected Governor George Ryan. But leaving the State Library was a difficult decision. “It was time for someone else to see what they could do,” said Lamont. “But it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life. I loved the job, and it was extremely hard to leave it.”954

Lamont’s departure was part of a massive transformation of State Library leadership. Taking over as Director on Feb. 1, 1999, was Southern Illinois native Jean Wilkins, a member of the State Library staff since 1980. Wilkins offered experience both in education and library science, as she spent a decade teaching kindergarten through 12th grade before earning a master’s degree in library science. She was also well-versed in library management, serving as associate director of Administration and Planning for the State Library since 1994. Equally important was her friendly, up-front nature, making for easy communication with State Library employees and librarians around the state.955

Wilkins dedicated herself to improving relations with librarians around the state. “In my previous roles at the State Library, I was on the road a lot, visiting libraries and meeting their staff,” said Wilkins. “I wanted to do the same as Director, because I felt that some libraries, especially in southern Illinois, did not always feel connected to what we were doing. It became a personal goal of mine to get out to libraries, and learn what they were doing.” As a result, Wilkins was on the road nearly every week, touring hundreds of libraries and endearing her to librarians state wide.956

Wilkins was appointed by new Democratic Secretary of State Jesse White, who won the office in a 1998 election landslide. The first African-American to serve as Illinois Secretary of State, White was familiar to many in Springfield, as he had spent 16 years in the Illinois House of Representatives before two terms as Recorder of Deeds of Cook County. But he was best known to many as founder of the internationally acclaimed Jesse White Tumbling Team, which he created as a recreational and educational alternative for economically disadvantaged Chicago youth. Since its inception in 1959, the Jesse White Tumblers have performed at sporting events and fairs nationwide, including many national television appearances. The genial, engaging White brought not only extensive administrative experience to his position, but also demonstrated a great devotion to libraries, reading, and literacy. He quickly established himself as an active voice for Illinois libraries.957

Secretary White made technological advancement of Illinois libraries a top priority. That technological access was greatly enhanced with a sweeping 2001 initiative, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation U.S. Library Program. The foundation, a philanthropic arm of Gates’ Microsoft empire, has established itself as a leader in educational advancement. Its U.S. Library Program provides computers, Internet access and other technology to American libraries. Training began in January 2002 with a series of workshops, “Before Your Computer Arrives.” By early 2003, the program in Illinois was fully implemented and providing a windfall for Illinois libraries. In all, Illinois received nearly $3.9 million in Gates Foundation grants for local libraries and added a total of 1,328 public workstations, six training labs and 142 content servers. Gates Foundation staff held training sessions for 2,901 attendees from 443 buildings in libraries, training labs, and at the Gates Foundation training facility in Seattle. Illinois received $217,000 in Gates grant monies to aid in connectivity and networking upgrades for 149 of the eligible buildings in Illinois. Gates equipment increased information access for more than 4 million Illinoisans – a third of the state’s population.958

The U.S. Library Program was one example of a long and productive relationship the State Library has forged with the Gates Foundation in recent years. It is also a prime example of the aggressive pursuit of grant funding that highlighted Wilkins’ tenure as Director. As budgets continued to flatten, other sources of funding became necessary, and Wilkins became a hands-on proponent of alternative funding means.959

Another popular program during Secretary White’s tenure was Try-It! Illinois, which allowed Illinois library users to explore the hundreds of electronic databases to which the State Library subscribed. Try-It! Illinois, which began in October 2000, offered a two-month free trial of databases, which included numerous topics in the social sciences, natural sciences, and arts and humanities, as well as dozens of online periodical services. Try-It! proved a valuable reference tool to both librarians and patrons alike. It also demonstrated the value of the databases and encouraged multitype libraries to subscribe to databases themselves. The initial success of Try-It! spawned an annual event in  October and November, with increasing numbers of databases added each year.960