The Controversial Survey of 1951

During the demonstration program, a growing friction between the State Library and the Illinois Library Association became more apparent. Many concerns centered on the State Library’s administration of not only the demonstration program but also in dealings with public libraries. The September 1947 edition of the I.L.A. Record claimed that, “for many years criticisms of the administration of the State Library have come to the attention…of the I.L.A.” As a result, “discussion has long taken place in ILA Executive Board meetings in regard to…bringing the State Library in line with recommended practices for state library agencies and sound administrative theory.”372

ILA committee members also requested a meeting with State Library personnel to address concerns about the demonstration program. However, the “cooperation of the State Library was sought time after time…to clear up some of the points of criticisms,” but these attempts met with “unsatisfactory” results. Continuing efforts by the ILA met a similar fate, and the association continued to seek a “reorganization” of State Library administration. This included a plan to “take the library out of politics” and administer it with a board of five persons, with rotating terms, appointed by the Governor, and no more than three board members of the same political party. The American Library Association also gave its endorsement to the idea.373

This plan soon became a political issue, and an effort was made by the Republican-controlled Senate to take the library out of the hands of Democratic Secretary of State Edward Barrett. Barrett charged that the effort was a political ploy, especially since the bill authorizing the plan was introduced by four Republican senators. Barrett’s supporters also charged that the move was a “patronage grab” and that the library’s 112 civil service employment positions would be threatened. Republicans countered that only the state libraries of Illinois and Rhode Island fell under the direct control of an elected official. The Illinois Senate voted 35-12 in favor of the bill on May 15, 1947, but House Democrats, although in the minority, worked to ensure the measure went no further. The bill was ultimately tabled in the House.374

For many years, the State Library and the ILA had worked together to promote library development within the state. In 1943, the two entities, along with the Illinois Association of High School Librarians, had sponsored a series of School Library Clinics, designed as training institutes for school librarians, especially those “recently recruited.” But the relationship between the ILA and the State Library continued to deteriorate. While the two organizations had not always worked in unison, it was clear that a great chasm was developing as the 1940s progressed. Many blamed Assistant State Librarian Helene Rogers for this discord. The ILA was particularly concerned with the fear that politics would sully the library, calling in 1948 for “drastic legislation to remove any and every possibility of the Illinois State Library from becoming a political football.” This increasingly contentious relationship between the ILA and the State Library threatened the prestige of, and respect for, the library in its role as state librarianship leader.375

Other shortcomings of the library were also about to come to light. In accordance with the Appropriation Act of 1949, an outside survey of the State Library was commissioned that year to examine its strengths and weaknesses. The survey was conducted by a committee of three: Harold F. Brigham, Director of the Indiana State Library and committee chairman; Charles F. Grosnell, State Librarian and Assistant Commissioner of Education, New York; and Forrest B. Spaulding, Librarian of the Des Moines, Iowa Public Library. Brigham and Spaulding were both former presidents of the American Library Association, and Spaulding was a past president of the Illinois Library Association.376

The committee spent three days at the State Library in late March 1949, meeting with personnel and carefully investigating the methods and functions of the library. The first session was long and arduous, proving too much for one committee member, who “found he had overtaxed his strength and…had to retire from active participation for several months.”377

Meanwhile, the two remaining members met for four days in Chicago in late April, where they also attended a meeting of the State Library Advisory Committee on May 27. Subsequent meetings were also held with the University of Chicago Graduate Library School Institute, the University of Illinois Library School, and the Civil Service Commission in Springfield. In August 1950, the commission toured Region 6 in southern Illinois, meeting with area librarians to further study the role and perception of the State Library. Their findings were eventually published in an 88-page document with 16 pages of appendices. The final version was presented to Secretary of State Edward Barrett on March 3, 1951.378

Every aspect of the State Library was broken down and analyzed in a document that resembled a college accreditation report. Topping the list of library strengths was its Archives Division, which continued as a national leader in its field under the visionary direction of Superintendent Margaret Cross Norton. Lauding the archives as “dignified and well housed, well known and well established,” the survey commended its methods, which “have set the pattern adopted by many other states and have played an important part in the development of standard practices nationally.”379

A librarian on a State Library bookmobile sorts through circulation cards.

A librarian on a State Library bookmobile sorts through circulation cards.

The book collection of the State Library was also recognized for rapid and well-balanced growth. As a result, surveyors found “enthusiastic satisfaction” on the part of many librarians for the State Library’s ability “to meet subject requests” on demand. The library’s public relations program was also declared “outstanding” and complimented for its ability to penetrate “virtually all media of publicity.” Also commended were the library’s “many” and “well done” publications. Surveyors noted “the publicity that is given a service of the State Library is not infrequently better than the service publicized” and “often magnifies a service beyond [its] true capacity.” However, in the view of the surveyors, the library was fulfilling its six-part mission laid out in 1939. The report noted that “in general…the State Library not only has maintained services since 1939 in line with its declared purposes but has enlarged and maintained its services.”380

However, the bulk of the survey gave a more jaded view of general State Library operations. The institution was depicted as an autocratic entity whose administration treated its employees poorly and did not listen properly to the needs of the public libraries they were supposed to serve. Criticism began only a few pages into the document, beginning with Secretary of State Edward Barrett, portrayed as too concerned with political agendas. While Barrett “evidenced a genuine interest in library service,” the surveyors found “many librarians of the State individually and through their association are suspicious of his motives.” This belief “undoubtedly had a major part in creating a lack of confidence and respect for the State Library administration on the part of many librarians and others within the state.” Part of the problem was that the Secretary of State in Illinois was by law the only one in the nation who was also the State Librarian. Although the survey “found no evidence that politics [had] interfered in any fundamental way with the achievements of the Illinois State Library,” the perception of its mixing in politics hurt its professional image.381

State Library bookmobiles were surprisingly spacious. Note the stools at right that doubled as stepladders and convenient seating.

State Library bookmobiles were surprisingly spacious. Note the stools at right that doubled as stepladders and convenient seating.

Helene Rogers was singled out for “repeated criticism” by “her professional colleagues.” The survey declared that Rogers “has been at times arbitrary and dictatorial in her conduct and is autocratic to an unfortunate degree in her methods of administration.” While the surveyors were impressed with Rogers’ “qualities of real leadership” and “tireless energy,” they were less enthused about Rogers’ planning and organization of programs. “It would be just criticism,” wrote the surveyors, to say “that the Assistant State Librarian initiates and carries on so many projects that many of them are not well thought out in advance nor well enough organized for their successful  completion.” The demonstration program was a prime example of her failures. The survey contained a “long and gloomy list” of seventeen reasons contributing to that program’s demise. The surveyors did concede that Rogers “has accomplished in a positive manner a great deal in building up library service within the state” and that “library service in Illinois is definitely better because of her initiative and zeal.”382

“Emotional tension” ran high among a staff that was “not as happy, contented, and enthusiastic about their work as would be desirable,” and “there was no one cause, but a complex of many causes.” The Centennial Building’s limited space and poor design was cited as a “severe handicap to the efficiency and morale of the staff,” but other reasons were even more troubling. One was that “duties and delegation of responsibilities were not in accordance with desirable professional practices…[and] competent professional staff members are not allowed to exercise judgment and initiative commensurate with their qualifications and duties.”383

Employees were also found to lack a feeling of prestige in their positions and struggled with a “top command [that] is arbitrary and dictatorial.” A recurring concern was that “decisions [are] not always made on the basis of full consideration of the facts.” Not surprisingly, overall “lack of professional dignity” led to high employee turnover, and those leaving “frequently advised others against coming to take their places.” In one of the most startling assessments in the entire report, surveyors wrote, “few [employees] resigned because they were attracted to a better position. Most of them left because they very much wanted to be somewhere or anywhere else. Few left  behind or carried with them pleasant memories of their association with the Illinois State Library.”384

Lack of leadership and cooperation with Illinois public libraries was also cited. While Rogers had many “staunch defenders,” especially among the “librarians and trustees of the small communities which she has helped,” her relations with “professional librarians” at larger libraries were far cooler. “Professional librarians” offered a scathing indictment of Rogers, questioning “her professional attitude and qualifications for leadership.” Rogers, for her part, “shows more concern for inadequate, small libraries…than for the stronger, better supported institutions in the larger communities.” While Rogers was lauded for her support of the small rural libraries, frosty relationships with larger libraries did little to help the professional librarians’ perception of the State Library.385

State Library workers also perceived a lack of professional respect from others in the field. While the State Library staff was, on the whole, well qualified for their work, the library was having difficulty in attracting new, qualified employees, partly because the “salary levels of service in the State Library relative to those in other libraries have not been adequate.” This was a marked change from earlier in the century, when State Library salaries were among the highest in the field. Surveyors also noted the lack of synergy between the State Library and Illinois library schools of the Universities of Chicago and Illinois, which were among the most respected in the nation. Neither library school’s administration showed great respect for the State Library and actually discouraged graduates from taking State Library jobs. The State Library also neglected to cultivate solid working relationships with these library schools.386

The survey also took exception to the long-held plan for the establishment of district libraries. Although the State Library had for many years proposed such libraries as a key to extension, the survey believed the “District Library Law offers no reasonable hope” for the formation of district libraries. This was because “under the law, library authorities…have wide latitude in obtaining service by contract with any existing library.” Simply put, it was easier for unserved areas to enter into a contract with some existing library agency than to go through the rigors of forming a district library. States like Illinois had too many counties “that are small and for the most part poor,” and “resources too limited to provide adequate support for essential public services.” Citing the failed efforts of the demonstration program to create district libraries, the survey asserted that efforts to establish such libraries “have given no real hope of producing a generally practicable answer in the foreseeable future.” To the surveyors, district libraries were merely “an unnatural authority…[of] artificially constructed units that cut across political boundaries [and] present obstacles that apparently cannot be overcome.” The conclusion was a blow to the library’s efforts at district library promotion, a staple of its extension efforts.387

Amazingly, these grim conditions were actually an improvement over the recent past. “For many years,” reported the surveyors, “the Illinois State Library was a broken and divided institution. During the past fourteen years it has been pulled together and greatly strengthened.” The “fourteen years” reference implies that the 1935 appointment of Rogers as Superintendent of Library Divisions was, in fact, a boon to the library, yet surveyors also blamed her for many library shortcomings. The report infers that more serious troubles had beset the library prior to 1935, but no evidence is presented to support that statement. Many troubles appeared to be of a recent nature, dating from Rogers’ administration. Without a hint of irony, surveyors found that the Illinois State Library “has not yet attained a position of professional leadership.”388

The Illinois State Library was clearly at a crossroads as the 1950s dawned. In the post-war years, it remained at odds with professional schools and organizations and had lost a clear sense of mission. Its methods of operation and administrative capacities were sharply criticized, and its reputation as a center for state librarianship was severely damaged. But gradually in the 1950s and 1960s, a re-energized administration and staff would guide the State Library to a position of leadership among the state’s library community.