Today, the Illinois State Library is a remarkable contrast from its fledgling birth in 1839. Over 170 years of existence has transformed the library from a nearly ignored entity with few books, no staff, and spartan budget to a nationally respected institution that has had an impact on nearly every resident of Illinois. The earliest days of the State Library offered few indications of what the next century-and-a-half would hold.

In 1842, the Illinois Secretary of State was designated as State Librarian. That responsibility, however, seldom was taken seriously by the early Secretaries of State, as few felt a need to develop a worthy State Library. By the mid-1850s, the library had become more of a gentleman’s club than an information center, complete with gameboards, spittoons, and upholstered chairs. Little planning or money was given to the development of the State Library, in contrast to other states, which were beginning to recognize the value of their state libraries. It would be nearly 30 years before the State Library even hired its first clerk.

As the State Library struggled to grow, some Secretaries of State finally began to recognize the value of the library. Among the first was Edward Rummel, who fought for funding to develop a well-rounded collection. His successor, George Harlow, was even more vocal in his calls for legislative appropriation. By then, the State Library was housed in the newly constructed State Capitol, but relegated to temporary quarters for over a decade. The Illinois State Museum had been given the quarters planned for the State Library at the new Capitol. Creation of the Illinois State Historical Library took more support and funding from the State Library, with the State Museum and the new ISHL both receiving higher funding levels and greater legislative support. Even after a half-century, there was little reason to foresee any substantial growth, let alone an eventual place among the greatest of American state libraries.

Despite the State Library’s mission to serve Illinois’ legislature, for decades it received little support in return. Finally, in 1887, Secretary of State Henry Dement claimed the library’s assigned quarters in the west wing of the Capitol in a rogue move of physically throwing out the State Museum’s collections. The beautiful new surroundings elevated the stature of the State Library and marked a change in its mission. Now with growing legislative support, the State Library slowly began to establish itself as a leader in state librarianship. State Librarians – including such men as William Hinrichsen and James Rose – began to fully appreciate the importance of the State Library. For the first time, Illinois citizens as well as officials began to take advantage of their State Library’s growing collection. The library also began direct-loan mailings statewide. Residents enjoyed this privilege for decades.

Despite this progress, the State Library still fell short amongst its counterparts as late as the 1920s. Its collection and funding were among the weakest in American state libraries. The 1923 move to the Centennial Building, while providing beautiful quarters, proved ill-advised due to poor and cramped design, and the library spent the next half-century suffering for it. Stronger leadership in the post-World War I years gave the library its first solid professional footing. This growing professionalism continued during the Great Depression, especially in its Library Relief Fund leadership. The fund’s administrator, Helene Rogers, became a State Library leader in 1937.

By the 1940s, bookmobiles brought reading material to thousands of Illinois residents, while American servicemen enjoyed the rewards of the Victory Book Campaign. Reading courses addressed contemporary needs, and school libraries were supplemented by the State Library collection. Now, the Secretary of State was becoming synonymous with state librarianship. The election of Edward Hughes in 1932 marked the beginning of day-to-day involvement by the Secretary in library affairs, a trend continued by successors Edward Barrett and Charles Carpentier.

Indeed, the State Library was exerting its influence on state librarianship as never before despite some failures, including the post-World War II demonstration program. The book-banning controversy of 1953-54 brought the library some unwanted publicity and effectively ended the career of Rogers. A change in leadership and direction came in de Lafayette Reid, who succeeded Rogers as Assistant State Librarian. The State Library grew exponentially in size and service under Reid. Relations with Illinois libraries improved, as did staff morale. And greater changes were yet to come. A lengthy study of Illinois library service culminated in 1965 with creation of the 18 regional library systems. The cooperative spirit of the network redefined Illinois librarianship. It also coincided with the change of the library’s focus from a lending library to an administrative body, forming policy and funding Illinois library programs.

By Reid’s departure in 1968, the State Library had become nationally prominent among its peers. The long-indifferent Illinois legislature now recognized the library’s importance, and funding levels soared. Illinois citizens also began to better understand the role of the State Library, as well as the importance of their own public libraries. Thousands more Illinoisans also became eligible for tax-supported library service during these years. The Illinois Secretary of State was now a leader in library development. Secretary of State Paul Powell, for example, relished his role as State Librarian as few others before him.

Alphonse Trezza, Reid’s successor, aggressively promoted multitype library cooperation. Academic, school, and special libraries joined the Illinois library network, giving state residents access to more library resources than ever before. Trezza’s goal was to make the State Library second to none and, in his six years at the helm, he did much to reach that goal. By the end of his tenure in 1975, Illinois had become a national leader in library cooperation, a position it continued to enjoy into the 21st century.

The arrival of Jim Edgar as Secretary of State in 1982 proved particularly fortuitous for the State Library and its long-sought, stand-alone building. Under Secretary Edgar, the State Library gained its own building for the first time in its century-and-a-half of existence. The 1990 building showcased a home reflecting the library’s stature among state libraries.

By the 1980s and 1990s, the State Library had become an active proponent of literacy. Also at the top of its priorities were system development, implementation of technology, and fostering a cooperative spirit among libraries in the state.

George Ryan succeeded Jim Edgar as Secretary of State and oversaw some of the most successful library programs in state history, including the Live & Learn library construction program. Ryan’s successor, Jesse White, also embraced his role as State Librarian, concentrating on literacy, library technology, and promoting Illinois libraries to Illinois youth. In doing so, Secretary White won the admiration of many in the Illinois library community.

While its history spans some 170 years, it is obvious that the last half-century has been the most productive for the State Library. It was not until the mid-1950s that the library established itself as a leader in national librarianship. Previously, the Illinois State Library lagged behind other state libraries and did not always enjoy a position of respect even in its home state. With the appointment of de Lafayette Reid, the direction of the State Library changed forever. Reid’s successors have all left an indelible imprint on the course of the State Library. Similarly, the increasing involvement of the Secretaries of State has been a positive legacy.

Above all is the library’s impact on the residents it serves. Beginning in the early part of the 20th century, thousands of unserved Illinoisans were able to access free reading through the direct loans of the State Library and through the failed demonstration programs.

The State Library was crucial in the development of library systems in the 1960s. With the advent of multitype systems and automation, Illinois library service was revolutionized for nearly every Illinois library user. Resource sharing and technology have become hallmarks of Illinois library service.

When Abraham Lincoln became the first patron of the Illinois State Library in 1842, no one could have foreseen the massive growth of the library or predicted the enormous impact it would have on the people it serves. Former Director Bridget Lamont accurately assessed the place of the State Library in 1999:

“We were at the top of the heap. If we weren’t the best, we were close to it. I think that any state library should excel in at least one aspect, but Illinois has the total package. We excelled in automation, funding, special programs, a cooperative nature, and training for librarians, and had a beautiful building to do it all in. When you put it all together, the Illinois State Library is one of the best, if not the best, state libraries in the nation.”1020

Lamont’s successors, Jean Wilkins and Anne Craig, have brought engaging personalities, love of job, and diverse talents in their role as State Library Director, and have been well-received by the Illinois library community. As a result, the State Library remains among the elite of the nation’s state libraries.

As the 21st century progresses, the Illinois State Library can look back on a rich and highly productive legacy. Thanks to its progressive leadership, position of national respect, and a long list of accomplishments, its future is every bit as bright as its past.