Chapter 2 – The Birth of the Illinois State Library

Although the Illinois State Library was not officially founded until 1839, its origins may be traced to the first days of Illinois statehood. On March 2, 1819 – less than three months after Illinois was admitted to the Union – the General Assembly authorized first Governor Shadrach Bond to exchange copies of laws with other states. This move was precipitated by the unexpected receipt of three copies of laws from the state of Pennsylvania. These exchanges continued for decades and became the basis of the Illinois State Library collection.11

But a physical library location was long in coming. When Illinois’ state capital was moved from Kaskaskia to Vandalia in 1820, the state’s entire collection of a few books and records were transported on one small ox-cart. While a new State Library was hardly a high priority, there was some recognition that a library could assist the needs of state lawmakers. On Feb. 3, 1821, Edwardsville representative William Otwell introduced a bill in the Second General Assembly, authorizing “the purchase for the use of the state…a library to consist of such books and maps as shall be designated by a committee of General Assembly.” This was the first appropriation considered for a state library collection.12

However, Otwell’s enthusiasm was not shared by his fellow lawmakers, and the bill was tabled a few days later, never to be acted on. Certainly, the state had more pressing needs, including construction of a permanent home for government. The first of three State Capitols in Vandalia was a two-story frame structure that housed the Illinois House on the first floor and the Senate upstairs. Other state offices were scattered about town in rented buildings.13

The state’s small book collection was housed in the State Bank of Vandalia and nearly destroyed in a fire on the night of Jan. 28, 1823. Secretary of State Samuel Lockwood, Illinois State Auditor Elijah Berry, and a number of legislators managed to save much of the collection, but many federal and state publications were lost. Lockwood was unable to determine the full extent of the damage, as the lawmakers had freely borrowed law books for research purposes with, apparently, poor record keeping.14

Illinois’ second Governor, Edward Coles, made the most urgent plea for the creation of a library. Just a week after the fire, the General Assembly passed a resolution directing Coles to request a complete set of laws and documents from other states, continuing the tradition of exchanges with other states. Three copies of the laws of the last session of the General Assembly, along with letters from Coles, were sent to each state governor, with a request for reciprocation. In a letter of Aug. 14, 1823, Coles also corresponded with then- U.S. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams (who would be elected President the following year) about the exchange of federal laws, requesting any “spare copies…of the laws of the U.S. and the Journals of Congress” to replace those lost in the fire that January. But lawmakers also needed other materials for research, and the lack of a sufficient library collection at Vandalia created a considerable inconvenience.15

Clearly, a full library was needed, and Governor Coles, considered a visionary leader, became a strong advocate for a formal State Library. In a message to the General Assembly on Nov. 15, 1824, Coles called for the creation and funding of a library, citing “intelligence and virtue [as] the main pillars in the temple of Liberty.” Coles added that, “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 appropriation to this object.”16

No appropriation was made, though, as the financially overextended young state was nearly bankrupt. However, the idea for a library was planted, and in 1825, both chambers of the legislature presented resolutions to allow Supreme Court justices to borrow any books belonging to the Secretary of State’s office that they deemed necessary. The justices were to provide the Secretary with a receipt for all books borrowed, and all were to be returned by the first Monday of December 1826.17

Coles was joined in his enthusiasm for a State Library by Secretary of State George Forquer, an avid supporter of reading and literature. Forquer himself owned an extensive library, and he may have allowed some of his own books to be used by the lawmakers and justices. By the late 1820s, the idea of a State Library had gained some momentum, but not enough to yet ensure its creation. As the next decade progressed, the library remained little more than an idea in the minds of a few state leaders.18

Indeed, the state had other priorities. The mid-tolate 1830s found Illinois immersed in plans for building extensive amounts of infrastructure. Later known as the Internal Improvements Era, the period was full of ambitious schemes for a comprehensive system of railroads, roads, and canals. To the north, the Illinois and Michigan Canal, designed to link the Illinois River with Lake Michigan, was begun in earnest. Across the state, plans for a series of railroads, still in their infancy, gained widespread support, with small lines springing up, including the Northern Cross, intended to link Springfield with the Illinois River and the Indiana state line. Roads connecting the burgeoning towns across the state were planned, and optimism had never been higher in the new state, barely 20 years old and still very much on the frontier.19

All this, of course, required a great deal of administration and even greater amounts of money. It did not take long for the grand plans of Internal Improvement programs to collapse under the weight of over-ambition and stupendous debt. The resulting fiasco required years of recovery, with the state over $15 million in debt by the early 1840s and little to show for its dreams of great internal improvements.20

In addition, Illinois was preoccupied with talk of moving the capital from Vandalia to Springfield. The question was a heated one and helped deflect attention away from the proposed State Library. By 1837, the decision was made official, but it was two years before the seat of government headed north. The state’s financial plight nearly destroyed Governor Coles’ hopes for a library.21

But the issue was not entirely dead. In 1833, the Secretary of State was given responsibility for binding the unbound laws of Congress in the state collection and continuing the exchange of laws and statues with other states. Many officials continued to push for a library, and the move to Springfield proved pivotal in its creation. Designs for a new State Capitol Building in Springfield included designated, ample space for a library room. When the new statehouse commission unveiled design plans on Dec. 8, 1838, library boosters were gratified to see a 40-by-24-foot library room with a 16-foot-high ceiling featured. This new room was to be located on the first floor of the building, adjacent to the office of the Secretary of State.22

While there was as yet no organized library collection, the wheels were in motion to create it. On Dec. 19, 1838, a resolution for a State Library was introduced in the Illinois Senate. Within a month, the resolution became a bill but was voted down and returned to committee. The Senate Judiciary Committee next requested recommendations of the three state Supreme Court justices on the topic. Their subsequent six-page report echoed the favorable opinions of Governor Coles and other library advocates.23

Indeed, this report proved to be a hallmark moment in the creation of the library. The justices wrote that a library was “of infinite importance” for legislators to “have ready access to those sources of information” needed in the “formation of correct views” in sound lawmaking. These works, said the justices, “may relate to the science of government, political economy, and the formation of just and equal laws…[topics] of vital importance to be known, and accurately understood.” The justices also decried past failures, stating that, “this state forms the only exception in the Union where a public library has not been established.” In addition, the justices cited the oftrepeated inconvenience of the lack of an available library at the seat of government. As a result, the justices could not “but hope that a law, having for its object, the establishment of a…library, will meet the concurrence and approval of the General Assembly.”24

Their opinion had the desired effect. On Feb. 22, 1839, Senate Bill 76, “an Act making an appropriation for a library for the use of the Legislature and Supreme Court,” passed in both the Illinois House and Senate, though by narrow margins. The House vote was 38-25 in favor, and the Senate 23-15 in favor. For an unknown reason, Abraham Lincoln, a third-term member of the House, did not cast a vote. After 18 years of debate, Illinois finally joined her neighboring states in the formation of a State Library.25