The Formation of the Library

The library act was brief, but its intentions were clear. The sum of $5,000 was appropriated to purchase materials for a law and “miscellaneous” library for the use by legislators and Supreme Court justices. The term “miscellaneous” then referred to practically any book that was not a law or a statute – a term that remained in use for decades. The Supreme Court justices, as well as the Governor, were given the authority to select and purchase books for the new library and to provide for the “safe-keeping” of such books.26

On Feb. 27, 1839, only five days after the act took effect, the sum of $260 was spent in the purchase of 56 books from former Governor William L.D. Ewing for the new library. These were mainly volumes of law. This transaction likely represents the first purchase of books for the Illinois State Library. Unfortunately, that level of commitment proved all too brief, but enthusiasm for the library was certainly high in its early days.27

In addition to the Ewing purchase, a list of books deemed “suitable” for the library was created in 1839. This list, over three handwritten pages long, included books of interest to state officials as well as popular works of the day. Listed topics ranged from political economy, United States history, and its foremost patriots, including Patrick Henry and Benjamin Franklin, to works of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, histories of Europe, American states, and the Union. This list was used as a collection guide for book purchases. A vision for the library was clearly taking shape.28

The passage of the State Library Act was one of the highlights of the 11th General Assembly session, the last to meet in Vandalia. On June 20, 1839, Governor Thomas Carlin ordered all state offices and “all Books, Records, Documents, Seals, and Papers” to be moved to Springfield “by the 4th day of July next.” Ironically, Carlin is not considered a highly intellectual or literate person, despite the fact that the library was founded under his watch. An Illinois political and historical era ended with the move from Vandalia, and a new era was dawning in Springfield – with a State Library a part of it.29

The era began with a still-unfinished State Capitol Building. Legislators arrived to find the building lacking a roof, furniture, heating stoves, and staircases, with work continuing throughout the 1840s. The new library room actually ended up larger than the 1838 plans indicated. The quarters measured 40-by-30-feet, a full 1,200 square feet, or 25 percent larger than anticipated, though its ceiling was reduced to 15 feet. The room was an imposing home for a State Library still in its infancy. Later accounts of the library proclaimed its physical beauty and splendor. And the library would soon have a printed collection worthy of its physical space. By late 1840, Secretary of State Stephen A. Douglas was at last able to occupy his office in the new, still unfinished Capitol, adjacent to the new State Library.30

Stephen A. Douglas was the first Secretary of State to guide the Illinois State Library.

Stephen A. Douglas was the first Secretary of State to guide the Illinois State Library.

Douglas, however, had little time for library development, as he served only three months before resigning on Feb. 27, 1841, to become an Illinois Supreme Court justice. His brief tenure as Secretary of State was an early steppingstone to his eventual legendary status in Illinois political history. Douglas was succeeded by Lyman Trumbull, who also carved a place among the greats of Illinois politics.31

On Aug. 14, 1841, at the recommendation of the Illinois Supreme Court, Governor Carlin appointed a two-man committee to purchase books for the State Library. The two men, Samuel Lockwood (Secretary of State when the original collection burned in Vandalia) and Illinois Supreme Court Justice Samuel H. Treat, actively engaged in searching out, and purchasing some books, but commitment to the library was already waning. Of the original $5,000 appropriation in the Senate Bill 76, much remained unspent, likely due to more pressing economic priorities, such as the completion of the capitol construction.32

Still, legislative oversight continued. Senate Bill 1 of Dec. 15, 1842, provided the most defining guidelines that the library had seen to date. Among these was designating the Secretary of State as State Librarian. The Secretary had been informally in charge of the library since its inception, but now his role was expressly defined by law. Senate Bill 1 also established a law library as an entity separate from the State Library, a designation that remains to this day. The law library was located across the hall from the State Library in the Supreme Court chamber.33

The act also clearly defined who could use the library, namely members of the General Assembly, Supreme Court justices, Governor, other Executive Department officers, and Attorney General. No more than two works could be checked out at any one time, and could not be kept for more than two weeks. The Secretary was to keep a register of books borrowed and returned. Penalties seem surprisingly harsh today. Those who failed to return a book could not receive their salary at the end of the legislative session, and anyone who “injured” or failed to return a book on time was subject to fines of three times the book’s value, or the set to which it belonged. The 1842 act clearly stated the rules of the library, and lawmakers were expected to abide by them. These rules were in force well into the 20th century.34

It had taken over two decades, but the Illinois State Library was finally well established. It had come into existence despite severe financial crisis, the indifference of most legislators, and the physical moves of the state government. This humble beginning was the first chapter in a story that would ultimately affect the lives of millions of Illinoisans over many decades.