Early Descriptions of the Library

In his next report to the General Assembly on Jan. 8, 1849, Secretary Cooley stated that $191.29 had been raised from the sale of the surplus volumes, and that the money had been used to increase the miscellaneous book collection. He also noted that almost no holdings had been lost, save for a “valuable Spanish map of Mexico” that had hung in the library but had recently “been stripped from its proper appendages, and stolen from the library by some villain, who merits the most condign punishment which the law can prescribe.” Cooley also addressed basic library administration, asking “whether…some legal enactment is not necessary, to prescribe at what particular time the library shall be kept open for public use.” He also repeated the request for a “competent person” as a library assistant, to provide “the personal sole attention” to the “peculiar description of property, belonging to the state, of thousands of dollars in value” that made up the library collection.44

Cooley also called for appropriations to build the collection – a call that would be echoed by many Secretaries to come, as future legislative funding for the library proved woefully erratic. He lamented that the State Library “probably embraces a less number and a less valuable and useful collection of miscellaneous books than is found in any of the libraries of our sister states… (a) small sum, to be appropriated yearly” could purchase “scientific and other works…for the library.” Cooley reported that “scientific” works were the most demanded category in the collection, indicating reader interest of the era.45

In 1848, Cooley had hired a local carpenter to build shelving to hold the increasing number of books. More open shelving was added in 1850, including a special bookcase specifically made for the more valuable books. Other incidentals were purchased from time to time. The room had been painted in 1847 at a cost of $12, and a tablecloth purchased in 1848 further enhanced the decor. These small additions added to the natural attractiveness of the library, which, according to later reminiscences, was a pleasant place in which to spend an afternoon.46

Although the fledgling library was far from developed, it certainly boasted an attractive, elegant setting. The library room offered a welcoming atmosphere with its spacious, tasteful design in which to work, study, or relax. Elegantly designed bookcases ranged along the walls, alternating with portraits of famous Illinoisans and national patriots. Wooden tables and desks were scattered across the interior. The latest news papers and periodicals lay across tables, while chess boards and other chamber games added another measure of decor and entertainment. Porcelain and brass spittoons served one of the dirtier habits of the time. Four white-painted Ionic columns anchored the room and provided support for the 15-foot-high ceiling. The stone of the exterior walls and bright wood flooring complemented each other and offered a taste of the classic architecture of 19th-century America.47

The library was located on the northwest corner of the first floor of the Capitol, on the left (west) as visitors entered the main door. It was the third and final chamber on the left, just past the auditor’s office and adjacent to the Secretary of State’s office. Entrance to the library at the time could be made only through the Secretary’s office. It must be noted that the present restoration of the State Capitol, which was completed in 1969, recreated library doors not only to the adjacent office of the auditor, but another entering directly from the first floor hallway. The hallway door is inaccurate, as documented in recollections of patrons of the time. The limited methods of entrance would have created a sense of isolation and privacy in the room, as well as security from theft – all enhancing the usefulness of the chamber.48

Several period recollections provide insight into the library’s appearance. One came from Secretary Lyman Trumbull, who wrote to his brother David on Oct. 12, 1841, that his office was “fitted up in a most comfortable & superior style…consisting of two rooms, [including] the State Library, which when supplied with the books now being purchased will be one of the best libraries in the West.” A letter to his sister, Julia, on March 20, 1842, offered a similar endorsement, particularly of the climate of the room: “the rooms are furnished in very superior style, and are very warm and comfortable in the winter while they are cool and pleasant in the summer.” Trumbull’s glowing predictions were not realized for some time, but there is no doubt as to the “comfortable and superior style” that the library afforded.49

Other remembrances came from William H.L. Wallace, a young law student from the northern Illinois town of Ottawa, who visited the Capitol on Dec. 13, 1844. Wallace, a prominent citizen in the northern Illinois River valley before losing his life at the battle of Shiloh in April 1862, treated himself to a tour of the building, including the State Library. He praised the library, which, he remembered, contained “some thousand volumes – mostly laws & Statutes but some good selections of miscellaneous works.” The attractiveness of the room also encouraged relaxation, and soon it became a sort of social center for legislators, their staffers, prominent attorneys, and their friends. Many a game of chess was played in the library, which was also a good spot to catch up on the latest news and gossip, either in print or by word of mouth. Some of the greatest names of state and national politics passed through, including Abraham Lincoln, who had neglected to vote for its creation.50

Lincoln’s eldest son, Robert, provides one of the most detailed descriptions of the library and the activities there. In a letter of Nov. 4, 1917, Robert, then age 74, wrote that the Illinois State Library “was a good room, well furnished, and was used for meeting purposes by the friends of the Secretary of State, for the time being quite a social club.” Clearly, the library was being used for many other purposes than just as an oasis of literature in a still-western state.51

Lincoln himself used the room for leisure and was a frequent visitor. It was there in the late 1850s that he met young John Nicolay, who had come to Springfield from the western Illinois town of Pittsfield to work as a clerk to Secretary of State Ozias Hatch. Nicolay would later become Lincoln’s private secretary and trusted confidant. In his elderly years, Nicolay co-authored an exhaustive 10-volume work with John Hay on Lincoln, which is still acclaimed as among the best biographies of the 16th President. Nicolay later recalled the atmosphere in the library:

“The State Library, of which the Secretary had charge, was in an adjoining room, also large and commodious, which by common usage was used by all the political parties when assembled at State conventions or during sessions of the legislature, as a political caucus room, the entry being through the Secretary’s main office.”52

Nicolay further described the Secretary’s office as “in effect a state political headquarters and a common rendezvous for prominent Illinois politicians … Mr. Lincoln was of course a frequent visitor, and when he came was always the center of an animated and interested group.” Members of all political parties used the library as a meeting place, either formally or informally. The fledgling Republican Party, founded in 1854, frequently canvassed in both the adjacent Secretary’s office and the library. Any reference of politics could always rouse Lincoln’s considerable ambition.53

Robert Lincoln also remembered that Lincoln and Nicolay frequently played chess in the library, and certainly, talk of politics filled the air. The library of that era was likely as much a gentlemen’s political clubroom as a reading sanctuary. In its furnishings and decor, the State Library room presented an intellectual atmosphere and artistic refinement contrasting with much of Illinois, which was just emerging from its frontier era.54