Chapter 7 – The State Library & Growth of Illinois Public Libraries

While public libraries are an integral part of communities today, that was clearly not the case at the turn of the 20th century. In fact, very few Illinois towns had free libraries at all. It was not until March 7, 1872, that Governor John M. Palmer signed the Public Library Act, authorizing cities, incorporated towns, and townships to establish and maintain free public libraries and reading rooms “for the use and benefit of the inhabitants of each city.” The act had passed the Illinois House by the resounding vote of 124-4, while the Senate had voted 34-1 in favor. The intentions of the act were clear. When a town made the decision to establish a library, a board of nine directors, “chosen from the citizens at large with reference to their fitness for such office,” was to be selected, with no more than one city council member on the board at any time. The board was charged with creating rules and regulations for governing the library, as well as the expenditure of all proceeds garnered from the “Library Fund,” collected from a specified tax levy.145

The library board had the power to construct a library building, “appoint a suitable librarian and necessary assistants,” and, “in general, carry out the spirit of the act.” The act also declared that, “every library and reading room, established under this act, shall be forever free to the use of the inhabitants of the city.” The recent Chicago Fire, which had leveled large parts of the city the previous October, led directly to the passage of the act. Since all libraries of Chicago had been lost in the flames, donations of books were being rounded up, but there was no “suitable building or organization [that] exists to receive or preserve them.” The fire also induced state legislators from the Chicago area to support the bill, which had languished since its introduction on March 23, 1871. Because of the fire, “an emergency exists that this law shall take effect immediately,” and, thanks in part to the greatest catastrophe in state history, the movement toward free public libraries in Illinois had begun.146

Free libraries of a public or tax-supported nature were few and far between in 19th-century Illinois, or anywhere else in America. Some libraries were privately endowed and not open to the general public. There were also “social libraries” owned by members of a society formed with the purpose of establishing a general-interest library. Social libraries gained a foothold in the Ohio Valley in the early 1800s, with one founded in the southeastern Illinois town of Albion in 1818, the year Illinois gained statehood. A social library of 216 volumes was also formed in Edwardsville, Illinois. Eventually, a total of 13 social libraries were established in the state.147

Similarly, there were “subscription libraries,” where readers paid a fee to join a sort of club with bookborrowing privileges. The first subscription library in the United States was the “Library Company of Philadelphia,”  organized by Benjamin Franklin in 1731. In Illinois, a subscription library was founded by the Belleville Debating and Library Society and incorporated by the General Assembly on Jan. 27, 1821. Touted in the incorporating act as “a society for the purpose of acquiring and disseminating general and useful knowledge,” the Society was given the power to elect officers and a board of directors. The board had the authority to hire a librarian, assemble a collection, and lay down rules for admittance to the society.148

Two years later the Edwardsville Library Association was incorporated with similar powers. One of the requirements of membership at both Belleville and Edwardsville was a lifetime interest in the Society. No member was able to “withdraw his interest” from the society, although that interest could be transferred “to any person whom the society may admit as a member.” A subsequent law passed by the General Assembly in 1823 encouraged the continued formation of such libraries, although the measure was slow in its effect.149

The demand for libraries continued sporadically throughout the 19th century. In 1841, an association in Quincy was formed when a handful of citizens offered their own books for use by others, and life memberships were given. In Bloomington in 1856, a group of female residents collected 400 books for use by the public. Two years later a library association was formed in Galesburg, and a Knox College professor donated his services as a librarian to the association for free. Other early semi-private libraries were founded in Belvidere, Alton, Rockford, Peoria, Rock Island, Greenville, and Aurora. By 1872, there were 40 subscription libraries across Illinois.150

The library association in Peoria had the greatest statewide influence. The librarian of the Peoria Mercantile Library was Erastus Swift Willcox, who despite his best efforts, saw little substantial growth to his library. With annual dues of $4 per subscriber, the Peoria Mercantile Library never had more than 286 subscribers. This lack of interest helped convince Willcox that Illinois would best be served by free public libraries. He looked to England and the success of free public libraries for British citizens as his model for the best way to promote reading among Illinoisans. Willcox drafted a library bill for the Illinois legislature that was to create the basis of public libraries in the state. He persuaded Representative Samuel Caldwell of Peoria to introduce the bill on March 23, 1871. It was not the first of its kind; a similar bill had been introduced in the General Assembly on Feb. 6, 1871, but failed due to lack of interest. However, Caldwell’s bill, with backing generated in part by the Chicago Fire, became the Public Library Act of March 7, 1872, and the landscape of Illinois libraries would be forever changed.151

Illinois was not the first state to champion public libraries. New Hampshire and Massachusetts had both made earlier efforts. But no state had a law that was as well defined as that of the Prairie State. Willcox wrote that his 1872 law “was the first broadly planned, comprehensive, and complete Free Public Library Law…in the Union. [Illinois] placed herself at the head of her sister states in encouraging the spread of general intelligence.”152

Willcox, who later served as the Librarian of the Peoria Public Library, witnessed the results of his efforts firsthand. Within a few years over 6,500 Peoria residents held library cards. On April 2, 1872, Elgin became the first city to establish a public library, one of nine Illinois cities to establish a public library in the first year of the law. Next came Chicago, which formed its public library by city ordinance on April 3, one day after Elgin. Many thousands of books had been donated to Chicago, especially from British citizens and universities. Chicago was still without a proper reading space due to the fire, so an old iron water tank was converted for use as a library, providing a temporary – and fireproof – sanctuary for reading.153