Katharine Sharp, head librarian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was one of the earliest voices for the spread of public libraries in Illinois. For many years she served as a sort of information center for library activities around the state and established herself as a foremost historian on library science in Illinois. As a result, generations of library science students at the university felt her influence.

Born May 21, 1865, in Elgin, Sharp entered Northwestern University at age 16, earning a Ph.B. in 1885 and a Ph.M in 1889. From 1886 to 1888, she taught foreign language at her alma mater, Elgin Academy, although she soon became interested in librarianship. In October 1888, she accepted a position as assistant librarian at what would become the Oak Park Public Library. 1

In 1890, Sharp enrolled in the New York State Library School in Albany, an institution that produced many influential librarians, including future Illinois archivist Margaret Cross Norton. Graduating in 1892, she organized a major library exhibit for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and organized libraries in Wheaton as well as Xenia, Ohio. Sharp was then appointed librarian of the new Armour Institute of Technology in Chicago and chaired its Department of Library Economy, the first established school of library science in the Midwest. 2

In 1897, the library school was transferred to the University of Illinois, where Sharp’s pioneering efforts blossomed. She ultimately became head librarian, a professor of library economy, and director of the Illinois State Library School. Sharp also began work on an exhaustive 800-page study of the history of every library in the state of Illinois, a landmark volume published in 1909. In honor of her work, she received the M.L.S. degree from the New York State Library School in 1907. 3

In what spare time she had, Sharp continued to press for the expansion of public libraries in Illinois and acted as an unofficial hub for library information within the state. From 1895 to 1905, she served on the Council of the American Library Association. Her name became synonymous with librarianship in Illinois and was widely revered in the field. 4

However, Sharp’s health was in serious decline and further hampered by her hard work. She resigned from the University of Illinois in 1907, receiving an honorary M.A. degree upon her departure. She then went to live with Melvil Dewey, the famed New York State Librarian and developer of the classification system that bears his name, and his wife, at their retreat at the Lake Placid Club in the Adirondacks. In 1914, just before her 49th birthday, she suffered severe injuries in an automobile accident and died on June 1. Her body was returned to Dundee, Illinois, for burial. 5

Katharine Sharp’s memory is honored in a bronze basrelief portrait in the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library Science. The work was done by Lorado Taft, one of Illinois’ most famous sculptors. 6

  1. Erbes 9; Grotzinger 34.
  2. Erbes 10; Danton 165-166; Grotzinger 35, 40, 59-61.
  3. Erbes 10; Danton 165-166; Grotzinger 84-87.
  4. Erbes 10. Sharp’s unofficial position as an information hub is described in great detail in Grotzinger.
  5. Erbes 11; Danton 170-171; Grotzinger 256-261, 272-274, 275-277.
  6. Erbes 11; Grotzinger 282-283.