Lack of Space Hinders Library Growth

While the move of the State Archives to new quarters freed up much-needed space in the Centennial Building, Harriet Skogh cautioned that the problem of space was still “not really solved.” In the 1936 Biennial Report, Skogh recapped her futile pleadings of the four previous biennial reports and challenged the pride of the state in its library. Her challenge was reminiscent of the complaints Secretary of State George Harlow made nearly 60 years before.

“On this one factor [space] as much as anything else, rests the decision as to whether the Illinois State Library is to be an insignificant collection of the minimum essentials for any small library, or whether it is to have its place among the best state libraries of this country, a real credit to the state supporting it.”285

Skogh was hardly finished. She continued with a remarkable ultimatum, which further demonstrates her irritation.

“The State of Illinois may admit that it can not, or does not care to, maintain a State Library comparable with those of other states approaching it in wealth and responsibilities, and in accord with that position may discard or dispose of, in the materials gathered from the many sources since 1842, all except the most frequently used and obviously necessary, in order to make room for the smallest possible minimum of current and future additions.”286

Again, she called for the removal of the State Museum to “better and more accessible storage facilities,” namely with a renovation of the space above the fifth floor quarters of the museum. That, claimed Skogh, would free up the ground floor space occupied by museum storage to install more bookshelves to “provide for the needs of the [library] for many years to come.”287

There is little doubt that Skogh’s words, while shrill, were accurate. The severe lack of space in the Centennial Building had indeed restricted the library’s growth. For much of the 19th century, the Illinois State Library had lagged behind other state libraries in terms of growth and development, but an acceleration in both in the early 20th century had brought the library to a more comparable level. Now, those gains were being lost, mainly through lack of space. With a reported 126,000 volumes in its general library book collection in 1935, Illinois was behind most state libraries, especially neighboring states, in terms of size. In Indiana, a new library facility opened in December 1934, providing ample space to grow that library’s collection of 175,000 volumes. The Ohio State Library boasted 434,000 volumes, while Michigan had 325,000 and Iowa held 235,000. To the west, the California State Library, in large new quarters opened in 1928, held 329,000 volumes.288

Eastern state libraries were even larger. The Massachusetts State Library held 549,000 volumes, while the State Library of Pennsylvania had 365,000 in its collection. The New York State Library, for decades recognized as the best state library, had a collection of 658,000 volumes, the most of any state library in the nation. Remarkably, the New York State Library had built that number in less than a quarter century after a massive fire on March 29, 1911. A total of 450,000 books and 270,000 manuscripts were lost in the flames.289

Clearly, the Illinois State Library was again falling short. But a revision of the old 1874 State Library Act, passed on July 13, 1939, gave a glimpse of what was to come for public librarians in Illinois. The act again confirmed the Secretary of State as State Librarian and expressly expanded the rights of patrons to use the State Library. Also permitted to use the library were “employees of the state, urban, and rural schools not having library facilities in the schools, study groups, individuals living in communities without library service… and to other individuals at the discretion of the State Librarian.” In sum, practically all Illinoisans now had the ability to use the services of their State Library.290

In addition, the state was geographically divided into six regional library districts, the beginning of the regional library system of today. The Secretary of State appointed one district librarian in each district, except Chicago, where two librarians were named. Together, these district librarians comprised an advisory committee, “whose duty [was] to make recommendations concerning the policies and management of the State Library.”291

The act also explicitly listed the six purposes of the State Library. While the list clearly defined the library’s mission, it also repeated many of the activities of the library since the turn of the century.

  • Maintain a library for State officials and employees of the State, especially of informational material pertaining to the phases of their work and to provide for them material for general reading and study.
  • Maintain a Division for acquiring and preserving of archival material of the State, and, offer facilities for the proper use of the said material.
  • Be a supplementary source for reading materials unavailable in the local libraries.
  • Assist local libraries in their plans of cooperation for better work and services in their communities and to loan them books and other materials in furtherance of this object.
  • Be ready to help local groups in developing a program by which library service can be arranged for in rural communities and rural schools now without such service.
  • Be a clearing house, in an advisory capacity, for questions and problems pertaining to the administration and functioning of public and school libraries in Illinois.292

These six criteria were immediately embraced as the mission of the State Library. For many years, a framed copy listing these six rules hung on the wall near the third-floor entrance to the reading room. In addition, the 1939 act provided for a State Library “field visitor” to school libraries. This position, similar to the public library field visitor, allowed the State Library to send this “visitor,” a trained professional and a sort of liaison, to school libraries to help solve problems, offer advisory guidance, and facilitate communication.293

As the Depression era drew to a close, the Illinois State Library managed to clearly define its role amidst serious concerns of growth and development. While the library was unquestionably the leader in library activities in the state, the 1940s would bring questions of how well the library was fulfilling its mission. Those questions would force the library to look unflinchingly at its position as a respected leader in librarianship in the state.