The Success of Library Extension

As the Depression dragged on, the Extension Division began two programs that came to define the library’s efforts to reach out to rural Illinoisans. In December 1932, a “demonstration library” was established in Putnam County, a small, sparsely populated agricultural county in north central Illinois. One of the main goals of the Putnam County demonstration was to encourage that county and others in the establishment of a tax-supported county library. For many years, the State Library had been a proponent of county libraries, which it believed to be the best, most efficient way to facilitate the spread of free reading by taxing bodies.244

The Extension Division sent 2,500 books to be distributed among eight centers in Putnam County that served as community libraries. In Granville, the center was the front room of the city hall, while rooms at the Hennepin courthouse and the local bank in McNabb served the same capacity. A hardware store was the center in Magnolia, while the Putnam town center was a grain elevator. A local resident was hired as “custodian” of the eight centers, and a representative of the Extension Division visited each center on a monthly basis in both a supervisory and advisory capacity. Collections were also sent each month to the 18 rural schools in Putnam County. Collection usage proved heavy. In the first year of the demonstration, a total of 33,298 books were circulated, an average of 6.3 per capita and 22.9 per borrower.245

In addition, the Extension Division, with the cooperation of the Illinois Emergency Relief Administration and the federal Civil Works Administration, began to establish bookmobile routes around the state. Six counties were earmarked for bookmobile service, and Adams County in west central Illinois became the first to have a functioning bookmobile on Oct. 1, 1934. The Extension Division provided the books for the effort, while the Illinois Emergency Relief Administration paid the salary of the librarian. The counties themselves were responsible for providing the book truck, gas, and maintenance.246

A National Youth Association bookmobile in the late 1930s. At far left is Assistant State Librarian Helene Rogers with Extension Division Superintendent Charlotte Ryan, right.

A National Youth Association bookmobile in the late 1930s. At far left is Assistant State Librarian Helene Rogers with Extension Division Superintendent Charlotte Ryan, right.

Demand for books by rural residents in Adams County demonstrated the severe lack of library service. The bookmobile – a Ford sedan – traveled nearly 50 miles a day, five days a week, at a cost of $10 per month, just over 1 cent per mile. Eight or nine stops per day were usually made on a regular schedule, with service to 20 villages. Some of the “stations” on the routes included post offices in Lima and Coatsburg, a private home in La Prairie, a bank in Liberty, the Legion Hall in Clayton, and a Methodist parsonage in Camp Point. The distribution center for the effort was a place called “The Bookshop,” located “at the junction of all the hard roads into Quincy.”247

The residents of Adams County received their bookmobile with great enthusiasm. In the first threemonths of the project, a collection of 2,500 books had a circulation of 13,000. Patrons kept coming despite the hardships of travel. One 16-year-old boy regularly rode his bicycle five miles to meet the bookmobile, taking books home to his family in a flour sack tied to the handlebars. Another man walked nine miles from the Bookshop to his home, carrying his reading material both ways. By the spring of 1935, a second bookmobile effort had started in McDonough County, with the first consignment of books from the Extension Division arriving on April 16.248

Price noted that the bookmobiles did “not attempt to serve those towns or cities with libraries,” but took care of “the non-library area only.” Bookmobiles adhered to a “definite itinerary, visiting stations at scheduled intervals.” Stops were made at rural schools, stores, and at selected farmhouses where neighbors would gather at the time of the bookmobile’s arrival. As a result, Price proudly wrote that, “library service is being brought for the first time to thousands of citizens of Illinois who never before have had the advantage of library service and free books for bothrecreational enjoyment and educational stimulus.” Over the next 20 years, the bookmobile would become a signature effort of the State Library in its efforts to spread library service to all Illinoisans.249

However, Illinois residents were hardly alone in their lack of free reading. By the mid-1930s, some 45 million Americans were still without library service, and nearly a third of all counties in the nation had no public libraries within their borders. Existing Illinois libraries did not rank well in several key indicators. Illinois was only 21st in per-capita circulation at 4.2 and 24th in the number of volumes per capita. However, Illinois did rank 11th in library expenditure per capita, which likely indicates that, while money for libraries was being spent, it was not being spent well. Another troubling statistic was the comparative number of residents still without library service. Although Illinois ranked 35th in the percentage of residents with no free reading (25 percent), the nearly two million residents without such service was the fourth highest in the nation.250

In Illinois, bookmobiles and demonstration programs took on added significance as the public library movement continued to stagnate in the face of the deepening Depression. While only a handful of new libraries were formed, existing libraries struggled with budget cuts that forced staff cuts and severely limited new book purchases. Many saw the condition of their collections deteriorate, and were unable to buy new books to replace those worn out. Even large, urban libraries were struggling. The Chicago Public Library, which had the largest circulation of any library in the nation, had no funds to purchase new books after May 1931.251

The Illinois Library Association, which for four decades had continued its fight for free reading, again stepped up with a plan. Attorney Michael Gallagher, a trustee of the Highland Park Library and chair of the ILA’s Legislative Committee, drafted four bills for presentation in 1935 to the General Assembly to promote and maintain the establishment and funding of free libraries across the state. One of the proposals, House Bill 402, called for an appropriation of $1 million “for further extending and maintaining library service to all people in the State now without such service.” The bill reached a third reading in the House, but was never called for a vote.252

House Bill 405 met with greater success. That bill requested an appropriation of $610,000 to the Library Extension Division for “the purpose of purchasing books and periodicals for the free tax-supported public libraries of Illinois.” The sum of $600,000 was to be spread over a two-year period, while $10,000 was allowed for “expenses incurred in the administration” of the act. Gallagher was joined in the fight by Helene Rogers of the Evanston Public Library, and together they spent much of May and June in Springfield lobbying the General Assembly for passage of the bill. Their efforts proved successful on July 2, 1935, when the legislature approved the bill. The following day, it was signed into law by Governor Henry Horner, himself an avid reader who owned a large collection of books and Abraham Lincoln memorabilia. It was the largest appropriation ever made for state aid to public libraries.253

The administration of the relief fund was stringent. Secretary of State Edward Hughes selected a six-person advisory committee to establish a fair plan of funds distribution. The committee was led by Phineas L. Windsor, the director of libraries and a professor at the University of Illinois, while Rogers was named executive secretary and Gallagher also earned a seat. After much deliberation, the committee decided to allocate 5 cents per capita to each of the 278 public libraries in the state. Some, such as the Chicago Public Library, received large shares due to their populations; nearly 60 percent of the total funds expended went to Chicago. Rural libraries received far less. The Somonauk Public Library in northern Illinois received $34.44, while two libraries in extreme southern Illinois, the Golconda Public Library and the Vienna Public Library, received the sums of $59.20 and $26.10, respectively. Still, the badly needed funds were welcomed by libraries that were struggling just to get by. Press releases issued by the Secretary of State that December declared that, “a brighter Christmas than any in the past several years is being assured Illinois libraries.”254

There was also strict oversight of book purchases. Each library was required to compile a desired list of books and periodicals that was approved by their Board of Trustees and signed by the president or chairman of that board. The list was then submitted to Rogers, who represented the Secretary of State (and, in turn, the State Library). Each list was then carefully considered for what Gallagher referred to as “real value, real merit, real quality.” Among the criteria were demographic considerations of the town each library represented, the “manner in which the book was written,” and the cost of each book.255

Some chafed under this system, as concerns were raised that libraries would be placed under political control. Indeed, the libraries themselves were, in effect, being told how to spend their portions of the relief fund, which in many cases proved small. It was one of many instances in which the State Library would exert its influence in the administration of public libraries around the state.256

Still, the library relief fund was highly successful and earned the thanks and gratitude of underfunded libraries across the state. In all, a total of 87,398 adult and children’s non-fiction titles were purchased statewide, while 12,333 additional fiction titles were put on shelves. The financial impact reached beyond mere book purchases. Some libraries shifted local monies that had been earmarked for books to other needs, such as back salaries and maintenance, using the library relief fund allocations to cover the purchase of new books.257

Patrons also enjoyed the rewards of the additional purchases, and the new titles were in high demand. The Herrin City Library reported that “all patrons seem pleased with the new books and they have been so much in demand that some of the titles had to be limited to one week instead of the customary two.” The best endorsement, even for a small allocation, came from the public librarian of Amboy, who wrote, “I can think of no way in which less than one hundred dollars, given for the general good in a community of two thousand, could be used to produce more immediate pleasure and lasting benefit.”258