Chapter 12 – Years of Transition — The 1950s

Failures in the 1940s had raised many questions about the management and leadership role of the Illinois State Library. But the institution had also experienced unprecedented levels of growth during the decade. Although the lack of space was even more glaring, library collections were larger than ever and in great demand. In 1952, the library reported a total of 551,126 books and bound periodicals on hand, an increase of nearly three times the size of the collection in 1940. The number of documents and pamphlets also nearly tripled over the same period, numbering 433,349 in 1952. Pictures in the art collection stood at 43,971, nearly twice as many as in 1940.  Viewmaster reels were among the most popular items, with a circulation of 119,139 in the biennium ending in 1950.389

The library was also keeping up with popular culture as never before. In 1942, recordings had been added to the collection and a special room for the Music Department opened on July 1, 1948. By 1952, patrons could choose from 17,998 phonographs and radio transcriptions. This included a large gift received in the summer of 1949 with works of composers Brahms, Wagner, Mozart, Bizet, Puccini, and others. Dubbed “The Music Box,” the library’s music collection circulation showed a use of each record 6.5 times in the 1950 biennium. That same year, it was reported that phonograph record circulation jumped 1,600 percent over the previous biennium. As a result of the demand, the number of recordings and radio transcriptions increased by over 55 percent during the next reporting period. Both the Art and Music Departments earned praise in the 1951 survey with compliments on their large size and selection as well as their fast growth. That led to a move to even larger quarters within the library in 1952, when the Music Box was renamed the Recordings Unit. Collections of around 100 records each were lent to local libraries, and demand on the local level proved heavy. As a result, many local libraries started their own music collections.390

A State Library employee boxes up music records for delivery in the shipping room in 1951.

A State Library employee boxes up music records for delivery in the shipping room in 1951.

While patrons usually listened to the music for leisure, others found more practical uses. One young Springfield woman used the library’s collection to select music for her wedding. Another, a driver for Springfield public transportation, frequented the collection and entertained his passengers with whistled renditions of famous symphonies. The recordings also proved highly popular with teachers who employed the music for a variety of classroom purposes, as well as Boy and Girl Scouts, bible schools, and 4-H clubs. In addition to music, there was a growing collection of foreign-language recordings on hand.391

An employee tends to the State Library’s music collection in the late 1950s.

An employee tends to the State Library’s music collection in the late 1950s.

The library also started a small film collection, and demand for films led for calls for a larger selection. A lack of staff and space, however, prevented the development of a truly substantial film collection. Instead, in mid-1952, the library entered into a cooperative agreement with the Visual Aids Service of the University of Illinois, allowing the university’s sizable film collection to be loaned to libraries and groups throughout the state. The library sent copies of the university’s film catalog, along with a loan application, to all Illinois libraries. Where no local library service was available, the State Library loaned film catalogs to potential borrowers. The program was a  resounding success, as 5,000 titles were borrowed in the 1953 fiscal year and viewed by an estimated audience of 400,000. Unfortunately, cost concerns led to a reduction in the number of films allowed for loan, and discontinuation of the program soon followed.392

The library also experienced an increase in foot traffic. Library staff continued its hourly “head count” of readers in the facility, and from October 1949 to September 1950, an average of 1,567 readers per month was recorded. In the same period, an average of 2,327 volumes per month were returned to the loan desk for reshelving after being pulled for reference. By 1952, readers could also make use of the 1,113 periodicals offered by the library, an increase of 253 since 1940.393

Employees also spent a great deal of time handling incoming and outgoing mail. Collections, defined as at least 10 volumes and stretching as high as 16,000 volumes, were constantly shipped for long-term loans. In the 12 months ending in September 1950, an average of 1,257 reference letters were received each month, and an average of 2,192 reference questions were answered. Reference requests by mail and in person included:

  • When did Joe Louis win the world’s heavyweight boxing championship?
  • How do you say “mister” in Portuguese?
  • Have you something on how to train wild animals?
  • Do butterflies migrate?
  • Do you have quotations from Daniel Webster showing his views on slavery?
  • What was the purchasing power of the dollar back to 1850?
  • Do you have information on first aid in case of an epileptic attack?
  • Do you have any books on how to mend cuckoo clocks?
  • Do you have a recipe for 24-hour fruit salad?
  • What is an impofo?394

While the library was usually quick in answering these types of questions – finding, for example, that an impofo is an African antelope – sometimes the process was slower. In one instance, a pregnant woman asked for a book called Childbirth Without Fear, a request that took time to fill. A few weeks later, when the book finally arrived, a reference librarian called to inform the patron, who replied, “Oh, I don’t need that book now. I’ve had my  baby.”395

The library also continued to fulfill its role as a legislative aid and was frequently a source for current news and information. One example was the horrific mine disaster in West Frankfort, Illinois, on Dec. 21, 1951, that claimed 119 lives. The library supplied much information to state agencies as part of the official investigation. As in the past, many patrons used the library to stay informed of current events, stopping by the library on a daily basis to peruse the massive collection of newspapers and periodicals.396

In addition to reference responses, staff also mailed out high numbers of book requests. Typically, 94 collections, averaging 11,911 books per month, were filled. In all, an average of 17,952 pieces of mail were shipped each month from the library in 1950. Postage costs were routinely in the hundreds of dollars monthly. With the tremendous increase in workload, the number of library staff rose accordingly, doubling in the 1940s to reach 125 by 1950. However, that number remained stagnant during the early 1950s, despite fast-growing circulation.397

High user demand continued to clash with lack of space. Thousands of books now sat in numbered boxes, piled atop bookstacks and wherever space permitted. The poor design of the Centennial Building required library employees to spend a great deal of time climbing stairs and walking down long hallways in an effort to do their jobs. Lighting was also a severe problem. Except on one floor, bookstacks were lit by a drop cord and a single incandescent bulb. A maximum of 25 watts could be used for each bulb due to wiring overloads, and the dim light often forced staffers to use flashlights in some sections of the stacks.398

The1948 Biennial Report concluded that service, while good, could have been better “had not so much time been used searching for items stored in boxes in semi-darkness, walking around a maze of desks to reach a filing cabinet or bending over double to get to a different part of the room.” In a wry reference to a popular radio show of the time, the Biennial Report declared that, “the situation is becoming similar to that in Fibber McGee’s hall closet.”399

Enrollment in the reading courses had suffered during the war years, but a total of 879 adults were signed up in the biennium ending in 1950. While that number was an increase of 181 over the previous reporting period, it paled in comparison to the 3,524 enrolled between 1938 and 1940. In 1951, the library reported that 54 percent of its enrollees came as a result of promotional efforts, including lectures by library staffers at clubs and organizations. Enrollment from Home Bureau members was 32 percent, the result of a cooperative effort between the State Library, the Illinois Home Bureau Federation, and the extension services of the University of Illinois. Another 14 percent were prison inmates, who proved to be enthusiastic readers. From 1950 to 1952, 42 percent of the books mailed by the library for reading courses were sent to inmates at the Menard prison in Chester.400

While the 1951 survey was impressed with the number of enrollees in the courses, the report questioned the “competence of any library staff to prepare valid reading courses” because “every enrollee presents different needs and capacities” in the recommended reading lists. Because of this, surveyors concluded that the State Library should consider transferring courses to the University of Illinois, with the library playing a cooperative and supporting role in handling promotion and reference requests for the courses. Ironically, the survey’s recommendations conflicted with the State Library’s leadership position in this field, with Illinois ranked at the forefront of
adult education efforts.401

The reading courses definitely had a loyal following. One regular enrollee was notary public Henry W. Johnson of Mt. Olive, who also prepared income taxes and signed up for his 20th course at age 67 in 1952. Johnson became a sort of poster child for the reading courses, and his story was told repeatedly in Illinois Libraries. The June 1952 edition reported that Johnson took the classes because his clients “frequently [asked] his advice on almost anything” and he wanted “just to be able to answer his neighbors’ questions.” Starting in 1937, Johnson took courses in taxation, air conditioning, agricultural chemistry, anthropology, business and finance, correct English usage, genetics, insurance, interviewing, law, mathematics, philosophy, psychiatry, labor relations, tree surgery, and carpentry. He then took a 17th course, bookbinding, in order to better keep the notes he had made in his previous classes. Johnson then followed with courses in semantics, meteorology, and Illinois history.402

While Johnson had his own reasons for taking the reading courses, the State Library believed his participation was due to his surroundings in Mt. Olive, a mining community of 2,500. The town, a hotbed of organized labor, is the burial site of the legendary Mother Jones, the turn-of-the-century union activist. But the library derided Mt. Olive’s “education and literacy levels that are not particularly high, and many of its residents are immigrants or first generation Americans.” The State Library’s condescending tone is a good example of the attitudes for which the library was increasingly criticized.403

Such attitudes had been condemned in the 1951 survey, but the library apparently chose to gloss over the findings in the report. The Illinois State Library Advisory Committee met in December 1951 to address the recommendations of the survey, but most survey suggestions were either challenged or ignored completely. In the February 1952 issue of Illinois Libraries, a response from the Advisory Committee to the 88-page survey took up a mere page and a half. Most of its recommendations were not mentioned although some, including the creation of a staff manual, the appointment of a “chief of technical services,” and salary increases, were reported to “have already been complied with.” Other recommendations, including a new building, were deemed “not within the power of the staff” and required “legislative action.” The suggested transfer of the reading courses to the University of Illinois did “not appear to be advisable or necessary, in the judgment of the Advisory Committee.”404

No one seemed in a particular hurry to address the surveyors’ concerns. The response concluded by stating that the “Advisory Committee and the staff will continue to study the report and to undertake recommending such changes as seem wise.” Copies of the report were also made available for public viewing, although it was unlikely that library administrators were eager for Illinois citizens to read the many criticisms. Citizens were able to obtain the report “for a two-week loan” or for a purchase of $3, a fairly high sum by 1952 standards.405