An International Presence

The State Library also extended its presence internationally. In 1986, the library had trained Abukar Osman, the first professional librarian in Somalia. The following year, Illinois joined with Australia in a library and literary exchange program in honor of the Australian state of New South Wales’ 1988 bicentennial. Titled “Literature and Libraries – Bridging the Distance,” the six-part program kicked off with gala openings in Sydney and Chicago. Libraries in Illinois and Australia were then matched in a “twinning” program that resulted in an exchange of information, photographs, books, newspapers, and audio-visual materials. Also included was a Library and Literary Exchange Program, in which four Illinois authors and two librarians made a 14-day tour of lectures and discussions across New South Wales. An Australian group made a similar tour of Illinois. A major library seminar was held in Sydney, with a formal presentation of a collection of books by Illinois authors made to the people of New South Wales, along with an exhibit titled “Life, Literature, and Learning in Illinois.” Illinois received a similar presentation, and an illustrated exhibit of New South Wales was celebrated in Chicago.910

Illinois librarianship also extended to Europe. In the spring of 1990, Secretary Edgar announced a program to help Poland “update, strengthen, and democratize” its libraries. The effort, “Building Bridges for Democracy,” asked Illinois citizens to donate a book in good condition, written in either Polish or English. Local public libraries coordinated the project statewide. The plan struck close to home for many Illinoisans, 2 million of whom were of Polish descent. Also known as “Books from the Heartland,” Edgar launched the program on May 3 – Polish Constitution Day – with an ending date of July 4. However, the response proved overwhelming, especially from the Polish-American community in Chicago. As a result, Edgar extended the cutoff date to August 15. In all, over 200,000 volumes were donated, including one from President George H.W. Bush. Over 15,000 books were collected by the Chicago Public Library alone.911

The State Library also became a frequent stop for international library exchange groups and visiting librarians. In April 1998, 25 librarians and information specialists from around the world, including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Haiti, Mongolia, Bosnia, and Kazakhstan, visited Springfield to study the State Library’s technology information, its day-to-day operations, and the Illinois library network. With the rise in stature of the library, such visits became increasingly frequent in the 1990s. Many of the visits were in conjunction with the Illinois Library Host Program, a partnership of the State Library and the Mortenson Center for International Library Programs at the University of Illinois.912

Meanwhile, the new State Library building became a local tourist attraction. Tour groups consisting of over 500 people explored the building in its first three months of service. The tourists included 4-H, business clubs, and foreign dignitaries. Most were struck by the “beauty and size” of the building, while younger visitors were captivated by the demonstrations of computerized equipment. By the fall of 1990, tours were actually booked as far in advance as the following spring, and several state agencies began using the building as a meeting site. The building’s design and date, intended to blend with existing buildings in the Capitol Complex, fooled some guests. Not realizing that the building was new, many visitors offered their compliments on how well the structure had been “restored.”913

On Oct. 2, 1990, library construction formally came to an end with the dedication of the Illinois Authors Room. Located on the first floor of the library, the Authors Room offered a beautifully decorated sanctuary to honor the authors of the state of Illinois. Not surprisingly, the room was the idea of Secretary of State Jim Edgar, whose tenure was marked by his efforts to recognize Illinois literary heritage. In his dedication address, Edgar declared:

“this magnificent room honors all Illinois writers, not just those whose names are engraved on the outside of this building. Their books represent minds on the shelves, waiting to communicate across time, culture, and language barriers.”914

The dedication of the Illinois Authors Room was one of Edgar’s last acts of ceremony as Secretary of State and State Librarian. He was elected to the first of two terms as Governor of Illinois the next month. Edgar embraced his role as State Librarian as had few others before him, and in doing so established a legacy that is still appreciated by the Illinois library community today. During his eight years, many more Illinoisans gained an appreciation for their literary heritage, and many others learned to read and write for the first time. Under his direction, the State Library flourished, solidifying its position among the greatest of state libraries, and gained a new home to match its growing stature. Many consider the building a monument to the visionary leadership of Jim Edgar.