Opportunities Overlooked

In terms of volume, the Illinois State Library was becoming one of the largest of its kind in the nation, although that number is deceiving. An 1876 federal report showed only the New York State Library, acclaimed as the best of its kind in the nation and boasting 95,000 volumes, was larger than that of Illinois. But most of the holdings in Springfield were comprised of duplicate volumes of laws and statutes. The miscellaneous works, the heart and soul of the library, were still lagging, much to the consternation of George Harlow.95

Work on the new Capitol ground to a halt in 1877 as the state ran out of money, leaving the library among the rooms unfinished. More importantly, the library then lost its designated space. On May 25 of that year, the legislature voted to establish the Illinois State Museum of Natural History (known today as the Illinois State Museum) in the west wing space originally intended for the State Library. It would be the first volley in a longstanding competition between the State Library and museum, with the two frequently clashing over space and legislative priority during the next century. With no money for new books, and no money to complete its new home, the library was relegated to storage rooms, temporary facilities, and an uncertain future.96

Harlow’s biennial report in 1878 was indignant. “The condition of what is known as the ‘State Library,’” steamed Harlow, “is not of a character that will reflect much credit upon the intelligence and advancement in literary matters of this commonwealth.” He further noted “the commendable pride and ambition” in other states to “fill the shelves of their public and state libraries.” Apparently, he saw little of that “pride and ambition” among his fellow state officials. The Document Library was hardly sufficient to meet the needs of library patrons. Harlow lamented that, “in every general assembly” and “sessions of the supreme and appellate courts,” there were “daily calls” for books of reference “which have not and never have been in the library.”97

Harlow had the pulpit, and insisted on using it. “Not a day passes,” chided Harlow, “that the library is not visited by a number of citizens of Illinois who express surprise and regret that the state library is not such as to be worthy of the name it bears…if the library is worthy of being maintained there should be a regular yearly expenditure of money for the purpose.”98

Such was the decade of the 1870s for the Illinois State Library. For the first time, the library had aggressive leadership, as Edward Rummel and George Harlow offered a clear vision for its growth and worked diligently for funding. The library did have the support of Governors through the decade, from John M. Palmer and Richard Oglesby to John Beveridge and Shelby Cullom. But it now lacked a home in the majestic new State Capitol. Opportunities were lost amid the reticence of the legislature to approve any significant sum to ensure continued library growth and development. As a result, holdings barely increased, with some in the Document Library and the rest in storage. In the meantime the Illinois State Museum continued to occupy the State Library’s proposed new quarters.99

Other state libraries were more fortunate. The Ohio State Library continued to flourish, while in 1876, the state library of Indiana was said to be “in good condition, with the books properly arranged and the rooms neat and clean.” Both of these libraries had had fulltime librarian positions almost from their inception. In Michigan, the number of holdings doubled between 1869 and 1891, while in the 1880s in Iowa, another state with full-time librarians, a concerted effort was made to preserve the files of state newspapers and emphasize works by Iowa authors and on state history.100

To the west, the California State Library, founded in 1850, reported 20,832 volumes as early as 1861, as well as a new, full-time librarian in charge. In 1871, the California State Library received a $10,000 appropriation to purchase books relating to the state and the Pacific Coast, and by 1890, the collection numbered 73,597 volumes, with plans for interlibrary loans to state universities underway. To the south, the state library of Mississippi, founded just a year before that of Illinois, had an annual appropriation of $5,000 at its disposal. The New York State Library outshone all others with its massive holdings and beautifully designed facilities – an enviable model to emulate.101

In most other states appropriations, whether large or small, were made regularly, but in Illinois funding was sketchy at best. While the Illinois legislature sometimes appropriated more money for the State Library than other states did for their libraries, those other state libraries enjoyed a more consistent flow of funds than was seen in Springfield. Despite these handicaps, the State Library officials and staff worked to fulfill their mission of serving the needs of state legislators and administrators. The holdings of the library were geared to lawmakers who requested congressional documents, publications of other states, and historical and political reference works. Those holdings were certainly in line with popular literature of the day, as similar volumes could be found in other state libraries, personal libraries, and for sale in the bookstores and general stores of the era.102

Furthermore, the State Library’s ever-increasing newspaper holdings – always well documented in the biennial reports – indicated a growing appreciation of popular media there and in other state libraries. A federal study in 1876 that analyzed the role of libraries in American society included state libraries, and illustrates that the State Library’s objectives were similar to those in other states. While the State Library stagnated during the 1870s, its administration nevertheless continued to fulfill its mission to the greatest extent possible. As the decade neared a close, there was renewed optimism for the library’s future. After nearly continual pleas from the Library Committee for increasing sums, the General Assembly finally appropriated $3,000 for the years 1879 and 1880 for the purchase of books and “necessary incidentals.” The appropriation was intended for the miscellaneous collection, with emphasis on the “literary and scientific.” The money was quickly spent. In his final biennial report in late 1880, Harlow wrote that the sum of $5,789.33 had been expended, leaving a balance of $210.67. “It is very gratifying to me,” wrote Harlow, noting that “the needs of the State Library were so apparent that there was but little opposition” to the appropriation.103

Harlow also initiated a change in library usage that set the tone for the future. In its first 38 years, the library was open only to the executives, lawmakers, and judges of the state, but Harlow believed the library belonged to all Illinois citizens. He had long permitted use of the State Capitol for parties, receptions, and conventions for nominal fees, believing the building belonged to the people. Now, he extended that belief in public ownership to the State Library by making it accessible to all Illinois citizens. Previously, anyone could use the library, but only state officials and judges could check out books. Harlow’s change gave the privilege to all citizens, and he boasted that the library had “become one of the popular resorts of a large number of our citizens.”104

The library collection itself enjoyed a tremendous upgrade. Harlow proudly reported that, “though the library must suffer when compared with the great libraries of the older States…as a working library it is in its selections almost perfect.” The money had been spent wisely, and now the foremost works in British and American politics, social science, and history, along with the latest encyclopedias and dictionaries, were available in the collection. In 1880, there were a total of 69,272 books, an increase of over 10,800 since the previous biennial report. As a result, Harlow declared that library patrons could now “obtain the information they seek, and which can not be found in any other library in the State except, may be, those in Chicago.”105

But there was still much to be done. George Harlow envisioned the State Library as among the finest in the nation, and called on the legislature to continue appropriations. “Now that the work has been commenced,” he said, “there should be no halting.” The General Assembly, he said, should appropriate “some fixed amount which will enable the Library Commissioners, in a few years, to make the library one of the most complete and valuable in this country.” He looked abroad for models as well, pointing specifically to fine libraries in the cities of Australia. “If our Australian cousins can, and do, own such splendid collections,” mused Harlow, “what should our great Prairie State possess in the way of literature?”106

To Harlow, the answer was an extensive collection on Illinois history. Other state citizens had an awareness of their history. Illinois, he believed, did not. “Our library should have on its shelves,” reported Harlow, “all the materials necessary from which to compile …our own domestic history in its completest (sic) form.” Noting that such a collection was lost in the 1871 Chicago fire, Harlow believed that a replacement collection was vital and should be placed in a “fireproof building,” namely the Capitol. He called for the collection to be started immediately; “every year will make it more difficult to gather together such a collection… and every book, however seemingly unimportant, which has any historic value, should be purchased for the use of the future historian of Illinois.”107

One noteworthy change near the end of Harlow’s tenure was the appearance of an Assistant State Librarian. Until then, workers such as Mrs. Boilvin were listed as “library clerks.” Now, the title of “Assistant State Librarian” appeared. The first employee to hold this title was Miss Edith Wallbridge, who filled the position from 1881 to 1886. For her efforts, Miss Wallbridge was paid an annual salary of $800. The previous year, Harlow had employed Mr. J.P. Bryce to catalog the collection of the State Library and the Supreme Court law library. The finished product was a 500-page volume. Bryce moved from this work into appointment as Springfield City Librarian in 1887.108

The library continued to fulfill its mission, drawing a steady stream of legislative customers, most of whom apparently were satisfied with the conditions of the facility. However, approval was not universal. The May 10, 1883, edition of the Illinois State Journal noted that the “State Library is well patronized by members of the General Assembly, but occasionally a grumbler is found.” The dissatisfaction of one “grumbler” stemmed from the fact that a copy of Peck’s Bad Boy was not in stock. With a tinge of humor, the Journal reported that the malcontent “left disgusted, and threatens to vote against further appropriations.”109

Harlow’s words in his final biennial report were echoed by his successor, Henry Dodge Dement, whose two terms as Secretary of State from 1881-1889 were productive, although obscure today. Dement shared Harlow’s vision of growth for the library, and in his 1886 biennial report, he clearly defined the library’s mission to date. Dement noted that some 2,780 books had been added since the previous report, which “greatly increases [the] value and usefulness” of the collection. Among the new arrivals were “nearly all of the leading works on political and social science, and similar branches of learning, which are best fitted to aid an intelligent legislation.” The works, both “British and American,” included “political economy and finance,” as well as “the workings on our own form of constitutional government.”110

As before, writings and biographies of the American forefathers and earlier Presidents were highlighted. Indeed, Dement “thought it essential to collect American books describing…its discovery and settlement, its history and development, and its physical aspect and natural history…[works that] seem particularly appropriate in a State Library.” However, Dement also believed the library collection should reflect the state itself. “It has seemed to us,” wrote Dement, “that the State Library should contain everything calculated to illustrate the history, character, resources, progress, and development of our own State. For this reason, it should have on its shelves, or in its archives, all the materials needed from which to compile its history.” Harlow had proposed such a collection a few years before. Now Dement was dedicating himself to assembling that collection.111

Especially desired was a “set of monographs, if they could be collected” from the “old settlers” with their recollection of the earlier days of state history. Dement noted that such remembrances could be published either at expense of the state, or “carefully preserved in the State archives.” He boasted that a great number of volumes relating to Illinois history, “from the early explorations of Joliet, LaSalle, Marquette, and Hennepin, down to our own times” were already in place. In addition, practically all published versions of county and local histories from around the state had been purchased.112

Dement proudly declared that “in matter relating to our own State, the collection already surpasses that which any of our sister States in the West has made of its domestic history, with the exception of Wisconsin,” which had long been a leader in historical collections. Dement confidently planned to “make [the library] the foremost in the West, in so far as regards its own history” and that he “had sought to obtain every book, pamphlet, and document…relating to Illinois.” Dement’s words reflect the most obvious change in library mission to date. The State Library, although still intended primarily to assist officials, was now beginning to be seen as a repository for Illinois history and center of research. Harlow had called for such a change, and Henry Dement was acting upon it.113

Other subjects were increasingly well covered in the collection as well. A strong selection of works on “voyages and travels” examined great explorers, while, as Dement said, “in science and art the library can make a fair show.” There was also “a good supply of great English classical writers,” and a “very good set of the Greek and Roman classics,” numbering over 250 volumes. Other purchases included the Nuremberg Chronicle, published in 1493, as well as Lord Kingsborough’s Mexican Antiquities, which Dement described as “a noble monument of antiquarian research and learning, which few libraries west of the Atlantic seaboard possess.”114

In addition, Dement made a major change to the cataloging process. His predecessors had published a printed catalog. In its place, Dement created a card catalog, much like those in 20th-century libraries. Each book in the library was identified with a card listing its author, title, and classified subjects. The cards filled a large file cabinet accessible to library patrons. Dement lauded the change, based on three criteria. First, a printed catalog was very expensive; second, any mistake in a printed catalog remained for the life of the catalog, with no means of correction; and third, a printed catalog, released only periodically, was unable to reflect new purchases for the collection. For these reasons Dement deemed a card catalog a better alternative, with small cost for “the cards and the cases to hold them.” In addition, said Dement, a card catalog was “always correct, for if a mistake should be discovered, the correction is made by writing a new card…[and] it always shows every book the library contains.”115

Despite the substantial gains in the collection, the library was still in temporary facilities, while the Illinois State Museum continued to occupy the chamber originally proposed for the library. However, an impatient Dement took matters into his own hands. He had long pushed for the museum to be moved out in favor of the library, an idea strongly opposed by the museum curator, the well-respected Amos H. Worthen. Finally, though, in the summer of 1887 and with Worthen out of town, Dement directed the State Museum collections to be literally thrown out of their space.116

With the use of a furniture moving company, the Secretary ordered the holdings of the museum moved out of the library room and dumped practically anywhere that space could be found within the Capitol. When Worthen returned, he found some of his collection sitting about the main floor of the building. Much of the rest, including the geological collections, was strewn about in open piles in the basement, and soon became buried by garbage tossed by building workmen. Other portions of the collections were shoved into drawers and cases, with little concern for the labels that identified the specimens. Some historians believe that Worthen, already suffering from poor health, was so distraught at the spectre of his beloved collections in such disarray that it contributed to his death the following May 6. Indeed, Dement had won the latest battle in the library’s war with the museum.117

The ceiling and walls inside the chamber were repainted at a cost of $600, and carpeting was added in late October 1887. The improvements enhanced the striking architecture of the room, highlighted by a grand painting of George Rogers Clark and the Native Americans at Kaskaskia on the exterior. Soon the books were moved, and by November 1, the job was nearly complete. This location would serve as home to the State Library for the next 36 years.118

In addition, the State Library’s historical collection was about to be given great prominence and a life of its own, separate from the library. On Nov. 25, 1889, the Illinois State Historical Library was created. It became a separate entity from the State Library and, over the next century, the two collections would often be physically adjacent and competing for the same space. A total of 442 books relating to Illinois history were transferred from the State Library to the new historical library, whose focus would be on the preservation of state history. The goal of Dement and Harlow to create a repository for Illinois history was being realized, but in a collection no longer a part of the State Library.119

Unlike the State Library, the historical library had the support of the legislature from the first, which usually appropriated $2,500 annually for its needs. As a result, the historical library grew at a much faster pace in its early years than had the State Library. By 1896, the historical library already numbered some 6,256 books, pamphlets, and maps. By 1900, that number had nearly doubled to over 12,000. The growth of the historical library, and the commitment it enjoyed from the legislature, must have been a bitter pill for the advocates of the State Library, who for years had fought for funding to increase the snail’s pace of appropriation for the institution.120

Harlow and Dement’s biennial reports document the changes in thinking and mission taking hold at the State Library in the 1880s. Harlow was among the first to publicly propose that the library be open to the people of Illinois, and serve as a repository of Illinois history. He also anticipated the role of the library as a national, and even international, leader in research holdings and information sharing. That dream remained in the future, but the services and collections of the Illinois State Library were finally beginning to take flight.