Chapter 11 – Beginning a New Century of Service

As the first century of its existence was ending, the Illinois State Library was grappling with stagnant growth and severely restricted space. The library attempted to deal with its shortcomings as best it could while meeting the growing needs of the public.

Usage of the library continued at a steady pace and is reflected in the increasing number of statistics compiled by library administration. In the biennium ending in September 1940, the staff reported an average of 227 books per month were left on reading room tables after being used for reference. A monthly average of 1,316 books were returned to the loan desk after being requested by patrons in the first nine months of 1940. In that same nine-month span, “head counts” of book and magazine readers in the library also began, with counts being made hourly and totaled at the end of the day. The result was a monthly average of 1,797 readers.294

Certainly, foot traffic through the library was substantial, especially in light of the cramped facilities. But the library was also active in rooms outside of the facility. During the same biennium, a total of 46,315 packages of books “sent in response to requests for reading material” were shipped, and 23,377 mailings of loans to individual users were sent between July 1, 1939, and July 1, 1940, alone. In the Art Department, 70,421 pictures were circulated upon the receipt of 1,745 requests in the biennium.295

Reading courses, first begun in the teens as part of the library’s extension efforts, continued to rise in popularity and were greatly expanded during the late 1930s. The courses were administered by the library’s Adult Education Department and were highly promoted in a public relations campaign in January 1940 that included press releases to most Illinois newspapers. Approximately 1,500 were enrolled in the reading courses, and a total book shipment of 11,633 for the courses had been made in the years of 1938 to 1940. A total of 565 individuals received certificates upon completing the courses during that period.296

A 1940s view of the impressive bas-relief sculpture above the west end of the State Library reading room in the Centennial Building.

A 1940s view of the impressive bas-relief sculpture above the west end of the State Library reading room in the Centennial Building.

Readers in the late 1930s could study such topics as photography, animal husbandry, nursing, welding, sheet metal work, mathematics, horticulture, “correct English,” and homemaking. By 1940, the list had grown to 150 topics, including embalming, taxidermy, and child psychology. The courses put the State Library at the forefront of adult education, as Illinois was one of only two states to offer statewide reading advisory services at no charge to residents. Helene Rogers herself was a leader in the field; she was elected president of the Illinois Adult Education Association on May 7, 1942.297

This photo of the State Library Cataloging Department taken in the mid-1940s shows the increasing space problem due to the library’s exploding growth.

This photo of the State Library Cataloging Department taken in the mid-1940s shows the increasing space problem due to the library’s exploding growth.

The State Library also compiled lists of recommended reading for distribution to libraries statewide. These lists were usually directed to specific sectors of the public. One of the largest was An Aid to Book Selection for Elementary School Libraries, a 114-page publication released in 1938 in cooperation with the Department of Public Instruction. The recommendations were tailored to primary, intermediate, and advanced levels of grade school education and were broken down into general topics, including arts, science, literature, and fictional stories. A wide array of subjects were covered in the various lists released by the library, including suggestions for the “professional shelves” of librarians, libraries in one-room schools, and collections for the staffs of mental hospitals. Many other recommended book lists appeared in Illinois Libraries over the next 20 years, including books for libraries with very small budgets, male readers, and small business owners, as well as “books about negro children.” One list was even compiled in the late 1940s for “retarded readers,” which proved to be one of the most popular bibliographies the library ever compiled. The “retarded reader” list was updated several times over the next few years. But reference work remained at the core of library functions. These requests came by letter,  telephone, and in person both at the reference and loan desks. In the 1940 biennium, 70,121 reference letters were fielded. An average of 1,123 reference requests were handled from patrons visiting the library in person, with a high of 2,024 in March 1939. The sum of 188 bibliographies was compiled by library staff.298

All this work required adequate staff, and the number of workers in the library jumped significantly as the war years approached. Upon the move to the Centennial Building in 1923, the library employed a staff of 22, and as late as 1936, that number had increased by only six. However, by 1946 the staff had more than doubled, as 80 full-time personnel worked to meet the soaring needs of Illinois readers. But the dramatic increases in workload and staff were on a collision course with the space concerns in the Centennial Building. The discomfort would soon become a serious drawback to the library’s workplace atmosphere.299

One problem patron added to that discomfort. A Springfield lawyer, described as “an eccentric bearded gentleman,” chose to use the reference room as his law office, covering one table with his papers and books, which were not to be disturbed by other patrons or library staff. He even posted his office hours on the library bulletin board and used the table to meet clients. This infringement drew the ire of library workers, but the lawyer cited his legal rights as a taxpayer and kept using the facilities.300

During this time, the library was also attempting to serve as a facilitator in the solution of regional library problems. With the encouragement of Helene Rogers, the State Library urged public and school libraries around the state to work together to solve their problems. The State Library believed this would not only enhance regional library development, but also help the libraries offer the “widest range of service possible…[and not] duplicate their activities.” One example cited by Rogers was a cooperative arrangement between the public libraries of Rockford and nearby Beloit, Wis., as well as Rockford College, which jointly implemented a program to expand their facilities.301

Similarly, the Chicago Public Library offered book service to any resident of the metropolitan area, not just those within city borders. The Greenville Public Library housed and serviced the school collection for all of Bond County, while the public libraries of Peoria, Evanston, Oak Park, and Maywood all contracted to provide library service to nearby rural communities. In Henry County in northwestern Illinois, book selection committees of neighboring libraries met for many years to select books together, thereby preventing duplication among their collections.302

The workload of the State Library, and its space problems, were exacerbated by the continued slow pace of public library expansion in Illinois. Although the Depression eventually ended, new library growth remained largely at a standstill, and spending on existing libraries was not as high as in other states. While Illinois was spending 53 cents per capita in 1940 for free library service – a figure in line with regional neighbors such as Indiana and Michigan – it still lagged far behind the 89-cent figure of both California and Ohio. Many eastern state libraries were also well ahead of Illinois in terms of spending, including Connecticut (82 cents), Massachusetts (80 cents), and New York (67 cents). As a result, a quarter of Illinoisans – some 1.5 million – still were without free library service as of 1941, while Ohio and California reported that 100 percent of their citizens had such service.303

Illinois also lagged behind minimum standards set by the American Library Association. Available library books in Illinois were one million short of the ALA-recommended 2.2 million, while the total of 1.5 million borrowers also fell short by one million. Circulation reached only 43 percent of the ALA’s recommendation of 10.6 million, and total income was 64 percent of the recommended $7.5 million.304

Young State Library visitors in the 1940s examine the library’s collection of Viewmasters, a popular tool with which to study the library’s extensive art collection.

Young State Library visitors in the 1940s examine the library’s collection of Viewmasters, a popular tool with which to study the library’s extensive art collection.

The state was also relying too heavily on the WPA and NYA library stations, which were clearly temporary measures. While the stations were indeed serving their purpose of providing free reading to unserved areas, they were also a mere “band-aid” to a problem without a permanent solution. WPA libraries in many counties outnumbered public libraries and did not provide a proper perspective on the growth of free reading. In Macoupin County, for instance, there were 11 WPA libraries to only four public libraries, and the total number of residents served by WPA stations exceeded the number served by the tax-supported libraries.305

The library also continued, without success, to promote the development of county libraries. The 1919 County Library Law had provided the basis for the establishment of countywide library systems, although only Warren and Putnam counties had such libraries (and the latter was the result of the 1932 demonstration). Although the State Library continued to argue for the development of county libraries, their pleas were largely ignored. The library believed that the state did not provide ample funding for such a plan, although lack of interest in some of the unserved counties – and the reticence to pay additional taxes to fund the libraries – also played a role.306

Boy Scouts assist in the distribution of books during the Victory Book Campaign.

Boy Scouts assist in the distribution of books during the Victory Book Campaign.

A poster for the Victory Book Campaign during World War II.

A poster for the Victory Book Campaign during World War II.

The stagnant growth of free reading led to the reintroduction of bookmobile service to areas not served by public libraries. In 1940, the State Library implemented a demonstration program with a new bookmobile, which like the NYA efforts five years earlier took “books on wheels” to rural areas lacking public library service. The 1940 demonstration program was intended to be “the first concrete step” in the State Library’s “long-time regional plan for a coordinated system of library service in Illinois which will bring books within the reach of every citizen.” The new bookmobile, billed as “the most modern in [the] country,” was a specialized truck measuring 16 feet long, 8.5 feet high, and 7 feet, 2 inches wide. The truck was “painted in Illinois blue with luminous letters” and heated for winter runs. A driver and librarian accompanied the bookmobile.307

The bookmobile first served Coles County in eastern Illinois, one of six counties recommended for such service in a study that summer. Carrying a collection of 1,987 books, the truck made its first stop on Monday morning, Dec. 2, 1940, and was greeted with great enthusiasm. By Tuesday afternoon, all children’s books on the truck had been circulated. A new supply was loaded on Wednesday morning, but by the next afternoon, all children’s books were again circulated. A total of 2,500 books were circulated in the first week of service in Coles County. It took approximately three weeks for the bookmobile to cover the entire county, stopping mainly at one-room rural schools that often did not have libraries of their own. The bookmobile remained in Coles County for a prescribed period of 10 months. The success of the bookmobile pleased State Library officials, who soon began discussing plans to expand the service to other areas.308

The bookmobile was also a public-relations success for the State Library. Prior to its launch, the bookmobile was sent around the state in the fall of 1940 on an “inspection tour,” allowing Illinoisans to see firsthand the benefits of such an enterprise. The tour included a stop at the Chicago Public Library for the annual meeting of the Illinois Library Association. Most major cities and towns were included in subsequent tour stops, and news of the demonstration program was covered in newspapers statewide. The campaign to promote the bookmobile came shortly after the library’s efforts to publicize its reading courses, which were likewise included in news outlets across the state.309

As recently as 1936, General Division Superintendent Harriet Skogh had complained about the glaring lack of publicity for the State Library. But within a matter of years, the library transformed itself into a media-savvy enterprise, although news releases and publicity photos often were tinged with a bureaucratic and sometimes condescending tone. Oddly enough, very little was done to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the library in 1942, save for a few newspaper articles and a historical retrospective in Illinois Libraries. Still, Illinoisans were becoming increasingly aware of the role their State Library was playing in their everyday lives.310