Chapter 5 – Growth & Expansion — The Turn of the 20th Century

The last years of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century were a period of growth and expansion for the Illinois State Library. With its new home, more employees, and more money, library patrons enjoyed added holdings, increased services, and a beautiful surrounding for reading and relaxation. The new library room offered a spectacular setting, resplendent with winding iron staircases on either end, and towering bronze, three-tiered bookcases stretching the length of its eastern wall. Colorful carpeting adorned the open floor space, and the newly painted ceiling featured the images of wise owls – a metaphor for learning and scholarship. Wall hangings offered additional appeal. On Feb. 2, 1888, the Illinois State Journal reported that Secretary Dement “has had several very handsome etchings hung in the state library, which greatly add to the appearance of the beautiful room.”121

The Illinois State Library in its west wing location in the State Capitol. The three-story iron bookshelves were a commanding feature of the room. Photo courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

The Illinois State Library in its west wing location in the State Capitol. The three-story iron bookshelves were a commanding feature of the room.
Photo courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

It was apparent that little expense had been spared for the room. Painting and decoration of the walls and ceiling had been costly, and the state spent another $1,200 in 1889 for “iron columns for supporting the library.” Another $150 was appropriated for new carpeting in 1889. Lighting was improved as well. Between 1894 and 1896 the library, along with the rest of the Capitol, was wired for electricity, with new electric fixtures replacing the gas ones that had served the building since its construction. Chairs and long tables, topped by neatly arranged newspapers and magazines, filled the center of the room, as did the ever-growing card catalog for the convenience of patrons. The library was open during the regular business hours of the Capitol. While the legislature was in session, evening hours were also kept from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m.122

While the splendor of the room overwhelmed the eye, the ear was also soothed by the library’s peaceful quiet. One frequent patron was Secretary of State employee and future novelist Brand Whitlock, who was moved by the silence of the room to write that, “after the noisy legislature had adjourned a peace fell on the great, cool stone pile that was almost academic.” Years later, the Illinois State Journal remembered how patrons would “climb the marble staircase at the west end of the [Capitol]” to the library and when “entering the massive doors at either end, you found yourself in an atmosphere of peace and quiet.”123

A view of the State Library’s periodical racks and card catalogs at center right. Photo courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

A view of the State Library’s periodical racks and card catalogs at center right.
Photo courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

Library usage increased dramatically in these years. Beginning in 1880, the public was invited to use the facility and check out books, and increasing numbers were taking advantage of that opportunity. In his 1896 biennial report, Secretary of State William Hinrichsen noted that, “reading room records show an increase of fifty percent in the patronage of the library in the last two years.” Within a few years, the number of periodical holdings also jumped, likely in response to the demands of daily library users. Popular magazines such as Harper’s, Century, Punch, and others could be perused by patrons. Hinrichsen also wrote that “numbers of students” came from across the state “to consult the reference department.” The receipt of books, documents, and maps from the federal government also continued. In 1896, that receipt became formalized with the designation of the library as an official depository for such materials.124

A view of the State Library around the turn of the century. The doorway at right leads to the former location of the Illinois State Historical Library. Photo courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

A view of the State Library around the turn of the century. The doorway at right leads to the former location of the Illinois State Historical Library.
Photo courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

Letters requesting information also flowed into the library. Hinrichsen’s successor, James Rose, declared that, “much information is granted by means of correspondence with people throughout the State.” Indeed, the State Library was becoming an active information provider as well as a reading room. In a statement that provided a glimpse of the future, Rose reported that librarians hoped “the State Library may be regarded as a bureau of  information upon all subjects relating to it.”125

Still, the library collection continued to expand, and in only a few years the library had outgrown its new facilities. In 1896, Hinrichsen wrote, “the shelf room is becoming scarce and crowded. This is especially true of the reference department.” When the Illinois State Historical Library, which had been located in a north room adjacent to the State Library, moved in 1903, the State Library took over that newfound space as a reference room.127

Much needed upkeep of the Capitol was delayed and, as a result, the library began to suffer physically. In 1902, Secretary of State Rose stated that the ceiling and walls of the upper galleries at either end of the library room had been “badly injured” by water leakage “which has saturated the walls…and ruined the decorations.” Rose recommended that, “after the roof is made tight…these injured portions…should be scraped and washed…then redecorated. The internal woodwork and blinds require refinishing also.” The library was hardly alone in its deteriorating condition. Water leakage was a severe problem across the Capitol, leading Rose to compare the roof of the building “to a sieve.”128

Despite the ongoing concern for repairs, the library continued to be used for social and political purposes. During the lavish inauguration of Governor John Tanner in 1897, the library served as a luncheon room for 250 guests, who were treated to a feast with table settings of cut glass and silver. The bookshelves were adorned with flags and draperies for the occasion. In January 1906, the Illinois State Historical Society held a reception in the library as part of its annual meeting. The speaker for the event was Jane Addams, the renowned social reformer of Hull House fame. For a more somber occasion in 1914, the library was the meeting room for the funeral party of Shelby Cullom, the former Illinois Governor and five-term U.S. Senator.129

Increasing numbers of patrons and increasing demand for services brought a need for additional staffing. Three or four full-time workers handled the daily duties of the library, and by 1912, that number grew to six. Library workers were also assigned more administrative responsibility. Starting in 1900, the Assistant Librarian began submitting library reports to the Secretary, who in turn forwarded them to the Governor for his biennial report. Previously that duty fell to the Secretary himself. Library workers also provided a friendly, comfortable atmosphere. The Illinois State Journal recalled that the librarians in charge “made you feel that it was a pleasure to serve you.”130

A close-up view of the north wall of the State Library. The painting above the doorway of General Marquis de Lafayette was one of the hallmark features of the room. Photo courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

A close-up view of the north wall of the State Library. The painting above the doorway of General Marquis de Lafayette was one of the hallmark features of the room.
Photo courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.