Chapter 9 – Move to the Centennial Building

The Illinois State Library’s new location was on the third floor of the Centennial Building, above Memorial Hall, which housed the state’s collection of Civil War regimental flags for many years. For 67 years, the library called the Centennial Building home.

Throughout its history, the State Library has enjoyed beautiful surroundings, and the third floor of the Centennial Building was certainly no exception. The reference and reading room was accentuated by a vaulted ceiling with wrought-iron lighting fixtures and lead-paned, two-story arched windows replete with stained-glass decorations in the central panes. The windows provided not only ample natural lighting but also a striking view of the State Capitol. End arches were supported by marble pillars and topped by stone carvings. Each end of the room was highlighted by a mezzanine, accessible by stairs rising from the sunken floor. The attractive furnishings and bookcases were of American walnut.203

An evening view of the State Library reading room in the Centennial Building.

An evening view of the State Library reading room in the Centennial Building.

The new quarters exceeded the former in grandeur. Many years later, a group of historians from the U.S.S.R. toured the library room and left awestruck, believing the space to be one of the most beautiful places they had seen on their tour of the United States. One library administrator recalled the Soviets as being “stunned and extraordinarily impressed.”204

Despite their impressive new quarters, the State Library was again competing with other agencies for space and funding. The library was forced to share its third-floor quarters with the Illinois State Historical Library – with only a low, central bookcase separating the reading rooms of the two libraries. That walnut bookcase, adorned by a clock with an unobstructed view of the vaulted ceiling, became the signature feature of the room. It also served as a reminder that space was extremely limited for the State Library. Within a few years, the State Library resumed its ongoing battle for space with its old rival, the Illinois State Museum.205

The main library collection was housed in a multistory, steel stack in a room entered on the south wall that extended to the basement. Next to the steel stacks were the old ornamental stacks from the west wing. The second and third floors of the old stacks contained newspapers as well as the collection donated by the State Museum. The second, third, and fourth floors of the new stacks held federal and state publications. The fifth floor housed part of the Illinois State Archives. All of this weight proved heavy enough to cause the floor to buckle, revealing structural problems for the newly constructed Centennial Building.206

Looking westward, a view of the State Library’s reference room and loan desk in 1942.

Looking westward, a view of the State Library’s reference room and loan desk in 1942.

The sixth floor of the stacks held the “more generally used books in the general collection” – a curious choice for locating these popular selections rather than a lower floor, which would have made retrieval more convenient. Whatever the reason, it was clear that there was little room for growth. In her 1924 report, a disappointed Harriet Skogh reported, “there is no possibility for bookstack additions on [the reading room] floor.”207

The tedious tasks of converting to the Dewey Decimal System and reorganization of state documents continued. Again, Skogh noted that this was necessary to better serve the public, another indication of the changing library mission. She wrote in wordy prose that, “the proper classification and cataloging of material received by the library serves permanently as the interpreter of that material to the public which the library wishes to serve, and is necessary as an adequate filing system in business correspondence.” All this “proper classification” and an “adequate filing system” kept the collection easily usable. Skogh proudly proclaimed that holdings were also “well equipped for reference work.”208

Organizing and cataloging work was greatest in the Archives Division, where the newly hired Superintendent Margaret Cross Norton essentially began from scratch. After visiting nearly all archival agencies in the nation – at that time a rather short list – she went about the physical reorganization of the state’s records. Their previous storage conditions were appalling. While searching in the attic of the Capitol, just under the roof on the sixth floor,  she found the state’s territorial and first census records stuffed into a ventilating shaft. Other vital records were found covered by rubbish under the Capitol’s front steps. Still others were located in the basement, where they were further damaged by mud created when rain softened the dirt floors. Mud was not the only obstacle in the cellar, as Norton later recalled. Cockroaches “as big as mice” and rats “as big as cats” were also hazards. For protection she was accompanied to the basement by the Secretary’s document clerk who carried a revolver. Norton was later given a “long piece of pipe…whenever a rat came and looked at me, I’d bang on whatever was nearest with that pipe and scare him off.”209

With the concept of state archives still in its infancy in the United States, Norton had to also battle with officials, staff, and public opinion to promote the value of an archives. That included the architect of the Centennial Building, who startled her by asking, “By the way, Miss Norton, what is an archive?” The architect was certainly not alone in his ignorance. Norton also had to persuade and cajole a number of reluctant state officials to turn over their records to her for organizing and safe-keeping in the archives. However, her job was made slightly easier by a 1925 law that permitted state officials, at their discretion, to transfer any noncurrent records to the archives.210