Chapter 1 – Overview

Illinois was just over 20 years old when its legislators voted to establish the Illinois State Library. Much of the state was still sparsely settled, and its communication and transportation networks were minimal. There was yet no public education system when the library was founded in 1839, and efforts had been ongoing since the 1820s. With low literacy rates and primitive conditions on the frontier, Illinois may seem an unlikely place for library development. But the young state reflected American beliefs in promoting education and a well-informed citizenry. This desire was best summarized by Illinois’ second Governor, Edward Coles, when he declared that “intelligence and virtue” were “the main pillars in the temple of Liberty.”

Indeed, the American urge for education and self-improvement was strong from the first days of the new republic. Before public education existed, founders like Thomas Jefferson recognized the need for a literate people to carry out the promise of the new democracy. The American spirit of optimism, hope, and belief in education, persevered as immigrants moved westward.1

Jefferson was among the first to stress the importance of a center for reading and education in the nation’s capital. As early as 1790, a House of Representatives committee was charged with finding “books necessary for the use of the legislative and executive departments, and not often found in private or circulating libraries.” The committee requested an appropriation “not exceeding $1,000…in the present session, and that the sum of 500 dollars be hereafter annually appropriated to the purchase of books for a public library.”2

Despite opposition, the plan eventually became a reality, and a few books were purchased. By the end of the decade Congress owned a total of 243 volumes. But the library had no permanent location. With the nation’s government set to move to Washington from Philadelphia in the fall of 1800, a bill was introduced that April 24 to provide “for the purchase of such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress at the said city of Washington, and for fitting up a suitable apartment for containing them.” With $5,000 appropriated to this purpose, the Library of Congress was born.3

Located in the new U.S. Capitol, the Library of Congress grew slowly and was often a battleground for political maneuvering between its appointed directors and Congress, but it eventually gained acceptance as a valuable arm of the federal government. After the library was partially destroyed during the British burning of the Capitol in 1814, Congress moved quickly to replace the collection. Jefferson offered a large portion of his private library to the government, not only because of his despair at the loss of the valuable books of the Library of Congress, but also as a way to relieve his substantial financial woes. Congress eventually purchased 6,487 volumes of the former President’s massive personal collection for the sum of $23,950. Thus, the Library of Congress was reborn, again giving the nation its own library.4

By this time, the idea of legislative libraries had already begun to spread to the state capitals. Lawmakers across the growing nation recognized the need for books, maps, and charts to aid in their decision-making. Collections of books on every subject were recognized as necessary to support the fledgling system of education. In 1811, the Massachusetts legislature, while not yet authorizing a library, did pass a resolution requesting that the Secretary of State correspond with other states about a possible exchange of statutes. Similarly, two years later Congress authorized a measure to send copies of all of its laws, journals, and documents to every state in the union.5

While Massachusetts began planning its library, Pennsylvania formed the nation’s first state library in 1816. The following year, Ohio established its state library, and in 1819, the New York State Library opened its doors. During the next decade, states continued to establish libraries – in some cases even before actual statehood. In time, those would become state libraries as well.6

Life was challenging in the new west. Places like frontier Illinois supported only the most primitive educational system before the mid-19th century. As the state library movement came west, the fledgling state of Illinois began to discuss the need for its own state library. These early mentions mark the beginning of a story that would span two centuries and which, eventually, brought books and information within reach of nearly every Illinoisan.7

Even before libraries were formally established in the state, however, there was a clear demand for books by its residents. Books were among the most cherished of family belongings and were sold in general stores, bookstores, and ordered by newspaper advertisement. In an age where entertainment was limited, reading was a popular pastime for many. A significant number of Americans spent their evenings and leisure time poring over books by the light of fireplaces, candles, and lanterns. Books were also seen as a means to gain knowledge and intellect, both prized virtues in a society where education was not readily available. The iconic image of a boyhood Abraham Lincoln reading by firelight is often associated with the 16th President and represents the early American hunger for learning. But young Lincoln was hardly alone in his love of books.8

As a result, libraries began to spring up in the homes and towns of the frontier. Semi-private collections were not public libraries as we know them today; tax-supported public reading centers would not come into being for many decades. Rather, these earliest libraries were private clubs, sometimes in the form of “social libraries,” which are defined as a collection owned by members of a society formed for the purpose of establishing a general library. Social libraries had made their way into the Ohio Valley by the late 1700s. By the early part of the next century Illinois boasted a total of 13, beginning with those in Edwardsville and Albion in 1819.9

Similarly, subscription libraries allowed readers to pay a fee to join and obtain borrowing privileges. Mercantile libraries were run predominately by businesses as a benevolent enterprise and as a extension of their services to the general public. Some of these three types of libraries grew to a large size, particularly in larger cities, but most remained relatively small. Still, the collections as a whole were reasonably well balanced, containing most popular works and an increasing number of books by American authors.10