The Work of the IFWC

Another event in Chicago would also speed the growing public library movement in Illinois. In 1893, the city hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition, better known as the World’s Fair, and among the attractions was an exhibit of library materials and the advancements in library service. Most state libraries, including Illinois’, were represented at the fair, and many of the 27 million visitors to the event took in the library exhibits. The 1893 World’s Fair was a highlight of the progressive era in Illinois as people looked to the future and ways in which society could be improved. It did not take long for libraries – or their lack thereof – to be identified as a glaring need for Illinois citizens. A good number of the visitors to the fair actually left Chicago with the determination to support public libraries in their state, which were still sorely lacking. Although the 1872 Act spurred many cities to establish public libraries, most unincorporated communities lacked such facilities. As a result, many thousands of Illinoisans still had no access to free reading material.154

Among the first groups to take up the cause of universal free public libraries was the Illinois Federation of Women’s Clubs (IFWC), founded in 1894, the year after the World’s Fair. The idea of a women’s club in that era was indeed a radical one, and the members of the IFWC were certainly progressive in their thinking. The IFWC promoted numerous social improvements, with education at the top of its list. Libraries were also among the favorite issues of the IFWC, which believed that citizens in all areas of Illinois should have free access to books.155

The efforts of the IFWC were both substantial and successful. Some local branches were formed with the express purpose of establishing a library. Others organized their communities to support a proposed library. Almost every club had some sort of library project as part of their agenda by the end of the 19th century. In April 1898, the IFWC also established traveling libraries, small book collections that were sent across the state to areas without library service. The concept of traveling libraries was then gaining a foothold in America. The first state library to institute a traveling library system was the New York State Library, long the leader in state library achievements, which shipped its first traveling library on Feb. 8, 1893. By 1900, nearly a thousand traveling libraries were circulating across the Empire State. Michigan followed suit in 1895, and soon a total of 44 traveling libraries, each comprised of 50 books, were making their way to reading clubs, small towns, and associate libraries. The plan in Michigan was such a success that the initial appropriation of $2,500 was soon doubled to establish even more traveling collections. By 1910, 33,000 volumes in total were circulating in traveling libraries across Michigan.156

In Illinois, the plan met with great success as well. Initially, the IFWC traveling libraries were concentrated in northern and central Illinois counties, including Cook, LaSalle, Stephenson, Kane, Champaign, Bureau, Macon, and McHenry counties. In 1900, just two years later, a total of 66 such libraries were operating around the state, each stored in a trunk and shipped from one of several IFWC distribution centers. Only a few of the books were new. Most of the collections were comprised of donations from the private libraries of club members.157

The libraries covered a wide range of topics, with books for young adults in particular demand. The traveling libraries proved invaluable to the many areas of Illinois without public library service. In 1905, 34 of the 102 counties in Illinois – exactly a third – still had no public libraries. The IFWC strongly believed that the Illinois State Library should be involved in these efforts and continued to lobby the General Assembly to consider the need for public library service throughout the state.158

The IFWC was not alone in its calls. The advancement of public libraries and free reading was a key issue for other groups as well. As early as 1881, a few Illinois librarians, including Assistant State Librarian Edith Wallbridge, attempted to form a “Western Library Association,” and two meetings were held before the movement withered. In 1896, a similar effort met with success, and the result was the Illinois Library Association.159

The unofficial “driving force” of the new ILA was Katharine Sharp, one of the original incorporators of the association. She stressed the need for public libraries and extension of services, and was among the earliest to actively promote librarian training in the state of Illinois. In 1893, a library school was formed at the Armour Institute in Chicago, with Sharp as director. The school remained in Chicago for four years until it was transferred to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Sharp was also one of the state’s earliest library historians and was a sort of information center for library activities around the state. The ILA has since maintained a close relationship with the Illinois State Library. The first person to hold the position of First Vice President of the ILA was Savilla Hinrichsen, sister of Secretary of State William Hinrichsen and the Assistant State Librarian. From its outset, the ILA became a champion of public libraries and stressed the need for “more and better library service from the lake to the river.” Among its chief concerns were state-directed public library supervision and extension of public library services. The ILA introduced bills for a library commission in 1897, 1899, and 1901, though meeting with failure each time.160

By the early 20th century, the ILA and the IFWC were allied on the issue of a library extension board. Joining them were the Illinois Teachers’ Institute and the Illinois Farmers’ Institute, the latter of which had begun its own system of traveling libraries in November 1899. From the first experiment of five collections that year until January 1904, the Farmers’ Institute was sending out 183 libraries in 68 counties and 143 towns. Together the four organizations lobbied the General Assembly for passage of a Library Extension Board to oversee continued public library development and the push for free reading to those not served by available libraries. This board was to have an appropriation of $5,000. But the groups’ best efforts could not sway the legislature, which rejected the measure in 1905.161

The IFWC pressed on, sending its 328 traveling libraries around the state, despite the increasing burdens of time and money. The clubs’ Library Extension Committee continued to lobby for passage of the library commission bill. Again joined by the ILA, the farmers, and teachers, their joint efforts finally paid off in 1909 when Senator Douglas Helm of Metropolis presented a bill that passed the legislature. Governor Charles Deneen signed the bill into law on June 14, 1909, and the sum of $1,500 per year was appropriated for expenses. On July 1, the Illinois Library Extension Commission went into effect.162

The fledgling commission did not have to worry about securing books as the IFWC presented their entire inventory of traveling libraries to the state. In all, some 11,000 books and all of the carrying trunks from 225 traveling libraries – valued at $5,000 – were donated. The IFWC and the ILA deserve much credit for spurring the movement for free library service to all Illinoisans.163

The Illinois Library Extension Commission became a semi-official part of the State Library and a vital advocate in the movement to bring library services to every Illinois citizen. The express purpose of the Commission was to promote the establishment and development of free public libraries and, through its loan programs, offer quality reading materials to individuals, reading clubs, and rural communities.164

The commission consisted of three individuals, chaired by Secretary of State James Rose. Appointed to the commission by the Governor on September 28 were Eugenie M. Bacon of Decatur and Joseph Freeman of Aurora, both well known in the Illinois public library movement. Bacon, who had served as IFWC President from 1902 to 1904, often appeared before the General Assembly, arguing for the library extension issue. She is credited as the individual most responsible for its passage. Bacon became Secretary of the Board, which met for the first time in Secretary Rose’s office on Oct. 16, 1909.165

Eugenie Bacon, in her later years, was one of the driving forces of the Illinois Federation of Women’s Clubs effort to create public libraries in Illinois.

Eugenie Bacon, in her later years, was one of the driving forces of the Illinois Federation of Women’s Clubs effort to create public libraries in Illinois.

A director and former librarian of Millikin University in Decatur, Eugenia Allin, was hired at a salary of $75 per month. The energetic Allin assumed her duties on March 1, 1910, and immediately began traveling the state, visiting rural communities. She also journeyed out of state to attend library association meetings and meet with other state library extension commissions. Her field trips included a lecture on the role of the commission in assisting rural schoolteachers, given to over 1,400 summer school students at Illinois State University in June. Allin and the commissioners visited dozens of towns across Illinois in just the first few weeks of the group’s existence.166

Ironically, the State Library was unable to house the commission due to its continuing lack of space, so two rooms were rented in the basement of the new Decatur Public Library. There, the commission collected and catalogued the books from the traveling libraries donated by the IFWC and performed other administrative duties. The location of the commission headquarters inspired some bitterness. A 1913 report of the commission lamented that the “relative obscure location of the headquarters has been quite a handicap to the work. The seat of government being at Springfield and the executive offices of the majority of State boards…naturally lead one to think that this commission should also be located there.” The commission remained in its temporary home until January 1914, when it moved at last into the Capitol on the fourth floor of the east wing, across from and one floor above the library. Funding was inconsistent, with an initial $1,500 annual appropriation raised to $1,800 within two years, but reduced to $1,450 for 1913.167

The original book donation by the IFWC was supplemented with additional purchases by the Library Extension Commission, which developed a wide selection of volumes available throughout the state. Books were loaned to “individuals and study clubs” for one month, while communities and schools could borrow books for three months. All this was done free of charge, except for postage. The program was a resounding success and the number of requests for material increased annually. In 1915, a total of 357 requests for materials was received, and 8,540 volumes were loaned. The following year, the number of requests quadrupled to 1,458. A total of 14,204 volumes were loaned in 1916, while the two-year period of 1917 and 1918 saw another 4,308 requests and 33,940 volumes being shipped.168

Approximately half the volumes went to rural and village schools. Individual patrons also were heavy users, accounting for over half of all requests received. Not surprisingly, requests for books were lowest in the summer while the remaining nine months saw great numbers in demand. Also in demand were pictures, often used as part of exhibits, with a total of 1,060 pictures sent out in 1917 and 1918. The efforts of the commission provided not only a huge gain in free library access, but created an information exchange available for the first time to many state residents.169

The number of public libraries themselves also grew. In 1914, Anna May Price, who replaced Eugenia Allin as director that February, reported that Illinois had 179 public libraries, an increase of 58 in a decade. In addition, the commission sponsored programs for study clubs, making community presentations promoting reading and library usage. In 1916 alone, there were 128 presentations. Price also instituted State Library-sponsored, one-day regional library conferences for public library staff and trustees. Exhibits on the work of the commission also promoted its efforts, especially at the Illinois State Fair, a locale where promotional displays soon became a cherished annual event for the State Library.170

There were also substantial efforts in librarian training. As early as 1911, the commission sponsored a sixweek seminar in library science in conjunction with the University of Illinois Library School. Similarly, a plan for library institutes in locations around the state was also discussed. This idea of regional library institutes was not entirely new. The Illinois Library Association had conducted some form of these since 1904. These educational institutes, which were later administered by the State Library, were patterned after those of the New York State Library, which continued as a national leader in many areas. As a result, many librarians received valuable training to help them better serve the needs of their patrons. The institutes also promoted librarianship as a career choice.171

The Library Extension Commission extended the services of Illinois libraries far beyond state boundaries. During World War I, the commission acted as an agent for Illinois in collecting books for libraries in soldiers’ camps both stateside and abroad. The effort was made under the auspices of the American Library Association War Service. A total of 250,000 volumes were collected, and the sum of $285,141 was also raised. In addition, the commission loaned nearly 34,000 of its own volumes to Illinoisans serving in the military.172