Chapter 10 – The State Library & the Great Depression

By the mid-1920s, the spread of free reading had reached across Illinois, with many more citizens gaining access to public library services than ever before. In 1925, a total of 248 public libraries were in operation across the state, with only six towns with populations of 5,000 or more without a free library. Eleven years earlier, there had been only 179 public libraries within the state. The efforts of the Illinois Library Extension Commission, and the subsequent Extension Division of the Illinois State Library, showed great benefits.229

Still, there was much to be done. By 1925, there remained 38 counties in Illinois with only one library, and 10 counties with no library at all. Many of these 48 counties were in rural areas, mostly in southern Illinois. Some underserved counties were among the most populous of downstate Illinois. Sangamon County, the location of the State Capital and the State Library itself, only had one free library. Similarly, residents in Macon, Grundy, and Kendall counties could depend only on one public library each, which still left them better off than people in Effingham County, where no public library existed.230

In all, over 2.1 million Illinoisans lacked free library service. Only 13.2 percent of the state’s urban population had access to public libraries, leaving nearly 87 percent unserved, with a staggering 96.2 percent of the farm population lacking free library access. The farm problem was of great interest to the Library Extension Division, which aptly recognized rural residents’ “variety and high quality of their reading tastes.”231

Part of the problem was physical accessibility to libraries, especially in rural areas without paved roads. This issue of good rural roads was being addressed by the state. On Nov. 5, 1918, Illinois voters had approved a bond issue to construct a statewide system of improved roads. Known as the Hard Roads Act, the measure was intended to pave muddy rural roads with a “hard” surface. But the massive project took time to reach all areas of Illinois. By the mid-1920s, many communities still lacked hard roads. However, the effects of the Hard Road Act on library extension increased with the completion of every paved road.232

Anna May Price, superintendent of the Library Extension Division, continued to use her position to urge the spread of libraries, and Illinois Libraries, was her pulpit. Her bold visions called for greater involvement among business and civic leaders in the rural library movement. In a January 1926 editorial in Illinois Libraries, Price called for articles promoting library development to be placed in periodicals of practically every kind. She also proposed that Sears, Montgomery Ward, and International Harvester, all known for their direct mailings to customers, include leaflets promoting the creation of libraries. Price further urged civic organizations such as the Lions, Kiwanis, Rotary, and chambers of commerce to take up the cry for more libraries. As Price wrote, “we have 2,000,000 [citizens without libraries] in Illinois. That does not mean that these 2,000,000 people are not readers. Some of them may be even greater readers than the patrons of the public libraries.”233

With a mixture of dismay and incredulation, she noted that even the movement for better playgrounds was attracting as much, if not more, attention than the push for public libraries. “I hope I may live to see the day,” wrote Price, “when libraries may provoke the same enthusiastic demand for adequate appropriation, proper equipment and trained service, as does the playground.” With evident bitterness, she claimed that, “the playground movement is beginning right and does not have to live down fifty years tradition, that anyone who needs the work can be a librarian.”234

Unfortunately, Price’s visions were not heeded by the government or business community. They were further halted by the onset of the Great Depression, which threw millions out of work, causing the widespread collapse of commerce, and diverting attention away from the burgeoning library movement. Only six new public libraries were established in Illinois between 1929 and 1934. Those that did exist saw a great decrease in revenue due to a slide in the tax base, as property values tumbled. Many individuals lost their homes due to their inability to pay their property taxes, depressing prices further. From 1929 to 1932, libraries in Illinois saw their tax income fall by $800,000, while the number of registered users increased by 250,000 and the number of volumes loaned jumped by 5.6 million. In addition, far fewer gifts and bequests were made to libraries by private citizens, costing the libraries another source of revenue. A 1934 survey by the Library Extension Division found that new book purchases for Illinois public libraries had stagnated due to the drop in funds. In 1925, 22 percent of income was spent on new books and periodicals; by 1934, that figure had slipped to 12.6 percent. In the same period, the share of operating expenses taken from income increased by over 33 percent.235

The study also found growth of public library staff to be alarmingly slow. A total of only 760 people were employed in public library jobs outside of Chicago, with 113 of them working in part-time positions. Their pay was certainly meager. In 1929, “chief librarians” worked for an average annual salary of $934, a figure that dropped to $926 by 1934. Despite the best efforts of the Extension Division, over 1.93 million Illinoisans remained without public library service by 1935, including 93.9 percent of the farm sector.236

State Library employees in the late 1930s are ready to demonstrate their exhibits at the Illinois State Fair.

State Library employees in the late 1930s are ready to demonstrate their exhibits at the Illinois State Fair.

Clearly, the State Library would be expected to continue its extension of library service into rural Illinois for the foreseeable future. The Great Depression had ground the library expansion movement to a near halt, and existing libraries had trouble keeping up with demand. Hundreds of thousands of Illinois residents, many unemployed, would look to their State Library to fill their reading needs. In the 1932 Biennial Report, Anna May Price recognized the increasing responsibility of the Library Extension Division in the circumstances, and her wise planning of the recent past was reaping rewards. Looking back over the previous two years, during which the Great Depression had tightened its grip on the nation, Price wrote that the work of her department “has been definitely planned to cooperate with the libraries in the state to give more adequate library service and to make available a supply of books necessary to meet not only the usual demands of readers, but also those of the changing economic condition.” The latter would become the focus of the Extension Division, and the State Library as a whole, in coming years.237

Unlike other states, particularly in the east, Illinois had no distributive, or separate, fund to aid public libraries. As a result, Price made the Extension Division into a sort of “lobbyist” for libraries across the state. Letters were sent to all mayors and village presidents urging continued appropriation for their existing libraries. In this, Price helped ensure that libraries would continue to exist in the face of deteriorating rural economic conditions, and without outside financial support.238

During this time, the Extension Division also continued to offer reading courses, which allowed participants the opportunity to engage in some type of vocational reading. Price reported that readers enrolled in the courses to “acquire additional information” if they were already working in some field or to “take advantage of their enforced leisure to augment their education.” Bibliographies were prepared on subjects like auto mechanics, chemistry, mechanical drawing, architecture, landscape gardening, taxidermy, British literature, welding, public speaking, journalism, and bookkeeping. Certificates were awarded to anyone who completed these courses. With the growth of reading courses, the Extension Division became a de-facto job training center and educational outlet.239

Price also stepped up the division’s visits to libraries and held increasing numbers of regional library conferences to encourage continued professionalism. More emphasis was also placed on publicity, as the Library Extension Division made a concerted effort to “get the word out” on library events and needs around the state. Because of this, many more Illinoisans became aware of their community libraries, as well as the services of the State Library. Exhibits to promote library usage, an idea started in the late 1920s, were further expanded and placed at conferences and meetings around the state. The most noteworthy exhibit site was at the Illinois State Fair, introducing countless fairgoers to the services offered by the library and its Extension Division.240

By 1932, the Extension Division’s collection had grown to 49,945 volumes, not including the extensive array of pamphlets, periodicals, and clippings. The art collection had risen to 15,169 pictures, which continued to be used in rural schools and libraries. Demand for extension services steadily increased, and in the early 1930s the Extension Division experienced its greatest increase in requests to date. In the 1930 Biennial Report, Price reported that 32,198 requests were received, and 180,304 volumes were loaned – an increase of 37,526 volumes over the previous biennium. For the biennium ending in 1932, a total of 11,128 more requests were made, and 31,479 more volumes were distributed. The numbers only kept growing; from 1932 to 1934, a total of 241,261 volumes were sent out.241

The Library Extension Division became a bright spot in an otherwise dark period in Illinois history. With the onset of the Depression, many thousands of residents lost jobs and found themselves with unexpected free time, which was partially filled by reading. Similarly, many young people, unable to continue attending high school or pursue a college education, turned to reading as their outlet to advance their educations and pass time. Other residents attempted to train themselves for potential jobs, turning to libraries for needed materials. Reading became a sort of lifeline for thousands of Illinoisans struggling to cope with the worst economic crisis in American history.242

Employees sift through the State Library’s map collection in the late 1930s.

Employees sift through the State Library’s map collection in the late 1930s.

The Illinois State Library was handling the bulk of this demand without a major increase in its own revenues. From 1927 until 1936, the number of employees – 28 – remained unchanged, and some staff salaries even decreased during that period, despite the fact that reference work doubled and volume at the loan desk tripled. But the library continued to fulfill the needs of Illinois citizens, reflecting its evolving mission. Fifty years earlier, the library had first begun to address public needs in addition to its primary focus as a legislative aid. Now, for all practical purposes, those roles had reversed. The State Library was further positioning itself as the center for library needs
of the citizens of Illinois in response to devastating economic conditions.243