A New Head of the Library

While the State Library continued its efforts to spread public library service to all Illinoisans, the institution was undergoing yet another reorganization. In the 1921 act that established the General, Extension, and Archives Divisions, a provision had been made for the Secretary of State to appoint a Superintendent of Library Divisions, but the position had never been filled. As a result, the library had operated under a three-pronged organizational scheme, with the General, Extension, and Archives Divisions operating in a sometimes ill-defined management hierarchy. Finally in 1935, the decision was made to appoint a superintendent over all three divisions, in an effort to better coordinate and streamline their activities.259

The position went to Helene Rogers, who had earned great respect in Springfield, as well as among Illinois public librarians, as executive secretary of the Library Relief Fund. The appointment of Rogers was not well received in some quarters. Ralph McCoy, who became a top assistant to Rogers at the State Library, later wrote that Anna May Price “resisted the move and was fired,” while other accounts reported that Price “resigned under political pressure.” Price’s last day on the job was May 26, 1936. The forced retirement ended Price’s 22 years of involvement with library extension in Illinois, during which thousands of Illinoisans enjoyed public library service for the first time and Price became a national leader in her field. Hallie Warner acted as interim superintendent until the appointment of Charlotte Ryan of Jacksonville to Price’s former position. Harriet Skogh remained but, as McCoy noted, “chose to bore from within.” (To her credit, McCoy also recalled Skogh as “very professional”). Possibly owing to the dissension, division superintendents saw their salaries drop by 10 percent from the start of the decade until the end, while subordinates did not always experience such declines.260

While the State Library had grown considerably since its move to the Centennial Building and was starting to gain some measure of national respect, difficulties remained, which were documented by McCoy. He pointedly described the library as “a three-headed monster,” dominated by the three division heads, each of whom “had powerful political and professional backing and [had] resisted the consolidation.” McCoy went on to state that Secretary Hughes experienced “some difficulties in dealing with the three strong-willed women” and that the institution “was a State Library in name only.” A 1951 survey would give credence to McCoy’s complaints.261

As it again restructured, the library began to take advantage of the national relief programs instituted under the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. While the library relief fund addressed new book purchases, little had been done to ease the severe understaffing in libraries across the state. To meet this need, Secretary Hughes implemented a cooperative effort with the state’s National Youth Administration (NYA), a national program designed to find part-time work for young people between the ages of 16 and 25. Questionnaires were sent to public libraries to determine the specific nature of their staffing needs, and the responses were matched to a list of different types of library employment. The job descriptions were ultimately divided into six classifications: stenographer, desk assistant, shelf work, janitorial, and “minor repairs on books,” such as taping and erasing. Of the six categories, one was a sort of miscellaneous, “defined by a description of the work it involves.” In all, nearly 1,000 young people found part-time work in public libraries across Illinois.262

The work done by the NYA helpers was largely unskilled, yet their contributions were substantial. In Hillsboro, four NYA workers spent nearly a year assembling a large file of clippings from local newspapers. At the LaSalle Public Library, a collection of pictures was readied for public use by an NYA worker who gathered, trimmed, and assembled them. In several cases, NYA workers were used as part of hospital outreach programs, where youths took book carts with reading material to patients, read to them when necessary, and conducted “story hours” for infirm children. An NYA project in southern Illinois resulted in a 15-minute radio program, “The Library Comes to Life,” which featured dramatic excerpts from famous novels. The program was aired weekly on stations in Harrisburg and Herrin.263

Other NYA workers performed “book mending” – the rebinding and cleaning of badly used books. Thousands of volumes were saved from discard with mending, easing the financial burden of strapped libraries unable to make new purchases. Book-sharing programs, which collected donated books and distributed them to charitable organizations, were also sponsored by the NYA. The youth workers also helped set up reading rooms and deposit stations across Illinois, helping communities establish a common area for reading and a site at which to keep book collections on loan.264

Some of the NYA workers even found work in the State Library with varying degrees of success. In the General Library Division, NYA employees were given the task of redistributing the bookstacks to ease the perennial space problem. Harriet Skogh reported in 1936 that the workers’ efforts were “much needed, though discouragingly futile.” Skogh also complained that “considerable time of the catalog assistants [was also] needed for supervision” of the NYA workers. But she did note that their contributions “helped to relieve temporarily an almost impossible bookstack situation, and they were thus of real service to the library. It may seem regrettable that these young people could not have been employed in a more constructive project of permanent value.” In the Archives Division, Margaret Cross Norton wrote that the three NYA girls “assigned to this office for the past year have given great assistance.”265

Cooperation with the NYA also advanced the State Library’s bookmobile program. By 1938, in a continuation of efforts begun a few years earlier, the NYA was responsible for supplying a vehicle, driver, gas, and upkeep for bookmobile programs in Kendall, Clark, Gallatin, Calhoun, and Monroe counties. The NYA also supplied 700 books on each bookmobile, a collection selected by the State Library. The State Library also supplemented each  collection to update the selections offered by these “libraries on wheels.” In its 1938 Biennial Report, the library reported that the bookmobiles had made 111 visits to 301 rural schools in the five counties served, with a monthly average of 10,200 books in circulation among the schoolchildren.266

While the first NYA bookmobiles were successful, they also exhibited some of the problems of bookmobiles to follow. In Clark County, a total of 107 school districts – including those with names like Rabbit Ridge, Fish Back, Sassafras, Stump, Possum Ridge, Frog Pond, and Butter Nut – stretched the capabilities of the bookmobile. A total of 1,100 miles had to be covered to reach each school district two times a month. While studies showed that standardized reading scores in Clark County schools improved as a result of bookmobile service, it was clear that the total of 1,410 books traveling on a single bookmobile was hardly adequate to properly serve such a large area.267

A view of the State Library’s reading room in the early 1940s.

A view of the State Library’s reading room in the early 1940s.

In Calhoun, a county with no railroads and only one “hard road,” the book truck frequently became stuck in the mud. As a result, the driver sometimes had to “quit the truck for a horse and wagon, and in some instances…make the trips by horse-back with the books in saddle bags.” Again, the collection was far too small. In 1939, some 668 books were expected to serve the needs of 1,299 Calhoun County pupils, or one book for every two pupils. Even with a supplement of 528 from the State Library, it was far from enough. Service in Monroe County in early 1939 was interrupted not only by bad roads but an outbreak of smallpox. That bookmobile, like some others, was transferred and ended up in Perry County, where the collection of 1,800 was expected to serve 1,186 students in 70 rural schools. Also, the county’s allotment of $20 per month for gas and oil for the bookmobile car – furnished by the driver himself – proved inadequate.268

While bookmobile drivers were often greeted enthusiastically and even met with applause upon entering some rural schools, other areas did not embrace the deliveries. One was the Gallatin County bookmobile, which suspended service after just a few months in 1937 to end a stint that was troubled from the outset. The Ohio River flood of 1937 delayed the start of service until March, and the waters also claimed a two-wheeled trailer constructed by the bookmobile driver on which to carry books. Service pressed on until June 20, when it was determined “the children were not sufficiently interested in reading to justify the expenditure of gasoline” for continued summer service. Even areas where bookmobiles were well received, like Clark County, saw demand drop in summer months, often accounting for as little as 16 percent of annual usage. Still, the NYA bookmobiles were hailed for their efforts to bring free reading to areas still unserved by public facilities.269

The Works Progress Administration (WPA), one of the hallmarks of President Roosevelt’s recovery plan, was also utilized by the State Library to spread library services to rural Illinoisans. When the WPA implemented an educational program, the library prepared a “million-dollar” plan to use WPA funding to bring free reading to every man, woman, and child in the state. In February 1936, Roosevelt approved the library’s plan and released the first funds for it.270

Under the plan, the Library Extension Division sent a collection of books to each county in the state, and additional books and the supplies to prepare them were purchased by the WPA. The WPA’s contributions to the collection were several times greater in number than the library’s portion. Books were selected from lists prepared by the Extension Division and emphasized “a technical and informational as well as a recreational character.” Overseeing each collection was a custodian appointed from the relief rolls. This individual, in turn, was supervised by a county librarian appointed to the position by the WPA district supervisor with the consent of the Extension Division. One county librarian was chosen for every nine custodians.271

Collections were then divided up among the communities of each county. Each town was responsible for furnishing a building to house their collection, as well as the utilities, upkeep, and shelving for the library. Housing for the collections was varying and unique. One community renovated an English cottage into a library, while another remade a tavern into library housing. Other quarters were created in recreation centers, community houses, schools, and gas stations.272

This cottage in Oak Lawn was used as a Works Progress Administration library in the late 1930s.

This cottage in Oak Lawn was used as a Works Progress Administration library in the late 1930s.

An interior view of a Works Progress Administration library station in the late 1930s.

An interior view of a Works Progress Administration library station in the late 1930s.

Within months, WPA libraries were operating in Adams, Clinton, Cook, Perry, Jefferson, Macoupin, and Sangamon counties. In the first two years of the project, some 246 stations were set up in 59 counties. In 1939 and 1940, as many as 71 counties per month were involved in the project, and as many as 280 “library stations” were in usage, with an average yearly circulation of 1.8 million. At its peak, nearly 1,200 workers were employed as part of the WPA library program.273

Like the NYA, WPA efforts reached some of the farthest points in Illinois. In Calhoun County, one female worker delivered books by horseback to families living in cabins in remote areas. However, she enjoyed none of the books in her saddlebag herself, as she was unable to read or write. For many months, she patiently performed her duties without payment before finally reporting the oversight to a superior. Ralph McCoy was sent from Springfield to investigate the issue, and “with some difficulty…located the woman’s house set in the woods far back from the main road.” After a “pleasant chat about her work which she was enjoying,” McCoy inquired if she had received any mail from the State Library. “Only these letters,” replied the woman, handing McCoy four envelopes; in each was a letter and a check. McCoy reported that the woman “was amazed; she had never before seen a check and didn’t recognize it as money.”274

WPA libraries actually served their populace better than public libraries. Statistics showed that WPA libraries serviced 38 percent of the potential patrons in their areas while public libraries accounted for only 27 percent. The number of WPA libraries held at a steady pace during the project’s entire length, with 202 stations in operation when the effort was abolished in January 1943. Title to the approximately 75,000 books in WPA libraries was transferred to the State Library. As a whole, the WPA library program led to the creation of 45 more tax-supported libraries around the state.275

The Illinois State Archives also used WPA workers as part of its cooperation with the Historical Records Survey, which was designed to identify and make an inventory of historical source material held both publicly and privately. The survey helped the State Archives collect a considerable amount of material previously held by Illinois counties. Margaret Cross Norton served on the National Commission of the survey and was general supervisor on the project for the state of Illinois. Norton, in the manner that endeared her to subordinates, always spoke well of the WPA workers assigned to her. But she later recalled with disdain that several young African-American female workers had been subjected to “quite nasty” treatment by patrons of the archives.276