Chapter 8 – The Watershed Years — 1918-1923

The first years of the 20th century had indeed been productive ones for the Illinois State Library and were followed by a time of unprecedented change. In the years 1918 to 1923, the library initiated publishing of its first inhouse periodical, underwent a sweeping reorganization, and moved to a new and larger location. The heady growth of the institution since the turn of the century was accompanied by consistent funding, additional staff, an exponential increase in patrons, and a greater awareness of library services among Illinois citizens. In addition, the library worked in conjunction with the Extension Commission in a vast effort to spread free reading across the state.181

By the late teens, the library was quickly outgrowing its facilities, and in 1918, the library numbered 70,000 bound volumes, growing an average of 2,000 volumes per year. Pamphlets were also flooding the library at the rate of 5,000 to 10,000 per year. The number of staff grew to seven, including Eva May Fowler, a “reference librarian,” three catalogers, a loan desk assistant, and one stenographer, with more hirings on hold due to lack of space for them. The only existing staff to have an office was Fowler.182

Total floor space of the library was 6,000 square feet, with 11,800 lineal feet of shelving. This included the main reading room, the mezzanines, stack space, Mrs. Fowler’s office, and a fourth-floor room utilized for shipping. Eight hundred square feet at one end of the reading room was reserved for cataloging and other technical work. State documents and reports were shipped out from the fourth-floor room in a continuing information exchange with other libraries and related institutions. Some 5,000 state documents were in boxed storage for lack of a better place to put them.183

The Library Extension Commission was also out of space. Since moving back from Decatur in 1914, it had occupied two rooms totaling 800 square feet on the east wing of the fourth floor of the Capitol. Now with three employees, the commission had clearly outgrown its surroundings. By the late teens, its collection of 10,000 volumes and their packing cases were already stretching into the Capitol corridor.184

The library was not alone, as many other state institutions were also suffering from the same lack of space in the Capitol. The push for larger library quarters was hardly new. In 1896, Secretary William Hinrichsen had complained of the need for added library space. The library had moved into its home on the third floor of the Capitol only nine years before. In 1902, the Illinois State Historical Society had requested $500,000 from the legislature for a new building to house the historical library, law library, and State Library. That request was turned down, and the State Library continued to wait for action.185

Finally, on June 25, 1917, Governor Frank O. Lowden signed Senate Bill 611, authorizing construction of a new building to house the State Library, Illinois State Museum, and State Historical Library and Archives, as well as the state’s extensive collection of Abraham Lincoln memorabilia, war museum, and collection of Civil War battle flags. The Department of Public Instruction would also be housed in the new facility. Ground for the new building was broken on Oct. 5, 1918. Because it was a century since Illinois had gained statehood in 1818, the structure was named the Centennial Building.186

Located just a few paces south of the Capitol, the Centennial Building was to be constructed on the site of a noted Lincoln landmark, the home of Ninian Wirt Edwards, son of the third Governor of Illinois. Ninian Edwards’ wife, Elizabeth, was a sister of Mary Todd Lincoln. Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln were wed in the Edwards house on Nov. 4, 1842, and Mary spent her final months in the home before her death on July 16, 1882.187

The state’s efforts to obtain the property dated to an act passed by the General Assembly in 1877. However, the younger Ninian Edwards successfully challenged efforts to condemn the property on the grounds that the Centennial Building Commission did not have constitutional authority to do so. Despite contemporary pleas to preserve the house, the Centennial Building Commission determined that it had been significantly altered, removing much historical value and worth to the state. As a result, the historic house was demolished and construction on the Centennial Building went forward, giving the State Library yet another link – albeit a controversial one – to the legacy of Abraham Lincoln.188

State Library staff anticipated that the move to the Centennial Building offered an opportunity for continued library growth. In a report to the Centennial Building Commission on May 24, 1918, Librarian Fowler requested 10,000 square feet for stack space in anticipation of the continued rapid growth. The building architect believed that “with compact storage…an ultimate capacity of 700,000 volumes” could be accommodated in the designated space in the new facility. Fowler was less ambitious, stating, “stack space in the new building, for the State Library alone, should be sufficient for about 200,000 volumes.”189

A view of the newly completed Centennial Building, which housed the State Library from 1923 to 1990. The library was located on the third floor behind the vertical columns. In the foreground is a statue of Governor John M. Palmer, which was dedicated on Oct. 16, 1923.

A view of the newly completed Centennial Building, which housed the State Library from 1923 to 1990. The library was located on the third floor behind the vertical columns. In the foreground is a statue of Governor John M. Palmer, which was dedicated on Oct. 16, 1923.

Her remaining recommendations for library space were less “sufficient,” including 2,000 square feet of reading room space (actually 100 less than the current reading room in the west wing of the Capitol). The new receiving and shipping room was to be 600 square feet, only a 50 percent increase, with 400 square feet allowed for a “stenographer and typists’ room” that could hold two or three cataloging typists and two stenographers. The cataloging and workroom remained the same size at 800 square feet. In addition, Fowler asked for a 300-square-foot office for herself and one of 200 square feet for the “assistant librarian.” “Private lavatories and wardrobes” for “the Librarian and Assistant Librarian” were also requested. In all, a request for 6,400 square feet, not including the stack space and the amenities of “lavatory, toilets, and lockers” was made.190

Time soon proved the woeful inadequacy of her requests. At the same time, the director of the Illinois State Historical Library requested a total of 15,800 square feet – not including stack space – in its Centennial Building space, and the director of the Illinois State Museum requested a range of 80,000 to 114,000 square feet. Fowler’s request may be partially attributed to a continuing lack of legislative support for the State Library, relative to the Illinois State Historical Library and state museum. In 1918, Fowler’s $1,800 per annum salary represented a good sum for librarians of the period, but was far less than the $3,000 paid yearly to Jessie Palmer Weber, curator of the Illinois State Historical Library. The historical library and state museum, particularly the latter, continually jockeyed with the State Library for precious Centennial Building space.191

Construction on the Centennial Building quickly progressed after the groundbreaking, and the State Library staff anxiously awaited its move to the new facility. During construction the library continued to increase its information exchange, shipping materials across the state while serving as a public repository for research and study. It also continued to position itself as the hub for library information, training, and communication statewide. Another library hallmark occurred in 1919 with the establishment of its first inhouse periodical, Illinois Libraries. This bulletin was created to serve as a news source and means of communication for libraries across the state. Distributed throughout the state, Illinois Libraries featured articles by Illinois librarians, briefs on important happenings in libraries, and analysis of current trends in library science, further establishing the State Library as the center for librarianship in the state. Illinois Libraries continues today as the foremost medium for information on libraries in Illinois.192

Efforts to promote public library development across the state also continued. On June 28, 1919, an act “to provide for county library systems” was approved to create county-run public libraries in rural areas without such institutions. A county librarian was to be appointed upon approval of the Illinois Library Extension Commission. The act was, in many ways, similar to the Public Library Act of 1872. However, its effect was gravely disappointing. Only Warren County took advantage of the opportunity to create its own library. State Library administrators and others believed this was due to lack of sufficient funds provided by the state to assist counties in the formation of their own libraries. The county library law proved little more than a paper gain.193

Meanwhile, the rapid pace of growth of the State Library continued unabated. The 1922 Biennial Report credited the library with 82,099 volumes, receiving over 7,000 pamphlets during the previous two years. Reference and loan requests, which doubled in the period from 1916 to 1918, occupied substantial amounts of employees’ time. Fifteen newspapers and 270 magazines were on hand in the reading room. Current magazines were “made available for circulation to State employees for home use during the hours the library is closed,” which was “apparently a much appreciated privilege.” A collection of art materials also began with purchases in 1916.194

The Biennial Reports of the period express the frustration with the cramped conditions and also indicate the shortsightedness of the legislature in aiding library needs. The General Assembly repeatedly approved money for shelving but failed to comprehend that there was a lack of space in which to install it. In 1916, the librarian reported that the previous year, the sum of $1,000 was appropriated for shelving, but the library was “unable to secure a room of additional space in which to install this necessity for growth.” Money for shelving was again appropriated in 1917, but still there was no space. As late as 1922, the library’s annual report declared that, “the lack of adequate shelving space has been a serious drawback to further development.”195

Lack of shelving delayed the formal acquisition of a major donation from a former rival. In 1920, the directors of the Illinois State Museum gave 6,000 volumes from the museum’s library to the State Library. Again, “the present shelf shortage” was cited as the reason for the delay in accepting the gift. Shortage of space at the museum may have also facilitated the donation. The 1922 Biennial Report stated that, “the books will be removed to the State Library stacks in the Centennial Building…and, it is hoped, will be quite as accessible to the Museum staff as if they remained a separate departmental library collection.”196

Soon, the entire structure of the library administration would be completely revamped by the Illinois General Assembly. House Bill 694, approved June 20, 1921, provided for a massive reorganization of the library by amending eight sections of the 1874 State Library Act. The Secretary of State was again confirmed as State Librarian, with the three-man library board of commissioners expanded to include “two other persons to be appointed by the Governor.” The new board would have domain over an entirely new library structure.197

In a sweeping move, three divisions were created within the library. The State Library collection became the General Division, which continued its service to legislators, as well as the ever-increasing public demand for materials. The Illinois Library Extension Commission was abolished and reborn as the Library Extension Division, which carried on the mission of promoting free reading to all citizens of the state. Finally, an Archives Division was created and charged with the preservation and care of all past state records.198

The concept of archives departments was fairly new in American government. The first state archives had been created in Alabama in 1901. By the time of the 1921 Library Act in Illinois, only five other states had followed Alabama in expressly forming state archives. A National Archives building was not authorized by the U.S. Congress until 1926 and not erected until 1934. And within a few years, Illinois would establish itself as a national leader in archival preservation and administration.199

The three new divisions of the State Library would be led by separate department heads. Harriet M. Skogh, who had come to work in the library around the time of the 1914 civil service changes, was appointed as superintendent of the General Library Division. Anna May Price, Director of the Illinois Library Extension Commission, became the Superintendent of the Library Extension Division. Margaret Cross Norton, an Illinois native and University of Chicago graduate who had studied at the New York State Library School, became the Superintendent of the new Archives Division. Norton, however, did not even have a permanent office. Rather, she recalled that she “was shifted from one legislative committee room to another, [using] whatever furniture was available.” Appropriations for Norton’s division were also slim, as the salary of only one assistant was budgeted. Such basic supplies as pencils and paper were not included.200

The appointments for the three positions had been chosen carefully. Eva May Fowler was relieved of her duties in the spring of 1921. Although her dismissal was done “with ample cause,” in the words  of Norton, Fowler did not go quietly. Rather, her substantial influence with legislators and within the American Library Association made things uncomfortable for her former boss, Secretary of State Louis Emmerson.201

Each superintendent was paid an annual salary of $2,400. Nine employees were allotted to the General Library Division, while five were assigned to the Extension Division and two to the Archives Division. The State Library positions continued to be well paying – even the lowest-paid employees made $1,200 per year. Among the first tasks of the new superintendents was to oversee the move to the Centennial Building, which was finally completed in early 1923. The original Centennial Building featured only the current north wing of the current building, with the remaining wings added later. The library began its relocation to the newly completed building in the summer of 1923. Between June 20 and June 30, all of the library’s collection – now numbering 86,000 volumes – and the entire assortment of state laws and documents made their way from the west wing of the Capitol into the Centennial Building by way of a newly constructed tunnel linking the two buildings. The imposing bronze bookcases, 150 sections in all, were disassembled and rebuilt in their new home, and old and worn furniture was discarded as part of the move. The early post-World War I years had been eventful ones for the State Library and paved the way for a bright new era in the history of the institution.202