Peoria County, Illinois Genealogy Trails
The Peoria Public Library
“A Brief History of Peoria” by
Democratic State Central Committee? 1896.
Transcribed by Genealogy Trails Staff
Written by E. S. Willcox, Librarian of Public Library
The history of this library makes a not uninteresting chapter in the history of our city, and, in fact, in the history of the extraordinary development during the last twenty years of the Free Public Library idea throughout the country.
For the Public Library law, which was passed by the legislature of Illinois in 1872, the first Free Public Library law to be placed on the statute book of any state in the Union, the pioneer and model of so many, if not all, adopted by other states since then, originated and was drafted in Peoria.
It was the experience derived in the management of this library when it was still a small, struggling subscription library, that suggested the need of a state law authorizing cities and towns to tax themselves for the support of public libraries as they already did for public schools.
This of itself establishes no small claim on public appreciation. Nor is it the only one.
In the spring of 1865 a few friends of the library, hardly more than a handful, purchased for the library for the sum of $10,000, a small piece of property in the heart of the city. The money was raised by voluntary subscription.
This property they and their successors in office tended carefully for thirty years, holding it in trust for library purposes, and at the end of that time sold it for the round sum of $65,000, net, with which they are now erecting, as a gift to the city, the new Library building on Monroe street, already nearing completion—a building large enough and commodious enough to serve the needs of our city for fifty or one hundred years more.
Such a splendid result as this shows what the foresight and good management of a few public-spirited citizens may do for a city.
In one other particular the Peoria Public Library occupies a unique place among libraries; it is the largest Free Public Library in the country west of New England, in proportion to the population of the city.
By the census of 1890 the population of Peoria proper was 41,624. It may be 50,000 to-day, not connecting our rapidly growing suburbs. The Peoria Public Library now numbers 58,000 volumes, or more than one for each inhabitant.
It will thus be seen that while the enterprising business men of our city have been building up her material interests until Peoria has become the acknowledged center and metropolis of the great corngrowing belt of the world, the largest manufacturer of distilled spirits and glucose in the United States, the third, perhaps the second, largest manufacturer and distributor of agricultural implements and also of cereals, she has not at the same time lacked good men of equal enterprise to watch over her nobler, more enduring library and educational interests.
What is now the Peoria Public Library had its origin in the autumn of 1855 in two small rival libraries—the Peoria Mercantile Library, organized October 22, 1855, and the Peoria Library Association, organized November 8, 1S55, which, a year later, November 22, 1856, were very sensibly consolidated into one, under the name of the Peoria City Library.
In the spring of 1865 the library was incorporated by a special act of the Legislature as The Peoria Mercantile Library Association, and the very handsome sum. for those days, of $13,262.50 was raised in a few weeks by individual subscription for the purchase of the house and lot corner of Main and Jefferson streets, 54x171 feet, now known as the Mercantile Library property. This cost $10,000 as it stood. The building, a dwelling house, was remodeled inside, and here on this corner the library has continued to remain until now.
In 1878 the old building was torn down and the present three-story library building erected, at a cost of more than $32,000, with money borrowed on the property, provision being made to pay off the debt gradually from the rents of offices and stores in the building.
In 1880 the City Council passed an ordinance establishing a Free Public Library, to be supported by taxation, under the State Library law of 1872.
April 19, 1881, the German Library gave its fine collection of 1,900 volumes to the Public Library, and in the spring of 1832 the Mercantile Library Association turned over as a gift to the Public Library, its entire collection of some 12,000 volumes, and leased its rooms to the same for a term of years.
Early in 1894 the overcrowded condition of the library had become so pressingly noticeable that an agitation was begun to purchase another site and erect a new building exclusively for library purposes. The conditions were favorable. The Mercantile Library Association owned valuable property, which, with the growth of the city and by careful management, had risen in value from $10,000 to $75,000, less a debt of $11,000 to $12,000, which yet remained to be extinguished, and the Public Library owned 50,000 books. There was no good reason why the two should not now unite in the common object of giving Peoria a great library to be proud of, provided some method could be devised for effecting the union satisfactorily to all parties.
A proposition to this effect was made by the Directors of the Mercantile Library to the City Council, and was met with immediate and hearty approval.
In June, 1894, the Directors of the Public Library, supported by the action of the city council, purchased for $16,000, three lots on Monroe street, nearly opposite the Government Building, 108 feet front by 171 feet deep.
December 24, 1894, the Directors of the Mercantile Library sold their property, corner of Main and. Jefferson streets, and on July 10, 1895, the contract for the erection of the new Library building was let. The work of excavating for the foundation walls began the following morning, July 11, 1895.
The plans contemplate a three-story building, 78x135, the lower story front to be of Lake Superior red sandstone, the upper stories and the rear to be of red brick with red stone trimmings. The main delivery room and reading room will be on the second floor with the book or stack room of five stories, each 7 1/2 feet high from floor to floor, at the rear.
The building will be ready for occupancy in September next.
The number of volumes in the library is 58,000, the number of memberships in force, May 1, 1895, 5,888. The circulation of books for the last year reported, 1894-95, was 136,093. The number of
periodicals taken and always accessible in the reading room, is 250.
The library service consists of a Librarian and seven assistants.
A bindery with a complete outfit is carried on in the library, employing throughout the entire year, one head binder and three assistants.
The annual income from the city is $15,000.
Following arc the names of the Board of Directors for 1895-96:
R. C. Grier, President; H. W. Wells, Vice President; B. Cremer, Secretary; Henry Ullman, C. R. Vanderoot, M. W. Goss; T. M. McIlvaine, Frank Meyer and L. F. Houghton.
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