Libraries Now and Then
A more modern library, not a good one
March 4, 1977
I’m sentimental about Springfield old Carnegie library because I experienced it as a patron, not as a librarian. I am the last person to begrudge good librarians the facilities they need to do their jobs, but the old libraries felt like institutions and the new ones feel like buildings with books in them.
I praised the new building housing Springfield's public Lincoln Library when it opened. I would later change my mind. The building's virtues, here described, remained real but the space proved characterless and bland and, oddly, noisier than the old one, owing to the central atrium around which each floor is arrayed.
The grand opening of Lincoln Library's new main branch was, as they say, a real occasion. It's been an eventful year in Springfield, what with Paul Revere riding through town on a horse and Gerald Ford riding through on a train , (both of them, it turned out, on one-way trips), but neither of those events generated as much excitement, as much plain good feeling as the library opening. "Imagine," I heard one woman remark, "a library like this in little ol’ Springfield." The new facility made Springfield a better place to live in and a lot of people felt a little better about living here because of it. The whole thing was a perfect antidote to the February blahs that weigh so heavily on folks after winter has lost its novelty and spring is still many weeks away.
The library's virtues as a building are debatable, like those of any new structure. An enthusiastic majority was delighted, but a few thought the exterior stolid and intimidating, and a lawyer I know worried (with some cause, I think) that the building was a little too large for its site. Others would doubtless find about eight million reasons to dislike it, but their gripes are financial, not architectural.
Whatever the merits of the structure as a building, though, there's no doubt that it will be a more successful library than its predecessor. The old Carnegie-funded temple that used to sit on the 7th and Capitol site was the town's library for something like sixty-five years. It had to be torn down because (mainly) it lacked floor space and flexibility—both assets the new building has in abundance.
As I strolled around the bright and spacious floors of the new library I thought of the old library. Many of us who grew up in Springfield did a lot of that growing up in the old main branch. It was there, for example, that generations of Springfield school kids mastered the arcane skills which would prove so useful in their later academic careers—how to write a plausible book review without reading the book, how to inflate two pages of ideas into ten pages of report, how to camouflage an article from the encyclopedia so the teacher wouldn't recognize the source. I remember especially the ominous tolling of the chimes on the grandfather clock that stood on the stairway landing, reminding me of how much time had passed—and how little work I'd done—on those Saturday afternoons before the Monday mornings when term papers were due.
Many of us who first went there as students later returned as readers. I remember the feeling of having arrived someplace important that I felt when, turning twelve, I qualified for an adult borrower's card and was thus able to lift myself (both physically and metaphorically) from the world of the children's room on the ground floor to the higher plane of the main room upstairs. I remember the glass-floored stacks where it was always too hot and where the price of admission was the sharp bite of static electricity that nipped at your finger when you laid your hand on the brass-knobbed stair railing. I remember the bums who sat for hours, sometimes fast asleep, in front of open magazines or newspapers without turning a page—this masquerade being the price paid for being allowed to sit inside where it was warm and dry. I remember the tiny men's room that had a stink no disinfectant could erase. I remember the cramped office of the public relations director (a peculiarly modern need the building's architects could not have anticipated in 1905) hidden behind shelves of westerns and mystery novels in the Popular Books Room because there was no place else in the building to put it. I remember once being escorted into the nether world below stacks, a place so dark and cramped I half expected to see dust-smeared librarians wearing coal miners' hats creeping around corners peering through the gloom for a book buried there. And I remember those agreeable summer afternoons when I paused during the time between buses and stretched out with a good book on a cool stone bench beside the main entrance.
Naturally there will be memories of the new building too. I have one or two already, the first of them picked up on that busy, happy opening day two Mondays ago. I tried to recall then when I'd first visited the old building, but I couldn't be sure. I think I was ten years old. I'd spent that summer going through the small collection at the South Branch, devouring anything they had about baseball, dinosaurs, explorers and aviation; the librarian there had to lick herself dry putting tinfoil stars on my summer reading program score sheet. Anyway, I'd felt good that day twenty years ago, thinking about the pleasures in store. I felt a little like that again while I was touring the new library. A lot of us did. ●
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One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
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Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
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“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
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One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
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A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
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A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
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The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
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The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
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Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
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Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.
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