Looking back over 155 years of Pekin library history

By Jared Olar
Library Assistant

This month the Pekin Public Library marks an important anniversary in its history: it has been 125 years since the library became a branch of Pekin’s city government. It was in Feb. 1896 that the city of Pekin formally assumed the ownership and management of the old Pekin Library Association, a private corporation that was first organized in Nov. 1866.

So, while the library itself will turn 155 this November, the institution known as “Pekin Public Library” is now 125 years old. This anniversary provides a good occasion to take a look back over the library’s history. In today’s column, we’ll run through a general overview of the history of the library and the library building. In columns over the next few weeks and months, we’ll take close looks at specific aspects and episodes of the library’s history.

As both longtime residents of Pekin and attentive visitors to the library know, the current Pekin Public Library building is not the first one to be erected on its site. Prior to the construction of the current library in 1972, Pekin’s readers were served by a smaller structure that stood at the corner of Fourth Street and Broadway. When the old library was demolished, its former site became a sunken plaza, but since the 2015 remodel and expansion of the library, the old sunken plaza is no more, replaced by a quiet reading room and a grove of trees with water drainage.

That earlier library structure – one of the nation’s many Carnegie libraries, built in 1902 under the patronage of famous American industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie – was the first building constructed in Pekin to serve specifically as a public library. In 1900, Miss Mary Elizabeth Gaither (1852-1945) had written to both Carnegie and to Pekin banker George Herget, seeking their support for the construction of a library building. Carnegie agreed to provide funds, and Herget donated land to the city to provide a site for the new library, and Bloomington architect Paul O. Moratz was hired to design it.

Shown in this clipping from a 1901 edition of the Pekin Daily Times is Bloomington architect Paul O. Moratz’s sketch of his proposed design for the 1902 Pekin Carnegie Library. It has been 125 years since the city of Pekin assumed ownership of the Pekin Public Library.

To celebrate this milestone in Pekin’s history, a formal dedication ceremony took place on Tuesday, Aug. 19, 1902. On that occasion, the library’s cornerstone was laid – and within the cornerstone was placed a time capsule containing an assortment of documents and relics pertaining chiefly to the history of the plans and preparations leading up to the construction of Pekin’s Carnegie library.

The time capsule remained sealed for 70 years. When the old library was replaced with a new, expanded facility in 1972, the cornerstone was opened and the contents of the time capsule were found to be in a very good state of preservation. For many years after that, the cornerstone materials were stored at Herget Bank, later being transferred to the Pekin Public Library’s own historical archives, where they are stored and preserved today.

Among the items that had been placed in the 1902 time capsule were two local newspapers from February 1896 – a copy of the Pekin Daily Tribune and a copy of the Pekin Daily Evening Post, both of 13 Feb. 1896. They were selected for the time capsule because that date was close to the day that the library became a municipal body of Pekin’s city government.

Shown here is part of the front page of the Feb. 13, 1896, Pekin Daily Tribune, one of the newspapers that was preserved in the 1902 Pekin Public Library cornerstone time capsule.

Miss Gaither, whose actions and advocacy were responsible for the construction of our Carnegie library, prepared a historical report for the Library of Congress in 1903, in which she related the story of the library from 1866 to 1903. (Her historical account had previously been included in the 1902 time capsule.) Her “History of the Pekin Public Library” says:

On November 24th, 1866, a large number of the ladies of Pekin met to organize what was for many years known as the ‘Ladies Library Association.’” Also included in the cornerstone time capsule was one of the handwritten invitations to that meeting.

On March 5, 1883, the Pekin Library Association formally incorporated under the laws of the State of Illinois – the original, sealed articles of incorporation from 1883 also were included in the cornerstone time capsule.

Ten years later, on Feb. 6, 1893, the Library Association petitioned the city to have the library and its collection handed over to the city’s ownership. The process of transferring the library from private to public control was completed three years later.

Pekin’s Carnegie Library served the community for seven decades, after which construction began on an entirely new library in 1972 – the one still in use today. The new facility was also the home of the Dirksen Congressional Center for 28 years, and in June 1973, President Richard Nixon came to Pekin to dedicate the Dirksen Center. Two years later, in August 1975, President Gerald Ford returned to dedicate the new library building.

Since then, the Pekin Public Library has benefited from advances in technology and some remodeling. The most significant changes came in 2014 and 2015 thanks to a $6 million remodel and expansion that included a new entrance, community and conference rooms, study rooms and a quiet reading room, and a fresher, brighter, and lighter look within and without.


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