Landmarks on the way to the new Pekin Public Library

By Jared Olar

Library Assistant

In the previous installment of our ongoing series on the history of the Pekin Public Library, we recalled how Pekin’s “Baby Boom” population increase and the steady growth of the library’s collection led to the decision in the late 1950s to begin planning on a new, larger library building.

It was the dream of Pekin Mayor J. Norman Shade that the new building would house both the Pekin Public Library and a Dirksen Congressional Center that would serve as an archive for the papers of U.S. Sen. Everett M. Dirksen of Pekin and a research center for students of the history and workings of the U.S. Congress.

In January of 1964, incorporation papers for the Dirksen Center were filed with the Illinois Secretary of State by Mayor J. Norman Shade, Walter V. McAdoo, and Harold E. Rainville. From that point, preparations for a new library really began to ramp up. The next visible development in that planning process came in December of 1965, when the Pekin library board acquired two more residential properties behind the library.

Around that same period of time, there came another development that was very important to the Pekin Public Library and many other Central Illinois libraries. On Jan. 7, 1966, Pekin Library Board Chairman John E. Velde Jr. was elected first president of the new Illinois Valley Library System, which then included 17 public libraries in Tazewell, Peoria, and Woodford counties.

It was in Dec. 1965 that the Pekin Public Library joined the Illinois Valley Library System, which was a predecessor of the present Alliance Library System to which Pekin’s library now belongs. Somewhat later than his election as IVLS president, Velde would be named to President Richard Nixon’s new National Commission on Libraries and Information Sciences.

The next major landmark in Pekin Public Library history occurred about a year later. On Dec. 31, 1966, it was announced that Pekin’s Carnegie library would be razed and replaced by a larger, modern structure. Charles M. Mohrhardt and Ralph A. Ulveling, head of the Detroit, Mich., library system, were invited by the library board to share their insight and expertise in helping to plan the new structure.

After about two years of the library board’s planning work, on Nov. 1, 1968, Pekin Public Library director John Wicks announced that the architectural firm of John B. Hackler and Co. of Peoria was awarded the contract to design for the new library and Dirksen Congressional Center, projected to cost $750,000.

In the midst of the preparations for a new library, in February of 1971 the library board appointed Mrs. Paula Weiss of Columbia, Mo., as head of Pekin Public Library’s Children’s Department and Cataloging Department. Weiss would eventually become the Pekin library director.

Nearly six years after the announcement that the Pekin Carnegie library would be replaced by a new and larger structure, the design concept of John B. Hackler and Co. was unveiled. On Oct. 15, 1971, Pekin Public Library director Richard N. Peck revealed the plans for the new library and Dirksen Center, a 37,000-square-foot facility (of which 15,500 square feet would be occupied by the Dirksen Center) to be built at a projected cost of $1,450,000. The facility would be a two-storey structure and would include a hall for public assemblies and events as well as an exhibition hall.

This 1971 architect’s drawing shows the layout of the main floor of the planned facility that would house the Pekin Public Library and Everett M. Dirksen Congressional Research Center, as designed by Peoria architects John B. Hackler and Co. The facility was built and modeled according to this plan.

The structure’s planned dimensions would later be trimmed to 32,500 square feet, of which 11,000 square feet would belong to the Dirksen Center and 19,000 square feet would house the Pekin Public Library facilities.

The next stage of the planning process arrived on June 20, 1972, when the Pekin library board accepted the low bid of Del Construction Co. of Washington, Ill., to build the new library and Dirksen Center for $1,111,780. That cost later was adjusted in Jan. 1973 with the addition of $51,842 in needed sewer system, pumping, and sidewalk work, because the Hackler design called for a sunken structure.

And with that, construction of the new library and Dirksen Center got under way.

But that is a story we will tell next week.

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Pekin’s library outgrows the Carnegie building

By Jared Olar

Library Assistant

Continuing our series on the history of the Pekin Public Library, this week we recall the challenges that the library faced by the mid-20th century due to the demographic “Baby Boom” during the years after World War II.

As related in previous installments of this series, Pekin built its first library in 1902-1903 with the help of industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Pekin’s Carnegie library was more than adequate for the community’s needs for the first four or five decades of its existence.

During those decades, the public’s library use gradually and steadily increased, and the library saw growth in its circulation numbers and the size of its collection. During the 1940s and 1950s, however, the Pekin Public Library experienced a surge in circulation, due in large part to the great increase in numbers of births across in the nation in those years.

By the 1950s it was glaringly obvious that the Carnegie library was no longer large enough to serve the community well. That is not surprising, considering that the library was built to serve a city of only about 8,500 persons. U.S. Census figures show that in the period from 1900 to 1940, the population of Pekin had increased from 8,420 to 19,407. In the decade from 1940 to 1950, that number grew to 21,858 – an increase of 2,451. But from 1950 to 1960, Pekin’s population leaped to 28,146, an increase of 6,288, almost three times as much as the increase during the previous decade.

Meanwhile the library was still the same size as it was when Paul O. Moratz designed it in 1902 and J. D. Handbury built it in 1902-03: less than 5,000 square feet. By 1960, the library’s collection included nearly 40,000 books, whereas the library had been designed to house no more than 15,000 books. By the end of the Sixties, the library’s collection had soared to about 45,000 books, three times the size for which the library building had been designed. Crowding was especially bad in the Children’s Department in the library basement.

In light of the Carnegie library’s crowding and space limitation problems that were exacerbated by the Post-War Baby Boom, the library board began looking ahead to a possible expansion or construction of a new library. With that in mind, in August of 1959 the board purchased all of the land between the corner of S. Fourth St. and the corner of S. Capitol St. That same year, Pekin Mayor J. Norman Shade proposed building a new library.

Then in Sept. 1962, Mayor Shade convened a special meeting of the library board at Pekin City Hall. During the meeting, Mayor Shade outlined his plan for a new library, which would also include a Dirksen Center to house the papers of Pekin’s beloved native son, U.S. Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen.

Shade said the new library was expected to cost $450,000, and would be paid for out of the library’s budget and reserves rather than by issuing bonds or increasing property taxes. “The library can save enough from its current operating budget to build a library within a period of five to eight years,” Shade said at the meeting.

In this Pekin Daily Times photograph of Jan. 10, 1964, Pekin library board chairman John E. Velde Jr. shows Pekin Mayor J. Norman Shade the cornerstone of the 1902 Pekin Carnegie library. By 1964 plans were taking shape to replace the Carnegie library with a larger edifice and a Congressional Research Center to house the papers of U.S Sen. Everett M. Dirksen of Pekin.

About two months later, in Nov. 1962, the library board purchased the 89-year-old First United Presbyterian Church and several adjacent properties and residences for $69,000. The church, which relocated to a new structure on Highwood Ave. on Pekin’s east side, had long been the library’s next-door neighbor on the west side of S. Fourth St. With these acquisitions, the library had about one additional acre on which it could expand or build a new library.

After remaining in a somewhat inchoate form for several years, planning for a new library and Dirksen Congressional Center began to assume a definite form in January of 1964, when incorporation papers for the Dirksen Center were filed with the Illinois Secretary of State by Mayor J. Norman Shade, Walter V. McAdoo, and Harold E. Rainville.

From that point on, preparations for a new library really began to ramp up over the next few years. We will tell that part of the story next week.

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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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Dirksen’s ‘Long, Hard Furrow’

This is a reprint of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in August 2013, before the launch of this weblog.

Dirksen’s ‘Long, Hard Furrow’

By Jared Olar
Library Assistant

During African-American History Month, it is an appropriate time to recall the crucial role that Pekin’s own Sen. Everett McKinley Dirksen played in the passage of the landmark Civil Rights of Act of 1964.

As a matter of fact, were it not for Dirksen, the efforts to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would have foundered. Dirksen’s place in the story is spotlighted by Frank H. Mackaman of the Dirksen Congressional Center, in his 2006 book, “The Long, Hard Furrow – Everett Dirksen’s Part in the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” a copy of which is in the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room collection.

The story Mackaman tells takes the reader behind the scenes in Washington, D.C., uncovering, or at times speculating about, the political stratagems and deal-making that brought about the bill’s passage. The bill was introduced by the administration of President John F. Kennedy on June 19, 1963, when the Kennedy administration sent the bill to the House of Representatives. Dubbed HR 7152, the bill had 11 sections or “titles,” conventionally designed by Roman numerals.

Even though the Democratic Party controlled the White House as well as both houses of Congress, the bill encountered opposition in Congress from segregationist, racist Democrats from the South. In addition, although the Republican Party had long supported civil rights for blacks in the face of Democrat opposition, many Republicans nevertheless objected to certain provisions of the bill on constitutional grounds.

Dirksen, who was the leader of the Republican Party in the Senate, himself was favorable to the bill in general. He had a solid record of support for civil rights legislation, but he expressed principled objections to some of the wording in Title II, on “Public Accommodations,” which prohibited places that are open to the general public from discriminating against anyone on the basis of race.

Mackaman explains Dirksen’s initial position on Title II in this way (p.22):

“Traditional Republican civil rights supporters argued that the provision should rest on the 14th amendment’s guarantee that blacks should not be denied equal protection of the laws by any state, rather than on Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce as the administration bill proposed. In June 1963, Dirksen sided with those who would support only a voluntary public accommodations provision. He opposed Title II.”

Because the Democrats were sharply divided on civil rights, the Kennedy administration and the Democratic Congressional leadership understood that the Civil Rights Act could not pass without solid bipartisan support. That meant the Democrats needed Republican support. The Republicans also were divided on this issue, but not as sharply as the Democrats. Because Dirksen was then the Senate minority leader, the White House and Congressional Democrats knew they needed Dirksen on their side.

The Washington Press corps also knew Dirksen’s support for the bill was crucial. As Mackaman says (p.26), “Doris Fleeson, writing for the [Washington] Evening Star in mid-July [1963], for example, opened her story on civil rights with these words: ‘The man to watch during Washington’s bruising civil rights battle is not President Kennedy, the Attorney General or the Negro leaders but effusive, ever-loving Dirksen.

To ensure Dirksen’s support, the White House and Congressional Democrats pursued a two-pronged approach, using what they called an “Inside Strategy” and an “Outside Strategy.” The “Inside Strategy” consisted of efforts from Sen. Hubert Humphrey and other Democrats to woo Dirksen, while the “Outside Strategy” was made up of letter writing, advocacy from church leaders, marches and street protests and printed newspaper editorials. Mackaman observes that it’s not clear how effective either strategy was, and in particular Dirksen did not like pressure tactics of the sort deployed in the “Outside Strategy.”

In any case, at the time of Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, the bill remained deadlocked. The day before Kennedy’s assassination, Dirksen had criticized Kennedy for inaction on the bill, and Mackaman concurs with Dirksen’s criticism, writing, “. . . Kennedy had been a reluctant warrior in the battle for civil rights . . . he chose not to make it a priority” (p.33). Kennedy’s focus was on foreign policy.

Things changed under President Lyndon Johnson, and the early months of 1964 saw a renewed bipartisan push to overcome the issues that had kept the bill bogged down in Congress. After a good deal of debate and negotiation, passages of the bill were amended to Dirksen’s satisfaction, and he threw his unreserved support behind it.

[W]e dare not temporize with the issue which is before us,” Dirksen said in his speech calling for the Senate to end debate (“cloture”) and proceed to a vote. “It is essentially moral in character. It must be resolved. It will not go away.” Speaking of the struggle against racial discrimination, Dirksen said, “It has been a long, hard furrow and each generation must plow its share . . . The time has come for equality of opportunity in sharing of government, in education, and in employment. It must not be stayed or denied. It is here!

Wholly apart from the momentous issue before the Senate, the vote for cloture was itself historic. As Mackaman writes, “Never in history has the Senate been able to muster enough votes to cut off a filibuster on a civil rights bill. And only once in the thirty-seven years since 1927 had it agreed to cloture for any measure.” Yet that is exactly what the Senate did. On June 10, 1964, the motion to end debate passed by a vote of 71-29, with 44 Democrats and 27 Republicans voting for cloture and 23 Democrats (20 of them from the South) and only six Republicans opposed.

Only minutes after the vote, Washington NAACP chief Clarence Mitchell told reporters, “It’s simply fantastic. [Dirksen] worked steadily and effectively for the bill. No one deserves more credit from our point of view.” Mitchell’s sentiments were echoed by many other members of the civil rights coalition.

The bill was then formally approved by the Senate on June 19, by a vote of 73-27. About two weeks later, the House of Representatives approved the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and President Johnson signed it into law on July 2.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Sen. Everett M. Dirksen of Pekin visits the Lincoln Memorial.

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