The ‘Pekin Public Library’ comes on the scene

By Jared Olar
Library Assistant

As we continue the story of the early history of Pekin’s library, this week we will learn how “Pekin Library Association Inc.” became the Pekin Public Library.

As we recalled last week, it was on April 5, 1883, that the Ladies Library Association of Pekin was formally incorporated under the laws of the State of Illinois under the new name of “Pekin Library Association” (a name the association had begun to use by 1882). In this way, the library ceased its existence as a local service club.

The decision to incorporate was taken with an eye toward possibly reestablishing the library association as a free community service that would be owned and provided by Pekin’s city government. Thus, Miss Mary Gaither’s history tells:

“In June, 1883, a committee called upon the City Council with a proposition to make the Library a free city Library, but the Council committee, to whom was referred the request, reported adversely.”

With that, the idea of turning the library into a department of city government was to lay dormant for another decade.

Three years later, Gaither’s history notes that the Library Association employed Miss Agnes Alexander was employed as librarian at a salary of $8 per month. The library cards that the association issued to its patrons had to be renewed every three months.

This 1883 Pekin Library Association library card was among the items preserved in the 1902 Pekin Carnegie library cornerstone time capsule. The card belonged to one of the daughters of Pekin’s pioneer historian William H. Bates, a local printer and journalist.

The library in those days continued to operate from the second floor of downtown Pekin buildings along Court Street. The 1888 Bates City Directory of Pekin says the Pekin Library Association then had its Library Room at 411 Court St., with its entrance between 413 and 414 Court. The library’s hours were, “Open every Tuesday evening and on Saturdays from 3 to 5 and from 7 to 9 p.m.,” the directory says.

According to Gaither’s history of the library, in the Spring of 1889, the library association relocated from the Frederick Building on Court Street to Pekin’s old city hall and firehouse at the corner of Fourth and Margaret streets.

In 1892, the library board approved a resolution that the Pekin Library Association should seek to become a municipal library operated by the Pekin city government. On Feb. 6, 1893, the association formally submitted a petition to the city government asking that the library and its collection be transferred to the city’s ownership.

The work to bring this transfer to completion took about three more years. It was through the efforts of Mrs. George Rider, library board president, and Miss Emily Weyrich, board secretary, that transfer of ownership to the city was accomplished, thereby converting library into a department of the city, called “the Pekin Public Library.” The library then had 2,449 books in its collection, 341 library card holders, and weekly circulation was 600 books.

Under city ownership, the library board’s first president was Mr. Henry M. Ehrlicher, and the secretary was Mr. Ben P. Schenck – men who would continue to play important roles in the library’s history in the coming years, as we shall see.

Most interestingly, although it wasn’t until mid-February of 1896 that the city assumed full ownership of the library, the Pekin Library Association began using the new name “Pekin Public Library” as early as 1893, the year the association submitted its petition to the city.

Thus, the Bates City Directories of Pekin for the years 1893 and 1895 both list the library as “Pekin Public Library, junction Court and Broadway” (i.e. Seventh and Court). The library was then operating out of a building at 616 Court St., which is now the parking lot of First Federal Savings of Pekin, and it would remain at that spot until 1899.

Next time we will tell of the Pekin Public Library’s early years as a city-run library.

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