History of the Edwardsville Public Library

In 1819, Edwardsville was on the western frontier of the United States. Less than a year after Illinois became a state, the progressive frontier town was already home to a free public library. This first library, which preceded our current Carnegie library building by almost 100 years, was chartered in 1823. It consisted of 121 items and a single librarian, Mr. John H. Randle. The original book catalog of this library has been preserved, and is still viewable today.

Although this first library endured only a short time, it remains one of the oldest libraries in Illinois and the foundation upon which our current library rests. In the absence of a formal library, the essence of the library was preserved by a group of dedicated women, who tended the collection as it moved to various locations around Edwardsville. In 1879, the library was permanently rechartered. One of the most influential librarians to cultivate this new library was Sarah Coventry, whose years as head librarian from 1891 to 1937 make her the most enduring librarian ever to walk the stacks. With the support of the community, Miss Sarah's library continued to grow.

At the dawn of the 20th century, a collision of fate, community, and a Scottish steel magnate named Andrew Carnegie would radically change the library's history. Carnegie, in an attempt to disperse his considerable wealth, began to donate money to towns both small and large for the establishment of public libraries. In Carnegie's own words, "There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration". Carnegie's philanthropy built more than 2,800 libraries across the United States.

In 1903 Edwardsville resident Charles Boeschenstein, the publisher of the Intelligencer and a former mayor, wrote Andrew Carnegie to request funds to erect a library building. Through Boeschenstein's efforts, Edwardsville received $12,500 for the construction of a permanent home for the public library. The city of Edwardsville complemented Carnegie's offer by donating a parcel of land in the city park for the library to occupy.
Work began in 1904, and the building was dedicated on June 28, 1906. At that time a library membership cost 10 cents per month, which allowed access to a collection of roughly 500 books. To support the continued operation of the library, patrons hosted several community events and fund-raisers, such as concerts and card games.

In 1926, a section of the basement was transformed into the children's room, a place that continues to inspire and delight to this day. As the library and the community changed, the need for renovation of the Carnegie building became evident. In 1953, the heirs of Charles Boeschenstein came to the library's aid. Through their largess, a renovation of the library was undertaken with the hope of modernizing and improving the aging Carnegie Building.

In March 1956, as the renovation was drawing to a close, Edwardsville's residents were in Champaign supporting the boy's basketball team. On that fateful night the history of the Edwardsville Library changed drastically. An overheated stone hearth in the childrens’ reading room (now Carnegie's Cafe) is believed to have started a fire, which quickly consumed the contents of the library. No one was hurt, but most of the collection was destroyed by fire, smoke, or water. The stone walls survived the fire, and with the support of the community, the rebuilding of the Carnegie library began immediately. The library reopened its doors in 1957.

A year later, Edwardsville artist Miriam Mckinnie brightened the walls of the children’s room with whimsical scenes from children's tales. These scenes include "the pied piper of Hamelin", "hey diddle diddle", "sing a song of sixpence", and "mother goose". Not long after the reconstruction, it became apparent that the library needed to expand. In 1964, construction began on the north wing of the building, which opened in 1965. The wing added 2250 sq. feet to the library, which provided space for 15,000 books, and doubled the area of the reference room. Today, it houses the Gates Lab and the collection of the Madison County Genealogical Society.

In 1978 a dedicated group of volunteers decided to form a new organization to cement their commitment to the library. The Edwardsville Library Friends, or ELFs, aid in developing public understanding of the library and in making its resources better known to the community. The ELFs planned events to help support the library, such as "snacks in the stacks", herb and book sales, and Family Film Favorites. The ELFs would also play a key role in the future expansion of the library building.

In the early 1980's, the library took a technological leap with its first computer, the Apple II-E. Obtained through a $3,000 federal grant, it allowed many citizens of Edwardsville to have their first interaction with a computer. Technology began to play a more important role in the library when the catalog became automated in 1986.

In 1988, library director Susan Lucco, with the help of the ELFs, put forth a tax referendum to update and expand the Carnegie Library to match the needs of the growing community. The 2.4 million dollar referendum would expand the library from 8,000 to 20,000 square feet, while maintaining the Carnegie building style. The ELFs led the campaign for the referendum by telephoning more than 1,200 library patrons. After much hard work and determination, the referendum passed, allowing the library to take its current shape.

In 1989 ground was broken for the addition, and in the following two years of construction, noise, and sweltering summer heat the library remained open. The stone quarry that was used to build the original Carnegie library was located and used for the addition, seamlessly fusing the old library with the new.

Once the addition was completed, the entire collection and staff moved from the existing building to the addition to allow a complete renovation of the original library. In 1991 the addition and remodeled building were ready to serve the public. Shortly before the dedication ceremony, the ELFs came to the rescue once again. After heavy rains, the new children's room flooded, and the ELFs mobilized an army of men, women, and shopvacs, ultimately losing only one book. With the new addition, the library had more than doubled in size, added conference and meeting rooms, and became handicap-accessible. Equipped with new facilities, the library was ready to grow and thrive with Edwardsville.

The 1990's brought about a myriad of technological innovations; the library embraced new services as quickly as they became available, most notably the Internet and public access computers. The library took a delicious step forward with the addition of Carnegie's Cafe and Books in 1999. Carnegie's provides library patrons with refreshment and relaxation. In 2002, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation donated computers and financial support as part of a program to bring computers to public libraries. Edwardsville received two computer labs, which launched the library into a new realm of public service, capable of giving thousands of people access to the Internet each year. A few years later, the library began to provide wireless Internet access to patrons, creating a comfortable atmosphere for people to browse the Internet and the stacks.

100 years in this Carnegie library would not have been possible without a strong symbiosis between library staff and the community. The library maintains a tradition of change, adapting to the needs of Edwardsville's residents who gladly continue to patronize and support the library.

History Compiled by Amy Anson, Kevin Becker and Amanda Endicott