Today's Des Plaines Library Building is an impressive monument in the heart of our city. It has come a long way from humble beginnings.
At the turn of the century, the need for a public library was acutely felt. There was a referendum held in 1896 calling for a library, but it was defeated by a 3:1 margin. To give you an idea just how small the community was at that time, this was only a 142 to 50 vote.
Starting in 1904, a group of citizens lead by Dr. Clarence A. Earle started a campaign to establish a library. Earle wrote to industrialist Andrew Carnegie, the richest man in the world, who was financing libraries across the country. There would ultimately be 1,689 Carnegie Libraries built in the United States, accounting for almost half of the libraries in the country. Carnegie required that applicants demonstrate the need for a public library, provide a site, institute a tax equal to ten percent of construction cost to operate it, and agree to provide free service to all. Additionally, they would be asked about the status and population of the town and any existing library service.
While Carnegie rarely turned down a grant, Des Plaines was initially declined in 1904 due to its small population. A small private reading room called the Tabard Inn was created that year on Ellinwood Street above Walton's Drug Store, but this proved inadequate. Earle continued to petition Carnegie, who finally relented in 1906; the $5,000 grant would be among the smallest issued in Illinois.
Following a successful 1905 vote in the community to establish a library with its associated taxes, in May, 1906, a board of directors convened in the Village Hall. They selected a site at the corner of Miner and Graceland comprising nine lots, which the Village acquired. The library would be sited at the center of the property, directly behind an old tree. Plans were drawn up by architect George W. Ashby, and a building contract was let to Henry Inkman of Leavenworth, Kansas, with much of the local work sub-contracted to local Frank M. Cook. Like many Carnegie libraries, the main floor was raised, so that residents would both literally and metaphorically elevate themselves by entering. The building was triangular to match its lot, even though it was by no means constrained, giving it something of a dumbbell shape. The basement contained two club meeting rooms, one on either side of the building, while the main floor held the reading rooms connected by the librarian's desk in the middle, with the stacks behind the desk. This gave the librarian a clear view of the entire library. The building of course had ample windows, to let in the light to read by. The floors were covered with cork mats, to absorb what little sound patrons dared to make.
It opened to the public on October 5, 1907. The first librarian was Sarah Weeks and the first library card was issued to Edd Schlagel. Within 40 days, there were 741 books and 410 cards issued. In 1915, the previously bare lot was lushly filled out with 1,500 shrubs and trees donated by the Des Plaines Woman's Club. A stone-pile fountain was also added in front of the tree.
In 1936, the city had grown substantially and was able to build a new Municipal Building using Works Progress Administration funds; it would use the site of the old library. The library moved to the old State Bank building temporarily until it was able to move into its new wing at the Municipal Building. It is now the site of the Des Plaines Police Department parking lot.
Clarence Earle probably never could have predicted that the library he spearheaded would one day grow into such a large civic center complex, and the library itself would hit 80,000 square feet. But Des Plaines is much richer for these contributions.