With each beginning, history becomes more important
Researched and written by library volunteer Frank Patterson
Beginnings are important. Rare is the child who does not ask, “Where did I come from?” or the religion without a story of genesis.
With long-standing institutions like the public library, we may forget that there was a time when they were not, but, of course, they too had their beginnings.
In Aurora, the call for a public library came early. The discussion began in 1838, only a year after the town’s establishment.
Burr Winton, one of Aurora’s local legends, was among the first to broach the issue.
Born in 1801, Winton was the second white child born in his native Schuyler County, New York. He lived there until his late 30s, working in farming and carpentry. Upon hearing so much of the western country, Winton embarked on a 21-day trek to Illinois via water and stage, settling in Aurora in 1836. Eight families resided in the town at that time.
Winton was a busy man in Aurora, working as a carpenter and as sexton (caretaker) of the east side cemetery. He owned a hearse, which he rented out, and he served as Aurora’s first postmaster.
At that time, the tiny village was not up to the task of starting a public library. Winton and others organized a group called the Young Men’s Association. With each member paying $2 a share for the purchase of “popular and instructive works,” a library was established in Winton’s home on North Avenue.
The Young Men’s Association accumulated about 600 volumes before combining, in 1859, with The Young Men’s Literary and Historical Society. The latter group had about 400 volumes in its collection prior to the merger.
The resultant group became known as The Young Men’s Literary Association of Aurora.
Although the library was not yet public — only members could borrow books — the collection that would eventually pass to the Aurora Public Library was off to a grand start.
The civil war was a game-changer
Beginning April 12, 1861, with Confederate forces firing upon Fort Sumter, the War Between the States drew young men away from their hometowns. With so many of our local men gone off to fight, the Young Men’s Literary Association of Aurora ceased to exist and the fledgling library fell into disuse.
Thankfully, the cause was not abandoned. The townspeople came together to form yet another group, which on February 16, 1864, was incorporated by the Illinois legislature as The Aurora Library Association. A year later, that body took over the collection amassed by the Young Men’s groups and found rent-free space in the rear of the post office, which at that time occupied most of the first floor of city hall.
Lee surrendered to Grant on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House, ending the war.
To honor those who had served, a committee formed in 1869 to oversee the erection of a soldier’s monument.
Funds were raised, but years passed without much progress.
New inspiration came in 1874, when Fred O. White visited Foxboro, Massachusetts. There, he saw a beautiful memorial building that combined the idea of a soldier’s monument with that of a public library. White relayed his findings to the committee, which obtained photographs and plans of the Foxboro building. After review, the decision was made to build a similar structure in Aurora. Work was begun on about the first of June, 1877, and on Independence Day, 1878, the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall was dedicated with speeches and fanfare, and then closed for more than two years.
During that time, a meeting of “two or three interested persons” was held in the editorial offices of the Aurora Herald newspaper. Those persons proposed to take advantage of an 1872 law passed by the Illinois legislature allowing municipalities to levy a tax of not more than two mills for the support of a public library. “After several adjournments,” it was concluded that they would try to get the city council to levy a library tax.
They perceived Councilman W.W. Bishop, “the watchdog of the treasury,” to be their major obstacle. Bishop reportedly was “opposed to every measure to increase taxes.” Therefore, they decided to ask him to be the one to introduce the ordinance, that he may become “father of the library.”
The ploy worked, and a tax of one mill (.001, or one-tenth of a penny) on the dollar was passed to support the public library.
On June 1, 1882, the Aurora Public Library opened its doors, but by 1883, it was already apparent that the building was not large enough.”[E]very shelf was filled with books, and temporary provision became necessary,” according to a news report.
From the beginning, the directors intended to have a reading room available for library patrons, but there was no space for such a room. The library was merely a collection of books to be checked out by the public.
The solution to these problems came in 1885 when a 44’ x 54’ annex was added to the building. The collection was moved into the annex, and tables and chairs were placed in the original building, allowing for a public reading room and meeting room for the G.A.R. veterans.
Finally, it seemed the library had reached maturity.
But Aurora had not. The city was still growing and the library was soon to feel the effects of that growth.
The New Century
On October 15, 1900, Dr. William A. Colledge, pastor of the People’s Church and president of the library board, penned a letter that would shape the Aurora Public Library for more than a century.
The letter was written to none other than Andrew Carnegie, the steel magnate, who was using his vast fortune to build libraries throughout the English-speaking world. In that letter, Dr. Colledge told of how the existing building was not large enough for the city’s fast-growing population, and he asked the great philanthropist for a new library building for Aurora.
Months passed without a response, but in January, 1901, the reply came. Mr. Carnegie would give $50,000 if the city obtained a site for the building and if the library tax would be continued.
Surprisingly, the tax does not seem to have been an issue. The problem can be summed up with the real estate broker’s mantra: “Location, location, location.”
Everyone, it seemed, had land to sell or donate to the city…
The heirs of Samuel McCarty, who had given Lincoln Park (now McCarty Park) to the city, agreed to relinquish all rights in the property should the library be built there.
Mr. and Mrs. J. O. Mason offered a lot at the corner of Lincoln Avenue and New York Street.
Charles Kilbourne offered an ambitious vision for building a huge civic center complex at the south end of Stolp Island and encompassing the two smaller islands south of Stolp Island. His vision placed the library at the very south end of the smaller islands, with those islands to be enlarged and connected by a landscaped drive through a little park. His plan also included a new high school, following the consolidation of the East Aurora and West Aurora school districts, and new buildings for the YWCA, YMCA and the Woman’s Club, should they wish to opt in.
There were many ideas and offers on the table, including a proposal to move the G.A.R. building to a site south of city hall, to free the site of the present library for the new one.
Amid all that, the east vs. west rivalry was at its height.
At a January 1902 meeting of the committee of the whole, the issue was put to rest.
Addressing the cross-town rivalry, Mayor George Alschuler scolded the councilmen: “This library location squabbling has become child’s play. This east side and west side talk is becoming monotonous. There is nothing to it. We are one great big city and we ought to work to the interests of that city alone and not for one side of the river or the other.
Following the mayor’s speech, Alderman Puffer moved that the meeting be opened to allow anyone who wished to speak on the issue, to do so. The motion was carried unanimously.
After many passionate words, the council chose to leave the decision to the library board, which chose the site donated by the Stolp family. The new library would be built on the south side of the island, where Joseph Stolp’s cattle once grazed.
Building for the future
No sooner had one conflict been settled, when a new one began.
The location had been chosen, but now the design of the building came into question.
It was the staff of the Aurora Daily Beacon who asked, “Shall we build for the future?” in the newspaper’s February 4, 1902 edition.
It appears the library board was to build a one-story library building, but, in a series of articles, the Beacon editors insisted that a two-story building “of plain and substantial design and of sufficient capacity can be built for $50,000.”
Undoubtedly, the planned one-story building would have suffered the fate of its predecessors, moving quickly into obsolescence. The two-story building served the city for many decades in its original form, and continues to do so today, in its modified form.
Carnegie-funded library opened on Aug. 22, 1904
The new Carnegie-funded library opened on August 22, 1904.
Finally, Aurora had a library building with enough space to serve its community as well as to allow for future growth.
Aurora Public Library, Aurora, IL
Outreach services began in 1909 with the opening of Aurora’s first branch library at Oak Park School on the city’s northeast side.
A newspaper article dated May 1, 1909 reported:
“It has been a long journey for the people there to reach the library on the island and now books are kept at the school house and loaned to the children and their parents under the same conditions as the books at the central building.
“This is one of the most important phases of library development and tends to bring within reach of all the taxpayers the privileges which have been denied them. The system will be extended as fast as possible.”
The prediction proved true. From 1919 through 1936, four more library branches were established in Indian Creek School, Brady School, Abraham Lincoln School and Bardwell School.
Abraham Lincoln branch, 1929
The Aurora Public Library system was in full bloom, but every garden needs maintenance.
In 1941, the library board embarked upon an 11-year remodeling of the Main Library building. The project began with redecoration of the main floor, including the children’s department.
Work on the second floor began in January, 1952, and was completed in August, 1953, creating three new departments: The art and technology department, the periodicals department, and the music department.
The $100,000 pay-as-you-go project made “the Aurora library one of the finest and most modern in this area,” according to the Aurora Beacon-News, and the project was “completed without extra expense to the taxpayer, or special levy or bond issue.”
A Traveling Branch
In the 1950s, postwar prosperity and the baby boom brought federal dollars to public schools for the development of their own school libraries.
This windfall for schools presented a problem for the branch libraries, many of which were housed inside school buildings.
Two branch libraries already had closed in the 1940s.
The Abraham Lincoln Branch Library closed in November 1944, and the collection at the Alice Doty Wernicke Music Branch at 512 Main Street (now East Galena) was moved to the Main Library in February 1946.
Now the East Branch Library, at Indian Creek School, and the Brady Branch Library were facing their demise.
In April 1953, librarian Eleanor Plain wrote a letter to the Illinois State Library, making a formal request for the loan of a bookmobile.
Plain wrote: “We were recently informed by the East side Board of Education that the room which houses our East Branch Library would be needed for school purposes. It is impossible to find another location in this area for a branch and a bookmobile would enable us to serve not only this district but other areas as well. Our Board has had a bookmobile in mind for several years … this would appear to be the right time to try one.”
The request was approved. The East Branch closed in August 1953. One month later, the Aurora Public Library rolled out bookmobile service with a 1945 Chevrolet-adapted bus loaned by the State of Illinois.
The new traveling branch was not immediately recognizable to all Aurorans. The first monthly report told of a lady who entered the bookmobile, handed a dime to the librarian on board and asked to be let off at Fifth Street.
The library purchased that first bookmobile from the state of Illinois in November 1955 and has owned and operated a bookmobile ever since.
First purchased bookmobile-1957
The Main Library building underwent its most dramatic change in 1969 when a $500,000 renovation project took place, completely changing the look of the building and almost tripling its size.
Wings were added to the sides of the original building, as well as a new three-story entrance containing the main stairway and an elevator.
Because bricks could not be found to match those of the original structure, the entire exterior was covered with a gray limestone facing on a black granite base.
The basement, which had been used to store paper documents, was cleared, as those documents were transferred to microfilm. The newly created space allowed room for the Children’s (now the Young People’s) Department, which had previously been located on the main floor.
Eola Road Branch opened in 1993.
In October, 1989, the Fox Valley Branch was established in McCarty Elementary School, 3000 Village Green Drive. That library served the far east side of Aurora until the Eola Road Branch opened in 1993, sharing the Eola Community Center building at 555 S. Eola Road with the Fox Valley Park District.
In 1998, The West Branch opened.
In 1998, the West Branch opened at 233 S. Constitution Drive, sharing a building with Washington Middle School.
The 21st century has already brought a number of changes to the Aurora Public Library, with many more anticipated.
The Eola Road Branch was expanded in 2003.
2010, (Mini-B) Bookmobile began operation.
In 2010, a minivan, or “Mini-B” (for Mini-Bookmobile) as it is called by library staff, began operation.
The Mini-B delivers library books and materials to the homebound. Now, any Aurora resident who cannot make it to the library — or even to the bookmobile — can register to have books, music and movies brought to their door.
That same year, the library acquired land at the SW corner of Benton and River Streets — the former location of the Beacon-News building — as the site of the new main library.
Express Center opened on Sept. 17, 2012
On Sept. 17, 2012, the Express Center opened at 1100 Church Road. In addition to books, e-readers, audio books, DVDs and magazines, the Express Center provides Internet access to patrons.
On May 1, 2013, ground was broken for a new main library building at 101 S. River Street, former home of The Beacon-News. Aurora Public Library was awarded a $10.8 million Public Library Construction Act grant through the office of Secretary of State and State Librarian Jesse White in January of that year, and later in 2013, Dr. Gina Santori made a donation of $3 million to establish a technology endowment to ensure that the downtown library and the branches would have the financial ability to provide the latest technology into the future.
The donation was announced on Dec. 23, 2013, along with the news that the new library would be named the Richard and Gina Santori Public Library of Aurora.
Dr. Santori is a physician and surgeon who is on staff at Rush-Copley Medical Center in Aurora. She practices on a pro bono basis, assisting renal and diabetic patients. She has commercial pilot licenses for both land and sea, and she guides the charitable foundation that was started by her late husband to support educational opportunities at the Santori School in Prey Veng, Cambodia.
A little more than two years after the groundbreaking, the Richard and Gina Santori Public Library of Aurora opened with a grand opening celebration on June 14, 2015.
More than 2,000 people attended the event, which featured Mayor Tom Weisner, Library Board President John Savage, Congressman Bill Foster and Dr. Gina Santori as speakers. The Ides of March performed three songs, and members of the West Aurora High School Air Force Junior ROTC raised the national and state flags for the first time on the new flagpoles. Cub Scouts from Troop 358 (Hall Elementary School) led the Pledge of Allegiance. After a ribbon cutting featuring members of the library board, city councilmen, featured speakers and others, the public was welcomed into the new building.
The Richard and Gina Santori Public Library of Aurora opened for business on June 15, 2015.
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