Supporting the Community for 135 Years

by Trisha Noack
Peoria Public Library

As information needs have changed, the Peoria Public Library has responded in kind.

In 1880, the businesses in Peoria were somewhat different than they are today. Distilleries, livery stables and dry goods stores were prominent, but their owners were no less in need of the resources a public library could provide. And so, 135 years ago, Peorians voted to form a tax-supported public library.

Peoria had several “subscription” libraries for years prior to 1880, and both the Mercantile Library and the German Library Association donated their collections and funds to the newly formed public body.

The ability to form a tax-supported library was granted to the people of Illinois in 1872 when the Public Library Act, drafted by Peoria’s Erastus Willcox, was passed by the state legislature. This law was later adopted by 47 other states, a little-known but significant fact of local history. Willcox—the namesake of Willcox Avenue, who once had a branch library named for him—headed Peoria Public Library from 1891 to 1915. He was in charge when the original Peoria Public Library was built for $67,852.34 on Monroe Street near Main, opening for service on February 11, 1897.

Responding to Growth and New Needs
Business owners have long understood the importance of a good public library—not only as a source of information for themselves, but as an enhancement for the community. By 1926, the library had become so important to the business community that a special Business Room opened to hold the materials they needed most in one convenient place. During these early years, a Children’s Room and Art Room were also put to use, enriching the community and supplementing education and leisure activities.

As Peoria grew, so did the demand for library service. The first outreach effort was to place books in schools. Then, the city got its first real branch in the form of Lincoln Branch, which opened in 1911 after Andrew Carnegie made a generous gift of $20,000 to build a Carnegie library in Lincoln Park. The building—one of the few remaining Carnegie libraries to be in continuous use as a library—has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Over the years, the Peoria Public Library continued to respond to new growth and new needs. In 1925, it began providing services to the blind, and five years later, service to the Peoria Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium began. A branch library opened in a storefront at the corner of Knoxville and McClure in 1926, and just over a decade later, gained its own building, the current McClure Branch, on land donated by the school district. It was recognized by the City Council as a historic landmark in 2014. The now-closed Willcox Branch opened for service in 1944. Exciting new services like the Audio-Visual Department film service and phonograph record lending service started up in 1949 and 1951, respectively.

With the baby boom in full swing, “neighborhood stations” opened in grocery stores, but it wasn’t long before the West Bluff Branch and the Prospect Branch replaced them. As the 1960s dawned, the focus turned to replacing the outdated 1897 Main Library with a new, modern building. Hotly-contested referendums were held in 1964 and 1965, with the referendum finally passing and a new building opening in 1968 in the same block on the corner of Main and Monroe.

A few years later, Lakeview Branch opened in 1974, but talk immediately turned to opening a “North Branch” to serve the new developments that were being built. In the meantime, the Peoria Public Library adopted new technologies with the onset of the computer age. On its 100th anniversary in 1980, the first computerized catalog was introduced. Rapid changes in technology brought the first public-use computers and internet access to the library in 1996.

Libraries for All
By 2005, it was apparent that a new long-range plan must be developed, as the entire northern half of the city had no service and the south side had tiny “reading rooms,” with limited hours and collections that did little to provide literacy or lifelong lea

rning services. After a successful referendum campaign entitled “Libraries for All” and a few years of building, the Peoria Public Library ushered in a new era of streamlined service with one new location and four remodeled ones opening between May of 2011 and April of 2012.

While the buildings house collections of books, movies, magazines and CDs, the attractive meeting rooms have become a mainstay for sharing ideas, decision-making, education and entertainment. More than 150 public computers, plus free wifi, provide internet access to the community for activities as far-ranging as filling out job applications to viewing photos of grandchildren. In addition, two computer labs provide spaces for training. For those in the community without a computer or internet access, the library provides a lifeline and levels the playing field.

Businesses can use the multitude of databases available online at peoriapubliclibrary.org to research financial information, build mailing lists, locate information on businesses, offer language learning to employees, and download or stream music or movies, as well as e-books and audiobooks on a wide variety of topics. The Peoria Journal Star and most of the nation’s important newspapers are available as well. All of these services are available from anywhere over the Internet with a Peoria Public Library card and PIN. Many business travelers take advantage of downloading e-books while traveling or looking up pertinent information as they visit clients. In addition, librarians still perform the function of finding answers—anyone can call, email or go to an information desk and get help finding the information they need. In fact, the library staff answers an average of 174 questions per day.

In 2014, the Peoria Public Library again proved its importance to the community, tallying up 759,889 visitors and loaning 1,242,037 items, while more than 12,000 patrons of all ages attended its free programs. As information needs change over the next 135 years, the Peoria Public Library stands ready to assist the business community—and the community at large. iBi

Trisha Noack is manager of public relations at Peoria Public Library. A complete history of Peoria Public Library can be found at issuu.com/peoriapubliclibrary/docs/ppl_history_book. For more information, visit peoriapubliclibrary.org.

Subscribe to Peoria Magazines

Add new comment