The concept of a public library is still astounding: read all of the books you want-for free. And it's a concept that's worked beautifully in Peoria for 125 years. But how did this landmark come to be? And what's going on at the library now? As the librarians would encourage, read on.

How Peoria Helped Create the National System
According to Peoria Public Library Public Relations Coordinator Trisha Noack, there had been subscription library services available in Peoria since 1855, but it wasn't free, as members had to pay dues. "A rivalry between two clergymen got the Peoria Mercantile Library and the Peoria Library opened just weeks apart. In 1857, a third library, the German Library Association, also opened."

In 1872, the State of Illinois passed a law allowing communities to start tax-supported library service, Noack said. "The law was actually authored by E.S. Willcox, the librarian for the Mercantile Library and, later, Peoria Public. It was the first comprehensive library law in the United States and was subsequently copied by all 47 other states. The City of Peoria soon voted to establish a tax-supported library, and in 1880, it opened its door on the second floor at Adams and Fulton. The Peoria Mercantile Library had constructed a new building in 1878, and within a year of the public library opening, both the German Library Association and the Peoria Mercantile Library had donated their collections to the public library. In addition, the newly established Peoria Public Library rented rooms in the Mercantile Library Building at the corner of Main and Jefferson."

Peoria purchased three lots on Northeast Monroe 1894, and the Peoria Mercantile Library sold its building and donated the proceeds of $63,000 to the city, she said. "A committee oversaw construction, and a new library building was opened in February 1897 at a cost of only $67,852. This new building, which lasted for almost 70 years, was built with the future in mind. At first, the library occupied only the second floor, and the first floor was designed with rooms to be rented out to produce income. The third floor was designed for the use of art and scientific societies."

Noack said when the building first opened, there were five decks of book stacks at the rear, but only two were equipped with shelving. "It took 40 years for the collection to expand to the point of needing all five decks and 30 years for the library to fill the first floor. In 1910, a children's room opened on the first floor. By 1926, the library opened a business room, also on the first floor, joining the Art Room that was opened previously."

Naturally, over the course of 125 years, library services-as well as spaces-have expanded. "Before the Peoria Public Library even had a permanent home, it had begun outreach services by inaugurating school library service in 1891 and creating a collection library at first Neighborhood House and then moving it to Manual High School. In 1909, Andrew Carnegie announced a gift of $20,000 for the building of Peoria's first branch library. In 1911, the Lincoln Branch Library was opened and stands as one of Peoria's architectural gems and one of fewer than 100 Carnegie Libraries left in Illinois today."

Today, Noack said Lincoln, South Side, RiverWest, Lakeview, and McClure Branch Library, as well as the main library on Monroe, serve the center and southern areas of the city, while the Bookmobile makes 39 stops at 36 locations over two weeks in the northern areas of the city. "The library also maintains 14 outreach book depositories at locations such as hospitals and nursing homes."

The library claims a collection of 578,813 books; 1, 338 books on CD; 5,817 books on tape; 106,070 periodicals; 8,793 music CDs; 11,437 VHS tapes; 1,711 DVDs; 126,112 government documents; 12,835 maps; and 261,108 microfilms, according to Noack.

She said the automation of the library collection and the addition of public use computers have been a big change for the library, as well as other technology like self-check out machines. "More changes are coming, such as radio frequency identification tags for materials that will make it simple to track down a misshelved book and speed check out for patrons, as well as provide loss control for materials. The Peoria Public Library remains the one place where the public can access high-speed Internet and the latest software free of charge."

The way patrons find books also has changed. "An online catalog has replaced the old card catalog," Noack said. "While this is a big change for some patrons, they quickly learn the many advantages of being able to access not only the local collection, but to see what books are available throughout the 32-county Alliance Library System. Interlibrary loan takes on a new meaning when patrons can spot the exact book they want and have it sent within a short time to their closest branch. One wonders what the early librarians, who only let you read your book in the building, would think."

As has been the case since its inception, expect more changes from the library and its branches. "For instance, the hours at RiverWest Library are changing to offer maximum access to the computer lab for anyone who'd like to take online classes or proctored online exams. The library will be open earlier and every other Saturday soon. In the near future, PPL probably will offer even more resources over the Internet to patrons at home or in the library. It's important to deliver information in the way people expect. As has been pointed out often, the Lakeview Branch is geographically in the center of the city and yet serves the entire northern half of Peoria. It's hoped there will be support eventually to build a branch that'll offer closer service to residents of the far north. Many patrons also would like to see expanded Sunday hours at locations other than just Lakeview."

Happy Birthday-And Many More
Noack said the library has events planned all year to mark the 125-year milestone; three are planned for April, as well as a display of historic items from the Peoria Public Library's past. "At 7 p.m., April 5, Illinois Poet Laureate Kevin Stein will do a poetry reading and speak at the Downtown Library auditorium. From 4 to 6 p.m., April 20, a 125th anniversary reception takes place on the main floor of the Peoria Public Library Downtown. At 4:30, the winged lions that perched atop the original library building will be unveiled. They'll have been restored by local sculptor Nita Sunderland. At 5 p.m., the Hayloft Gift Shop unveils its 2005 historic Christmas ornament that was designed to commemorate the 125th anniversary. Refreshments will be served, and historic items from the library's collection will be on display, as well as anniversary greetings from patrons and other organizations."

While some of the changes have been funded through private donors and foundations, such as Friends of Peoria Public Library, the library is overwhelmingly supported by a real estate tax paid by property owners in the City of Peoria, Noack said. "The State of Illinois has laws that regulate this tax levy, and the Peoria City Council must approve adjustments during the yearly budget negotiations. This past year, the library asked for and received a very small increase that was needed just to keep services at the same level. Services, by the way, that are offered to even more people with less staff than the library had 10 years ago. The rising cost of insurance and health care has impacted the library budget the way it has every other employer. Right now, the average Peorian contributes about $2 a week to keep the library open."

And if $2 a week sounds too pricey, Noack said to remember that a library is a unique resource created by the people of a community for everyone's benefit. "A public library levels the playing field, allowing everyone to have access to information, art, meeting space, recreation, and technology. Each citizen can read the same books and magazines, view the same movies and exhibits, and conduct the same research. It provides a way to have the ultimate in resources at the lowest possible price for individuals and organizations alike. No one needs to be left out of the learning curve as long as the library remains a vibrant resource available to everyone."

She said it's important to remember the people actually govern the library. "They vote for the mayor, who appoints the Peoria Public Library Board of Trustees. They oversee the director of the library, who oversees the running of the institution. In the same way, the direction the library takes comes from the people who walk through the door. Comments are collected, usage of materials is tracked, and the staff does its best to order materials that meet the documented needs of the community."

Noack said among the misperceptions out there, one of the newest is that the Internet can replace the library. "The Internet-even with the wonderful digitization projects being undertaken by many Internet companies-can't begin to offer the collections the library and the interlibrary loan system can. More importantly, the library has the most valuable resource of all: trained librarians who can help patrons find exactly what they need. Librarians are trained to manage the collection and to know every trick in the book about finding needed information."

Noack said the best part about her work with the library is being able to share her own excitement about this marvelous resource with the rest of Peoria. "I love being able to tell someone who wasn't raised with the library experience what they've been missing and getting them to just take a tiny taste. The most challenging part, however, has been keeping dreams at a point that matches the funding. We see what other libraries are doing and know how well it would suit our patrons, but we can't afford it. Some examples of that are expanding the Web site and offering more databases online, offering more meeting space and space with the latest technology, building a branch in the north, offering Internet access from the Bookmobile, and even installing a coffee bar like one in the new Chillicothe Library."

To ensure some-or all-of these dreams become reality, Noack said the Peoria Public Library needs support from the voters. "It's important to ask your city council representatives and mayor how they feel about the library and to call them and tell them how important the library is to you and your family or business. It's also important for everyone to take a minute and get a library card. It's your right as a citizen and essential to your success and enjoyment of life. Joining the Friends of Peoria Public Library or donating used books for their fundraising is also important. As always, numbers count." AA!