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First Public Library in Illinois

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Like those teenage boys who grow out of three pairs of pants in a single year, the town of Chicago back in the 1840s grew into a big bully before Rock Island and other Illinois communities realized it. Almost overnight, the whole rest of Illinois, outside of Chicago, became downstate. Then, on October 6th, 1871, the bully unexpectedly did something useful for the good little boys and girls. It burned down.

One benefit to Rock Island was almost immediate. Illinois communities like Rock Island had been pushing the state legislature to pass a public library bill which would give town the power to assess taxes to support libraries. As did many a town, Rock Island had a Young Men's Library Association which made books available to dues-paying members, but these organizations were barely surviving.

The Illinois legislature seemed to be in favor of public libraries, but library bills were invariably sent back to one committee or another for further reading and refining, so nothing happened.

Until the Great Chicago Fire. By contemporary estimates, some two to three million books in various private libraries burned up in that fire. People across the United States responded by donating thousands of books to Chicago. There was no library to house the books.

Even the state was afraid of the big bully. The legislature quickly passed Illinois' first ever public library bill, authorizing local tax money to support libraries.

Several Illinois communities, including Chicago, acted at once, but Rock Island ran the fastest. By October 12th, the mayor had appointed a library board. A week later the by-laws were passed. The Young Men's Library Association donated their collection to the new library. And on November 25th, 1872, the Rock Island Public Library opened its doors and became the first public library in Illinois.

By the time the big bully opened its library a month later, a thousand books had already been checked out in Rock Island.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.