Thursday, June 18, 2009

Erastus Swift Willcox, Unsung Hero

A story about the Peoria Public Library and its problem with expanding a branch library on a site previously occupied by a cemetery recently appeared in American Libraries Online. Coincidentally, I have recently been reviewing the origin of the public library laws in Illinois and Wisconsin which have a direct connection to Erastus Swift Willcox (1830-1915), the first librarian of the Peoria Public Library. While librarian of the Peoria Mercantile Library, a forerunner of the Peoria Public Library, Willcox conceived the public library law that was substantially enacted by both Illinois and Wisconsin in 1872 and which was a model for a number of other states. Although New Hampshire adopted a state public library law in 1849, a solid case has been made that Willcox's public library law was the first comprehensive state public library law. Willcox realized that the fees charged by mercantile libraries and other membership libraries were not only inadequate for funding adequate library service but that they were significant barriers to library use by the general public. The Chicago Public Library: Origins and Backgrounds by Gwldays Spencer (University of Chicago Press, 1943) has an extensive account of the role Willcox played in the creation of the Illinois public library law which enabled the establishment of the Chicago Public Library. An article by Mark W. Soriensen in the Spring 1999 issue of Illinois Libraries entitled "The Illinois State Library: 1870-1920" is available an online and also records Willcox's contribution to the Illinois public library law. I'm always delighted to learn the story of one of our little known predecessors who made a significant contribution to the library legacy from which we all benefit. From all accounts the Peoria Public Library is flourishing with new and improved library facilities in the works. Unfortunately, I could find no mention of Erastus Swift Willcox on the library's website.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fred J. Soldan was the first librarian of Peoria Public Library. E. S. Willcox was the 2nd.