The Chicago Public Library was created directly from the ashes of the great Chicago Fire. After Chicago’s Great Fire of October 8, 1871, A.H. Burgess of London proposed an “English Book Donation,” which he described, two months later, in the Tribune on December 7, 1871. “I propose that England should present a Free Library to Chicago, to remain there as a mark of sympathy now, and a keepsake and a token of true brotherly kindness forever…”
The plan carried the support of Thomas Hughes, a prominent member of Parliament and the well-known author of Tom Brown’s School Days, who had visited Chicago in 1870. The impending donation, consisting of over 8,000 books from England, prompted leading citizens of Chicago to petition for a public meeting to establish a Free Public Library. Previous libraries in Chicago were private libraries that required membership fees for their services. The public meeting led to the Illinois Library Act of 1872, authorizing cities to establish tax-supported libraries throughout Illinois.
In April 1872, the City Council passed an ordinance proclaiming the establishment of the Chicago Public Library. On January 1, 1873, the Chicago Public Library formally opened its doors at the southeast corner of LaSalle and Adams streets in a circular water tank that had survived the fire.
On October 24, 1873, the Board of the Chicago Public Library elected Dr. William Frederick Poole as librarian. The Library moved from location to location during its first 24 years of service, including an 11-year stay on the fourth floor of City Hall.
On Monday, October 11, 1897, the Central Library, at Michigan Avenue between Washington and Randolph streets, opened its doors to the public. The building, located on the grounds of Dearborn Park (named for the Fort Dearborn Military Reservation that formally encompassed the area), cost approximately $2 million to design and build. The building was designed by A.H. Coolidge, associate of the firm Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge of Chicago. In designing this building, 25 draftsmen took one year to complete approximately 1,200 drawings. Heedful of the lessons of the Chicago Fire, they designed the building to be practically incombustible.
The center of this building, now known as Preston Bradley Hall, contains a dome and hanging lamps designed by the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company of New York. The Washington Street entrance, Grand Staircase and Dome area also contain inscriptions of 16th century printers’ marks, authors’ names and quotations that praise learning and literature in mosaics of colored stone, mother of pearl and favrile glass.
The bill to erect a public library on the grounds of Dearborn Park also required the inclusion of a Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Hall to commemorate the Soldiers and Sailors from Illinois who took part in the Civil War. This collection, named for the Grand Army of The Republic Society, contains uniforms, rare documents, medical instruments and armaments.
In order to serve Chicago’s neighborhoods, in 1874, the Delivery Station system of outposts was designed with small collections where patrons could call for a specific book that was delivered by horse-drawn carriage to a storefront near their home. The stations were chiefly in stores and were administered by store personnel.
Deposit Stations of the next decade included local candy or drug stores, where owners were paid a modest sum for accepting books for delivery and retrieval. “Special” Deposit Stations included businesses, churches and factories where books were available to employees or members. In 1891, Jane Addams provided space for a reading room in the Butler Gallery of Hull House, for the benefit of Chicagoans. The typical reading room could be found in Chicago’s many community park field houses or on the upper floors of businesses. By the early 1900s Deposit Stations accounted for two-thirds of the entire circulation of the Chicago Public Library.