Chicago Public Library Records: Early CPL Series

Dates: 1871-1908
Size: 18 linear feet
Repository: Chicago Public Library, Harold Washington Library Center, Special Collections, 400 S. State Street, Chicago, IL 60605
Collection Number: SPE: CPL-Early
Provenance: These materials were collected and archived by staff of CPL.
Access: No restrictions. Researchers, please request this material 24 hours in advance of use.
Citation: When quoting material from this collection the preferred citation is: Chicago Public Library – Early CPL Series, [Subseries Name, Box #, Folder #], Special Collections, Chicago Public Library
Processed by: Morag Walsh, 2001

Historical Note

The Chicago Public Library was founded in 1872, and opened to the public on January 1, 1873. The Library came into being as a result of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Before the fire there were a number of libraries operating within the city, although none were run by the city, nor were they free. Virtually all of the books in these libraries, most notable those belonging to the Chicago Library, run by the Young Men’s Association, burned in the blaze.

Responding to the disaster, Thomas Hughes, British Member of Parliament and author of Tom Brown’s School Days, and A.H. Burgess led a drive in Great Britain to “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 result of this endeavor was around 7,000 volumes being donated to the new library from universities, publishers, learned societies, and individuals including Queen Victoria, Benjamin Disraeli, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, John Stuart Mill, John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold.

The impending book donation caused a problem for Chicago’s city fathers. There was no provision in either city or state law which allowed cities to raise funds to maintain free public libraries. A petition was quickly organized by leading Chicagoans to call on Mayor Medill to call a public meeting to establish a free public library for Chicago. The result was the Illinois Library Act of 1872 which was soon followed by a city ordinance proclaiming the establishment of the Chicago Public Library.

Donations flowed in, not just from Great Britain, but from most European countries, including a significant donation of books in German for German speaking residents of the city. Books and money came in from all over the United States and from individuals in Chicago itself. The Board of Directors was established and the first president named was Thomas Hoyne, the first Secretary was William Bailey Wickersham. The Library opened to the public on January 1, 1873 in a disused iron water tank, one of the few structures which had survived the fire, on the corner of Adams and LaSalle Streets. By October 1873 William Frederick Poole, one of the foremost librarians in the country, was appointed Librarian and by May 1874, the Library began to circulate most of its collection.

The Library moved from location to location during its first 24 years until 1897 when it moved into the newly constructed Central Library, build expressly for the Library’s use, on Michigan Avenue, between Randolph and Washington Streets. The Library remained there for almost 100 years until 1991 when a second new Central Library was built in the south loop, the Harold Washington Library Center.

Presidents of the Board of Directors, Chicago Public Library, 1872-Present

Name: From: Until:
Hoyne, Thomas April 25, 1872 October 16, 1875
Shorey, Daniel L. December 11, 1875 June 12, 1880
Loewenthal, Berthold June 12, 1880 October 23, 1880
Onahan, William James October 23, 1880 July 9, 1881
Walker, John B. July 13, 1881 July 8, 1882
Rubens, Harry July 8, 1882 August 10, 1885
Callaghan, Bernard August 14, 1885 July 10, 1886
Brine, George J. August 31, 1886 May 28, 1887
Enright, John W. May 28, 1887 July 14, 1888
Beebe, William H. July 14, 1888 November 2, 1889
Shortall, John G. November 2, 1889 July 9, 1892
Hirsch, Emil Gustav July 9, 1892 September 22, 1894
Dreyer, Edward S. September 22, 1894 July 10, 1896
Hatch, Azel F. July 10, 1896 July 22, 1898
McCormick, Robert S. July 22, 1898 July 26, 1900
Franks, Jacob July 26, 1900 July 11, 1901
Plamondon, Charles A. July 11, 1901 July 10, 1902
Peabody, Francis S. July 10, 1902 July 23, 1903
Eckhart, John W. July 23, 1903 July 24, 1905
Brosseau, Zenophile P. July 24, 1905 July 23, 1906
Bowers, James F. July 23, 1906 February 24, 1908
Cigrand, Bernard J. February 24, 1908 July 12, 1909
Roulston, Robert J. July 12, 1909 April 15, 1913
Lagorio, Antonio April 17, 1913 February 28, 1916
Henius, Max February 28, 1916 October, 1917
Barr, Alfred E. October 22, 1917 December 28, 1921
Schick, Charles E. January 23, 1922 December 27, 1923
Tollkuehn, Frank F. January 10, 1924 July 14, 1924
Fyffe, Colin C.H. July 14, 1924 August 8, 1927
Kolar, Andrew J. August 8, 1927 July 22, 1929
Roulston, Robert J. July 22, 1929 September 25, 1929
Herrmann, U.J. October 7, 1929 July 20, 1931
Kolar, Andrew J. July 20, 1931 September 25, 1933
Herrmann, U.J. September 25, 1933 July 8, 1935
Fleming, Joseph Barclay July 8, 1935 October 22, 1965
Mentone, Anthony J. October 25, 1965 July, 1967
Newman, Ralph G. August 1, 1967 January 16, 1979
Hatzenbuehler, Camille January 16, 1979 January 23, 1981
Berger, Sally January 23, 1981 January 11, 1984
Lowry, James Hamilton January 11, 1984 January 16, 1986
Russell, Cannutte January 16, 1986 January 12, 1988
Compton, James W. January 12, 1988 June 13, 1989
Pritzker, Marian F. (Cindy) September 28, 1989 December 10, 1998
Thompson, Jayne Carr September 9, 1999  2012
Rice, Linda Johnson March 2012  

Secretaries of the Board of Directors, Chicago Public Library, 1872-

Name: From: Until:
Wickersham, William B. 1872 1908
Wilson, Harry G. 1908 1940
Levin, Nathan R. 1940 (?) 1957

Position known as Business Manager from 1957

Lill, Robert J. 1957 1961 (?)
Webb, Jack C. 1961 1967
Urban, Joseph J. 1967 1973 (?)
Roseman, Benjamin 1973 1975 (?)
Furman, Joseph, L. 1975  

Librarians/Commissioners, Chicago Public Library, 1873-Present

Name: From: Until:
Poole, William Frederick 1873 1887
Hild, Frederick H. 1887 1909
Legler, Henry E. 1909 1917
Roden, Carl Bismarck 1918 1950
Gscheidle, Gertrude E. 1950 1967
Ladenson, Alex 1967 1974
Reich, David L. 1975 1978
Sager, Donald J. 1978 1981
Rudd, Amanda S. 1982 1985
Duff, John B. 1986 1993
Lyons, Karen Danczak (Acting) 1993 1994
Dempsey, Mary A. 1994 2012
Bannon, Brian 2012  

Scope and Content

The Early Papers Series of the Chicago Public Library Archives document the foundation of the Library, from immediately after the 1871 fire and includes detailed information regarding the legislative process which gave authority to the city to raise taxes to maintain a public library; extremely detailed information regarding donated books; shipping information and costs of exporting the donations to the United States; lists of who donated what; and general everyday library business. The series also has information about employment matters in the Library and the construction of the new Central Library.


Arranged in three subseries:

  1. Papers of the President of the Board of Directors
  2. Papers of the Secretary of the Board of Directors
  3. Papers of the Librarian

Provenance has been maintained as far as was possible. The papers of the President, Secretary and Librarian were already distinct from each other and the papers of Secretary Wickersham were already organized into the subject breakdowns listed below. To help researchers make maximum use of this series, this subject breakdown has been copied to the other papers. Documents within each subject have been put into chronological order by the archivist. A list of subjects can be found below. Researchers should be careful to consult papers of the President, the Secretary, and the Librarian for any one topic of research.

List of subject breakdowns:

  • Legislation
  • British Book Donation
  • German Book Donation
  • Other Donations
  • Bills of Lading
  • Forwarding of Books (from US port to Chicago)
  • Letters Relative to Donation (see also Oversize 1)
  • General Library Business
  • Employment
  • New Library Building (Construction of the new Central Library, what is now the Cultural Center)
  • Library Buildings

Related Materials

Container List

See individual subseries guides for the Papers of the President of the Board of Directors, the Papers of the Secretary of the Board of Directors and the Papers of the Librarian.

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