Transcript: Library for the People Episode 1

Transcript: Library for the People Episode 1: From the Great Chicago Fire Rises a Public Library

Alison Cuddy: How did we end up with the library?

Shermann "Dilla" Thomas: We got a library because of a fire.

Cuddy: Shermann "Dilla" Thomas is Chicago's favorite TikTok historian.

Thomas: [voice over from TikTok video] “Hey what’s up, it’s your favorite neighborhood historian, Dilla, and I thought today we’d do another Chicago tribute.”

Cuddy: He loves the Chicago Public Library. It's where he does much of his research on the neighborhoods, architecture and events that have made Chicago into a truly great American city. Including the Great Chicago Fire, which raged over three days in early October of 1871. The fire killed hundreds, destroyed over three square miles of the city and left 100,000 people without homes.

Newspaper headlines from New York to Washington and Charleston captured the devastation: “An awful calamity! A doomed city! Chicago in ashes! Fire: destruction of Chicago.” Like the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes though, the fire also led to a period of enormous growth and creation in Chicago, including, eventually, our city's first ever public library.

Thomas: And so before the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, we didn't necessarily have a city library. Basically rich dudes had collections of books. And if you knew a rich dude, you could borrow a book.

But then after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, those books burned. A lot of private collections burned. And, uh, oddly enough, someone on the other side of the pond, uh, Queen Victoria, heard that Chicago had burned, uh, and so did our books. She thought it would be wise of her to send us a book.

Uh, now the book she chose may have been the most boring book known to man, but she basically sent a, uh, family history, a book of the Royal family pretty much up to that point.

But the world heard about that and so others sent books to Chicago and that act of charity and kindness is what starts the Chicago Public Library.

And so we celebrate the receiving of that book and then storing that book on this particular site, 150 years ago, right? From this year.

[theme music]

Cuddy: From the Chicago Public Library and PRX, this is Library for the People, a celebration of public libraries and the people who make them work. I'm Alison Cuddy. We're bringing the story of libraries to life by looking into one of them, the Chicago Public Library, which turns 150 years old this year. Over the next six episodes, you'll meet librarians, historians, authors, all kinds of people who, just like you, love the library. And you'll take field trips across the city to go inside some of the 81 neighborhood branches to find out what's going on every day.

Thomas: This is actually, on most days, my favorite Chicago building, because of not only the architecture, but just the history around the space. It's a lot of history here, on this site, particularly on this corner.

Cuddy: Dilla and I are in the corner of Adams and LaSalle in downtown Chicago. Today, this intersection is known for our city's oldest standing high rise. The twelve-story architectural gem known as the Rookery, built in 1888 by the architect Daniel Burnham and his partner, John Wellborn Root.

It's a striking brown brick building, a marvel of engineering and new building techniques.

Inside, the Rookery is even more beautiful with a soaring glass lightcourt, which floods the entire building in natural light. A sinuous central staircase, intricate mosaic floors and marble walls with gold inlays make it feel like you're inside a palace. Frank Lloyd Wright redesigned the lobby in 1909, the only downtown Chicago building he ever worked on.

Before all this, though the site played a big role in the origin story of the Chicago Public Library.

Thomas: So we are now inside of the Rookery, which was formerly the site of, what must have been an impressive looking, uh, freestanding water tower.And that's where we originally stored the books that we received from all over the world.

Cuddy: That's right. Before the Rookery became a destination for architecture tourists from around the world, it was a site of an iron water tower that actually stored water. And after the Chicago Fire, a makeshift city hall was built on the lot. No one can say definitively, which feature gave the building its name.

Thomas: The reason why it has the name Rookery is because, when it ceased being the water tower, birds would collect around to drink the water, but also they say when it was temporarily serving as City Hall, the politicians would hang around like crows on the roof too. [chuckles]

Cuddy: Doesn't that seem poetic that the place we thought to house books post Fire was inside a water tower? It was also a practical move. That water tower was one of the only buildings to survive the 1871 blaze.

Thomas: We start to understand the importance of books after the Fire because millions of books burned during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, not only did books burn, but at the Chicago Historical Society, the City Charter burned and, uh, so many other forms of written record, right?

So Chicagoans understand the importance of now collecting the written record, right, for, for everyone's sake in the future. And so this, this site becomes, uh, what, what grows into the Chicago Public Library.

Cuddy: The Brits specified that their book donation was for a free library. And guess what? We didn't have one of those, not a one in all of Illinois at the time. So a group of civic leaders did what civic leaders often do. They called for a public meeting.

Thomas Hoyne, a former United States District Attorney and U.S. Marshall, was joined by prominent women, like Bertha Palmer, the wife of businessman Potter Palmer, and Nannie Douglas Scott, the wife of retail pioneer Marshall Field.

A free library required public funds, so after rallying people in Chicago, organizers headed to the state capitol to lobby. They were after an expansive law that would allow cities to collect taxes to fund public libraries. Sounds simple, right? Who wouldn't want a library?

Thomas: It was a fight down in Springfield. Libraries were not… they were seen as luxuries, particularly in a place that had just burned down 85% of all the property.

Right? And so for that to be on the mind of the Illinois legislator or on the mind of Chicagoans to be pushed, uh, by the Illinois legislator, shows how important that literature and the written word is to us.

So the fact that people pushed through that for, for us to enjoy it 150 years later is awesome.


Cuddy: Getting things done in Chicago. All right. After a quick break, we'll walk a few blocks east to Chicago's central library, the Harold Washington Library Center.

And we're back at the Harold Washington Library Center, Chicago's central branch. Opened in 1991, it is another architectural stunner. Named for Chicago's first Black mayor, the building is the work of Thomas Beeby, who designed it in tribute to Daniel Burnham's 1909 Plan of Chicago, the famed blueprint for our city's growth. There are many echoes of the Rookery in this building as well, from its dark red granite exterior to the gorgeous glass atrium on the ninth floor.

And while the Rookery has etchings of crows in its interior, the main branch has owls atop it, five large barn owls and one great horned owl, twenty feet high, seen clutching an open book in its talons. This fierce being represents knowledge and wisdom, and the owl is now the mascot of the Chicago Public Library.

Morag Walsh: [voice over] Alright, so we're going, okay, come in. [door slams]

Cuddy: We're here to visit the special collections and preservation division to find out how our library grew and what or who led us to build our neighborhood branch system. So we're using our inside voices as we meet up with Morag Walsh, the library's senior archivist.

Walsh: I think that it was well used, it was very well used, but mainly by men.

Cuddy: Walsh starts by sharing a few tidbits about that first library in the water tower.

Walsh: So, it was one big stinky room, apparently. Um, there were twelve skylights in the roof, and that was the only ventilation. And the, the reports were that it was awful in the summer and freezing in the winter.

When the library opened in 1873, the thing that I think most people don't realize is it wasn't like walking into the library today. We did not have as many books as we wanted or needed. We did not have a budget. We did not, we were not well supported financially. And the desire to do more was always there, but we were seriously restricted in what we can do.

There is a quote in the 1874 annual report, by William Frederick Poole, who was our librarian, who said that his goal was to get the books to the people, not to bring the people to the books. So that's a pretty clear indication that, you know, one year after the library opened, they recognized that the library was inaccessible to a lot of people in Chicago.

Cuddy: As the man in charge, Poole had a lot to deal with. The library bounced from place to place as Chicago rebuilt after the Fire. A central library was eventually built in 1897. We know it today as the Chicago Cultural Center on the corner of Michigan and Randolph. Can you imagine how confusing that time would've been for people trying to find the library? “Hmm... where is it now?” But thanks to some clever thinking, Chicagoans in the late 1800s who wanted books didn't need to find the main library to get them.

Walsh: Before about 1884, the library began an experiment and we established six, what they called delivery stations, um, around Chicago. There's one on the north side, three on the west side, I believe, and two on the south side. They located the delivery stations in individual stores.

You know, drug stores, candy stores, um, dry good stores, and if you lived in the neighborhood, you could go to the store and request a book to be sent from the library. So you, you wrote the title down on a little piece of paper, and then a week later, the book was delivered to that store from the library, and you went and picked it up in your neighborhood.

Um, you returned that book to the store, and then it was taken away back to the main library.

They were immediately, um, popular. Um, within the first, I believe in the first year, they were circulating over 100,000 books with these six delivery stations. Um, so the demand, yeah, the demand was there as soon as they offered the service.

It was, it was embraced.

Cuddy: Wonderful. Books flying all through the city of Chicago.

Walsh: Yeah. Yeah. And another thing they tried was, um, and this, this was more successful and this was, um, it, it, it was called a deposit station. Um, the library would deposit a smallish collection of books, maybe 200 to 500 books in a location. Um, usually it was a park field house or, um, in a factory or a manufacturer's, um, space, sometimes in a retailer store, um, for the use of the employees.

And so if, if it was in a park field house, it was open to everybody. But the idea was that you could go and you could read a book there. You could not check it out or take it home, but you could read it in the reading room. Um, so that was popular. But again, it wasn't enough. People wanted to take the books home. But you couldn't take it home and you were stuck with the options that you had in front of you.

Cuddy: As the archive reveals, there was strong competition among store owners to house delivery stations in their neighborhood.

Walsh: So this is a petition for a delivery station. This is from a guy called Mr. Horder, whose store was located. He had a dry, good store, uh, on the 4100 block of West Lake Street. And in 1891, he wrote to the board to ask if he could be, um, if his store could be used as a delivery station.

Now the library paid a very small stipend to the store owners. Um, but it was recognized that, um, it would result in increased traffic to the stores. So they were very, um, they were very sought after, um, designations. Um, and it was quite cutthroat to actually get a delivery station.

Cuddy: Really?

Walsh: Yeah. Oh yeah. I have letters, um, from people saying, you know, “there's a delivery station down the block, but he's always drunk. He's never here.” You know, “please give me the delivery station,” things like that.

Cuddy: “I'll do a much better job.”

Walsh: Absolutely, yes. So this is his letter asking the board, um, demonstrating a need that, um, that people in his neighborhood do not have access to the library and his store would provide access to, um, to reading materials. He then produced a petition and we have signatures.

Cuddy: Oh, wow.

Walsh: So these are all people in the neighborhood who have signed their name with their address to say that, yes, we want this in our neighborhood.

Cuddy: It's great. Handwriting has changed a lot, but petitions haven't.

Walsh: Right?

Cuddy: It's the same, it's stained and tattered, and so you can tell that it's passed through many hands. It really does - it's a community artifact in, in such a tangible way.

Walsh: He was successful. He actually did get his deposit station and we have a photo of him and his family and his store.

Um, this is him. So there we have, Horder's News Depot, delivery station, public library. And that's Mr. Horder and his wife, and kids. And this is from 1892, I believe.

Cuddy: Wow. Yeah. And this is Westlake?

Walsh: Yep.

Cuddy: Cigars and tobacco.

Walsh: Yeah.

Cuddy: School books and stationary and the delivery station. How incredible.

And so the library went on in this way getting books to the people, however it could until after the huge success of the 1893 World's Fair, Chicago's expectations for their city got a serious upgrade. The City Club of Chicago, which was founded in 1903, issued a scathing report that found the Chicago Public Library to be lagging behind libraries in other American cities.


Enter Henry Edward Legler. Born in Palermo, Italy, Legler’s family immigrated to the U.S. and settled in Milwaukee. He worked as a journalist and served as a Republican in the State Assembly before taking on the role of Secretary on the Wisconsin Library Commission.

He also wrote a lot about history and his passion for libraries and literature, including a book titled, “Of Much Love and Some Knowledge of Books.” Bit of a humble guy. He was hired by CPL in 1909.

Walsh: So they hired Legler, um, to kind of give us a kick up the backside, if you like, to, to get us moving in the right direction. And, and I think it was a breath of fresh air. Um, after doing more studies, um, he published his library plan for the whole city in 1916. And it really is the blueprint of, what the Chicago Public Library should be doing and a map for us to follow going forward.

Cuddy: In Wisconsin, Legler worked to get library services to people in all corners of the state, from farms to lumber camps to cities. And he brought that mentality to his Chicago library plan in the form of regional branches.

Walsh: The thinking behind the regionals was that rather than all of the books coming from central library and going to all corners of the city, there would be these hubs that were well-equipped and well stocked and they would supply the neighborhood branches around them so that it was a quicker drive, it was a quicker service.

Um, they had reference materials - strong reference materials. And it was just far more efficient. It really was a, an honest desire to serve everybody, um, which I think is laudable. Yeah.

Cuddy: Legler’s proposal was historic. According to CPL, it was the first comprehensive branch library system in the nation. The changes he envisioned back at the beginning of the 20th century shape libraries even today.

Walsh: At, at that time in the early 1900s, library science was not a developed field. He started the library's first training class for staff. And that was very, very popular. Um, it was very well attended.

Library work was not just, it wasn't just anybody who could do it, you know, there, there was a skill and there was, um, rigor to it.

A librarian's job is not to know everything, but to know how to find everything. And that is the skill, um, that was lacking back then.

Cuddy: Legler also made possible one of the most basic experiences we can have in a library: browsing the shelves.

Walsh: Until Leger came around, um, you could not go to a bookshelf and pick a book off the shelf.

You had to request a book from an assistant. Um, and that was, it was very patronizing, if you like, because it was almost like we didn't trust people to pick the books.

And it was very slow. And if the assistant was busy, you had to wait. And if you filled the slip in wrong, you didn't get the book. You know, there, there was lots of impediments.

And Legler realized pretty early on that that was completely inefficient and not anything that we want to continue. So he opened up open shelving. Um, and that was kind of mind blowing for us. That was like, “what? What are you gonna do?”

But it was, it was very common sense.

Cuddy: Legler’s plan has been a blueprint for the library for more than 100 years. Sadly, though, he didn't get to see it implemented.

Walsh: So Legler died, um, the year after the plan was published and adopted. He died in 1917. Uh, still a young man. And so his successor, the librarian, Carl Roden, was left to implement the plan.

Cuddy: There are many ways that Leger lives on at the Chicago Public Library. The first regional library in the system is named for him, constructed in 1919 by Chicago architect Alfred S. Alschuler.

In a city with some pretty amazing libraries, Leger Regional stands out. The building is a historic landmark home to a WPA era mural and amazing Art by Elizabeth Catlett and Kerry James Marshall. Two more regional branches followed and we’ll be visiting those in future episodes.

Walsh: So the, the regional library is one that just frankly works. It, it has certainly stood the test of time.

Cuddy: After a break, we’ll talk with author Susan Orlean about how her childhood love of libraries led her to write an epic book about them.

Susan Orlean: My mother was a library fan. She was a devotee of libraries. We went to the library together at least twice a week. And probalyb more as I was growing up. And the trips were magical.

[Chicago Public Library Foundation ad]

Cuddy: Susan Orlean is an evocative writer. If you've read “The Orchid Thief,” you know what I'm talking about. She understands the nature of human desire and human attachment, which is why she's such a great guide to the library.

Orlean: I think we bring emotion to it, that has to do with going into a place where you can pick anything you want and take it. Which for kids is, of course, very intoxicating. The idea that you get to take things, um, a place that introduced you to the possibility of all these worlds, you could explore the idea that, for me, and I think for a lot of kids, you were given freedom.

Certainly in high school and college, I was in the library all the time. It was the resource that I counted on. I did most of my homework in college, in the library.

Then I entered a phase of my life where I wanted to own my own books, and so I sort of fell away from my experience of the library. Then I had a kid and the cycle was renewed.

Cuddy: When she came back to the library with her son, so he could pick out his own books, Orlean saw that the library is a special place for everyone.

Orlean: Because it's such a public space, it became very interesting to me as a reporter to think, well, this is one of the few places that are truly open to everybody and that everybody shares.

Really, there are very few places in our culture where - I would say public parks, maybe the only other place I can think of. Um, I mean public transportation I guess, but that's, you're kind of in and out. You don't go there to be there. You go there to get somewhere else. Libraries seemed so unique in their role in society.

And these things all kind of came together in my mind. It gave me a focal point for exploring this really rich, fascinating and truly unique kind of institution.

Cuddy: Libraries are the focus of Orleans's 2018 book called, fittingly enough, “The Library Book.” It tells the story of another devastating fire at the central branch of the Los Angeles Public Library in the 1980s. Orleans's curiosity leads her deep into that history and far beyond it into the realm of human nature and how libraries both respond to it and help shape it.

[directing question to Orlean] I wondered if you would talk about the act of browsing. how you would talk about what that activity is, that human activity is and why it's valuable.

Orlean: Often you go into a library with a particular book you're looking for, but because of the nature of a library having books, around books, you inevitably encounter other books.

Books that have some resonance with the book you're looking for because they're shelved together. They're in the same subject area. Why is this important? It's important because it expands your perception of what thinking is, what ideas are. What, where human curiosity has led people. I think this is, it's a subtle, but incredibly valuable experience. There is something wonderful about knowing what you want, zeroing in, getting it, going. You know - very satisfying, very specific. But there is a something you lose by not experiencing this broader sense of curiosity.

I suspect I'm not the only person who went into a library looking for a specific book and end up taking a couple of other books that I just happen to notice. And you know, there, there's a way in which internet culture has made us kind of rapid consumers. You look for something, you zero in on it, you get it, you go.

It's really a different experience. My quest always is expand, expand, expand. Open your mind, see more of the world, think more thoughts. The instant gratification process really strips away that part of kind of encountering life.

I do feel strongly that much of where what has gone wrong in culture is all about narrowing and seeing what you wanna see, seeing nothing else, learning nothing else, and frankly, becoming more and more fearful of the things that are outside what you feel comfortable with. To me, libraries expose you to the, that great expansive experience.

Cuddy: Orlean wanted her book to convey this experience of being free, of browsing at your own pace, following your own thoughts and curiosity through the library. To bring readers back into the physical, tactile space of the library and all it contains.

Orlean: It was a very, very big sprawly subject, partly because that's sort of the way my mind worked. I mean, suddenly I was writing about World War II and Nazis and, it got bigger and bigger and bigger.

And yet I felt, I guess to me the best structure imaginable is to take something very tiny and then you would look closely and you'd think, oh my God, this is, this is actually this portal to a gigantic world.

Books are essentially the unit of the human experience that has remained constant throughout history. Stories - we are stories. Libraries are the way we've kind of developed to preserve these stories. So as long as I could keep returning to that kind of bedrock story, I felt like I could wander off into, you know, 1910, but still come back to that theme.

Cuddy: Another fascinating aspect of Orleans's book is her front row seat on the way libraries are changing in real time. While libraries are still places we go to check out books or dig through archives, how we do that has changed enormously thanks to the advent of digital technologies.

Orlean: One of the most interesting things I did in the course of working on the book is I visited the offices of OverDrive, which provides eBooks to libraries all over the world. And in their lobby they have this giant, um, electronic board that is constantly refreshing like every five seconds.

Showing where a book is being checked out around the world in, you know, one of these OverDrive titles. It really is extraordinary because it gives you a visual kind of manifestation of this fact, which is that all over the world, at every moment someone is in a library checking out a book.

Unlike, say, a gated community, a library by definition is open to everyone.

So libraries found themselves starting, probably starting in the, uh, mid 80s onward, um, really taking stock of what it meant to be a public space. And at the same time, interestingly, we started seeing the whole revolution in electronic information. So, that kicked off a huge change. Coupled with the library becoming a place where a lot of people had nowhere else to go would go. Plus, computers being so essential to functioning in the world, and libraries, all across the U.S., were wired to the internet early.

So suddenly there was this gigantic new aspect of the library that simply didn't even exist before that. Which is if you need a computer and you don't have one, or you have a computer, but you don't have Internet, this is what we've decided is the place the public will make available for you. So libraries were energized by that new part of their mission.

Cuddy: At the same moment we're embracing the age of information, there's also a big change in the range of services libraries are offering - out of a desire and a deep need to do more for their communities.

Orlean: The new generation of librarians who are running libraries in this country came up through the system and through library school as all of this was happening. And it's a really inspiring group of people who have truly embraced the idea that libraries are this bountiful resource.

For instance, the L.A. Library instituted this entire program, the New Americans program, and it's just all of these resources for people who are new to this country. Now this could’ve, it would've been easy for them to say, “well, we're not in the immigration business. Like, what does this have to do with books?”

But I think the focus has be shifted to information and books are one form of information. Libraries then become the repository for all of of that kind of information, which is pamphlets and electronic material, along with books. Um, and that makes it the place you can go to learn what you need to learn.

Cuddy: And it's the story of how the library continues to evolve as a democratic space, right. From instituting open shelves to, as you were saying, putting resources online to then, including all of these services that help us all fully function within the city that we live. So, um, it's part of the, kind of the narrative of how libraries have approached their mission for a long time, even though it's evolving.

[directing question to Orlean] Can you imagine a world without libraries? Like what would that world be if we didn't have the library?

Orlean: It's a pretty scary thought. Um, you know, there, it would mean that we, we really wouldn't have this sense of the totality of thought and imagination and the freedom to, to sort of be exposed to it. It would also in a purely physical sense, mean one less public space that's truly shared.

Cuddy: Susan Orlean is the author of nine books, including “The Orchid Thief” and “The Library Book.” She lives in Los Angeles.

Thank you all for joining us on this our first episode. Next time on Library for the People, we'll look at how community is formed in libraries.

Stephanie Davenport: She wanted us to go there because of a special little section. And that was the children's section. And it was, uh, headed by Charlemae Rollins. And it was the first time that I was able to hear stories and see book covers of children who looked like me.

Cuddy: Library for the People is a production of PRX and the Chicago Public Library Foundation. The show is produced by Minju Park and Shane McEwen.

The senior producer is Andrew Gill, and the executive producer is Jocelyn Gonzalez. It is mixed by M Jacobs. Mary Ellen Messner, Rica Bouso and Shamil Clay gave production oversight for Chicago Public Library. morgan Church and Edwin Ochoa managed the project for PRX.

I'm Alison Cuddy. See you next time on Library for the People.

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