Winter 2009

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Librarians Helped Tame the Wild West

Excerpts from an article By Christine Des Garennes, Chicago Tribune, December 07, 2008

Winter 2009 issue of Trustee

Is the image you have of a librarian from 100 years ago a timid, hair-wrapped-in-a-bun, pinz-nez wearing spinster?
Try this one on instead:  Gun-toting, horseback-riding, walk-2-miles-to-work-in-a-blizzard type of woman.

Those were the kind of librarians who settled the West.  Around the turn of the 20th century, graduates of the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science (then called the Illinois Library School) headed to places like Texas, North Dakota, Idaho and Oregon.

“These women had such a spirit of adventure,” said Betsy Hearne, professor emeritus with the library school. “They were determined to be where the action was.”

Hearne shared stories about the early graduates of the library school establishing libraries in places where, in some cases, they were the only librarian within a 130-mile radius or the only single female in town.  Hearne read stories of graduates who would, after a fire, start a new library in a gym; who walked through 8- to 10-foot snow drifts to get to the library; and who brought books to World War I soldiers recuperating in hospitals.

Until the latter part of the 19th century, libraries were primarily private places. But thanks to Melvil Dewey and Andrew Carnegie, in the late 1800s and early 1900s “public libraries were just exploding and they needed librarians.”

The idea was, “you can’t have a democracy without access to information,” Hearne said, and the Illinois Library School “seeded the West with librarians.”

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