Belleville Public Library shared space at six locations — including a doctor’s farm, a hardware store and a fire station — for 80 years before getting a home of its own in 1916.
The city built the current two-story structure on East Washington Street with a $45,000 grant from the Carnegie Corp. Hundreds of men, women and children wore their Sunday best for the Jan. 20 dedication.
Library Board President Jacob Aull devoted much of his speech to Andrew Carnegie, a Pennsylvania steel tycoon and philanthropist who spent $55 million to build 1,679 libraries in the United States and 830 abroad.
“(Carnegie) knew that the people had not reached that point where they would vote to tax themselves to build libraries but would vote for school buildings,” Aull said, according to a story in the News-Democrat. “Knowing this, and also knowing that free public libraries were a necessary adjunct to our free public school system, he focused the attention of the civilized world upon the necessity of free public libraries.”
Aull went on to ask Belleville residents to thank Carnegie personally by sending postcards distributed at the dedication.
People certainly were impressed by the Beaux-Arts-style building, designed by local architect Otto Rubach. It was made of brown brick and terracotta, accented by balustrades, cornucopias and garlands of fruit.
Inside, rooms were trimmed with massive oak woodwork. A marble staircase led to the second-floor reading room with ornate columns and a 20-foot ceiling.
It’s an awesome building. I grew up at 211 S. High, and I used to haunt this place as a kid, so to be working here is really neat.
Carol Kirby on library memories
“It’s an awesome building,” said Carol Kirby, 64, supervisor of archives and reference, who has been working at the library 18 years. “I grew up at 211 South High St., and I used to haunt this place as a kid, so to be working here is really neat.
“I can remember sitting at the tables doing homework and coming for the summer reading program. And later I brought my own children. So it’s a special place for me.”
The library’s exterior hasn’t changed much over the years, except for a 5,000-square-foot addition on the west side that opened in 1975.
The interior has undergone several renovations and modernizations. Today, residents come seeking not only books but video games and music CDs. One of the busiest sections is a computer lab with 14 desktops.
“In 2016, there’s still a large percentage of the population where the library is their only access to the Internet,” said Director Lee Spearman, 42, of Belleville. “It’s a luxury that many able-bodied people who go to work every day choose to do without.”
Spearman came on board four years ago after more than 10 years with St. Louis County Library. He’s the first black director and probably the tallest, standing 6-foot-6.
Spearman recently oversaw a remodeling that, among other things, added lounges with comfy chairs, enhancing the library as a place for entertainment and networking.
“The role of libraries has changed, not just here but nationwide,” he said. “A good example is Ferguson, where the library was one of the catalysts that helped the community move past the tragedy that happened.”
The roots of Belleville Public Library go back to 1836, when educated and socially progressive German immigrants, known as “Latin farmers,” formed the German Library Society of St. Clair County.
The first location was Dr. Anton Schott’s farm in the Shiloh Valley. Members moved their 1,906 volumes, most in German, to the Belleville Literary Society building in 1853.
The private library later operated out of Goedeking, Kircher & Co. hardware store on Main Street before the society merged with Belleville Saengerbund.
“Surprisingly, children weren’t allowed in the library (until 1862),” Spearman said. “And even then, it was for a specific amount of time on Sundays, which seems kind of odd today.
“Libraries in those days were really for scholarly pursuits. They were more for businessmen and educated people.”
Belleville Saengerbund and Library Society dissolved in 1883 and donated its 6,000 books, newspapers and periodicals to the city. The first tax-supported “Belleville Public Library” allowed free access at Union Engine House on Jackson Street.
Beginning in 1893, a new structure on South Illinois housed both the library and Belleville City Hall. It was Board President Curt H.G. Heinfelden who contacted Carnegie Corp. and asked for a grant.
The city agreed to spend at least $4,500 a year (10 percent of the $45,000) to fund library operations and continue offering free services.
Yes, Carnegie provided the building, but the community had to make a big commitment. They had to promise to support it.
Mary Smith on construction grant
“Yes, Carnegie provided the building, but the community had to make a big commitment,” said Mary Smith, 68, of Belleville, who worked at the library in the ’70s and ’80s and now serves on the board. “They had to promise to support it. They had to hire people to work there, buy materials and otherwise maintain it.”
Opening day featured two programs: A daytime dedication and a nighttime reception for those who wanted to see the glory of the building’s electric lights. Modern amenities also included a central vacuum system.
“At the dedication, there was a German speech about the history of the library,” said Belleville historian Bob Brunkow, who did research for the 175th anniversary.
“In 1916, you could do that. But in 1917, World War I broke out, and along came anti-German sentiment — or hysteria — depending on how you want to describe it. The library even dropped its subscriptions to German-language newspapers that were distributed locally.”
Brunkow noted that local women’s groups, still four years away from voting rights, successfully petitioned to have a lower-level meeting room in the library named the Women’s Assembly Room.
The library’s biggest transition took place from 1973-1975 with construction of the addition, which doubled its size. Smith remembers a heavy plastic curtain hanging where the original west wall was knocked out.
“All the laws regarding the blind and physically handicapped were in place by that time, so that required an elevator to be installed,” she said.
Today, the building still houses the original German Library Society collection and other artifacts, displayed in glass cases along the marble staircase.
Kirby’s favorite piece of history is a wooden card catalog, created by Works Progress Administration employees. They indexed thousands of stories in Belleville newspapers by name and subject up to the 1940s.
“This is a priceless piece of history,” Kirby said. “Just think how many hundreds of hands have touched these cards over the years.”
Early Belleville Public Library timeline
- 1836 — German immigrants form German Library Society of St. Clair County at Dr. Anton Schott farm in Shiloh Valley
- 1853 — More than 1,900 volumes moved to a room provided by Belleville Literary Society in the Brede Building at High and A streets.
- 1854 — Collection housed at Goedeking, Kircher & Co. hardware store on Main Street
- 1861 — German Library Society merges with Belleville Saengerbund as Belleville Saengerbund and Library Society and occupies Elmer Building at Main and First.
- 1862 — Children allowed in library for first time, but only to exchange books from 10 to 11 a.m. on Sundays.
- 1873 — Women admitted to full society membership.
- 1883 — Belleville Saengerbund and Library Society dissolves and donates books to City of Belleville, which establishes Belleville Public Library.
- 1884 — Library opens at Union Engine House on South Jackson and allows free use by public.
- 1893 — New structure opens for both Belleville City Hall and Belleville Public Library on South Illinois.
- 1906 — Library creates children’s room with attendant.
- 1913 — Carnegie Corp. agrees to grant $45,000 for construction of new library building.
- 1916 — Building opens at East Washington and South Jackson with dedication attended by hundreds of local residents.