Tom Kacich | Library 'second to none' built without magnate's dough

Tom Kacich | Library 'second to none' built without magnate's dough

Late 19th and early 20th century steel magnate Andrew Carnegie helped build 1,689 libraries in the United States (including buildings in Tuscola, Arcola, Danville, Paxton, Charleston, Mattoon, Hoopeston, Ridge Farm, Milford and Onarga) and nearly 800 more in other countries.

At one time, Urbana, needing to move its library out of the cramped city building on Elm Street, thought it was going to get Carnegie's help to construct a building. Carnegie's secretary told the Urbana Commercial Club in 1910 that her boss would help fund the library if the club would purchase a site and raise 10 percent of the cost of the building.

In February 1914, Urbana citizens, including women who were allowed to vote on an issue of public policy for the first time in the city's history, approved a $10,000 bond issue backed by a property tax increase.

But four months later, Urbana received word that Carnegie had withdrawn support for the project.

"It seems that Mr. Carnegie thinks that a city that is able to raise $22,000 for the support of a library should be able to raise the remainder necessary to erect the building," the Champaign Daily News reported.

"He explained to the Urbana people that his libraries were intended for towns that could barely raise enough to purchase a site, and no more."

Unless "some liberal capitalist" steps up, the News said, a fund drive would have to be undertaken or the plan for a new home for the library would have to be dropped.

Urbana leaders were disappointed but not dismayed.

"Andrew Carnegie can take his blood money and go to hell," declared W.E. Coffin, chairman of the library building committee. "Urbana is going to build a library with Urbana money and Urbana is going to own it."

In the end, both Coffin and Carnegie were right.

In 1917, Mary E. Busey — the widow of Civil War veteran, local banker (a founder of Busey's State Bank) and five-term Urbana Mayor Samuel T. Busey — told her grandson and library board member Paul Busey that she would donate $35,000 to see the new library built in her husband's name. Samuel Busey had died eight years earlier at the age of 73 in a drowning accident in Minnesota.

"There has never been a citizen of Urbana more deserving of such a memorial than General S.T. Busey," the News wrote of the man who also served a year in Congress, upsetting one-time Speaker of the House Joseph Cannon of Danville.

Mary Busey was a leader in her own right, serving on the University of Illinois Board of Trustees from 1904 until her death in 1930. She was a supporter of women's rights and women having the right to vote, and was a member of several community groups, including the League of Women Voters of Champaign County.

The Samuel T. Busey Library was opened to the public on July 8, 1918. Urbana's Association of Commerce called it "second to none of its size in the state of Illinois."

Among its innovations were a room for the study of local history (a forerunner of today's Champaign County Historical Archives), "open stacks" — admission to the library's book stacks by anyone 14 years or older — and a 14-day or seven-day limit on books.

"We feel that the citizens of Urbana and their families may be trusted not to disobey the rules of the library in regard to mutilating books or removing books from the library without charging them out," said W.I. Saffell, president of the library board. "We know that you will justify our judgment."

The library building remains in operation nearly 100 years later, and a birthday party of sorts will be held next month.

A centennial celebration of the Samuel T. Busey library building, which was designed by famed Urbana architect Joseph Royer, will be held from 1 to 5:30 p.m. July 7. It will include an exhibit about Mary Busey's gift, games and activities from the early 1900s, Dixieland music, refreshments and a presentation at 3:30 p.m. by author Brian Adams on "A Library Building Second to None."

The original Busey library building fronts on Race Street in downtown Urbana. It has undergone two additions in the last half century, one in 1975 and another in 2005.

Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette columnist. His column appears on Sundays.

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