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`Temple of Literature' now 125


The Rock Island Public Library library is well on its way celebrating the 125th anniversary of its November 1872 opening with a year-long schedule of activities.

ROCK ISLAND -- The guest list grows longer every day.

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Karl Marx arrived early. Julie Christie and Barbra Streisand wait patiently for someone to gaze into their faces. Many people want to take home the latest creations of Toni Morrison and Gina Kolata.

You can find them all and thousands more at the Rock Island Public Library's main downtown building and its two branches. The library is well on its way celebrating the 125th anniversary of its November 1872 opening with a year-long schedule of activities.

``There is a great sense of history apparent when you walk into the building,'' library director James Warwick said. ``More than just bricks and mortar, the library has become a living testament to the area's history and culture over the last 125 years.''

When the $85,000 building opened at 401 19th St., a headline writer at The Rock Island Argus called it a ``Temple of Literature.'' Designed by Drack and Kerns, the main floor of the classical-style building included a reading room, reference room and children's department. Citizens were invited to donate art for display on the second floor.

Bronze fixtures lit the building with gas and electricity, and an elevator led to the basement, where books were unpacked, according to the Argus.

When only the rich could afford to own books, Rock Island established a library so everyone could read them. It has become the state's oldest free library.

The city's involvement was said to be a popular move designed to furnish reading for all laborers, mechanics, apprentices, clerks and others who wished to improve themselves, according to Argus reports.

``Rock Island is thus placed a long way in advance of other western towns in this respect, and we hope and believe that the free library and reading room will result in much good to all classes of our people,'' the newspaper said.

Much of the civilizing influence likely came from Ellen Gale, hired in 1868 at age 15 as the librarian for the Young Men's Library Association. With that early start, she served 65 years, which historians say is longer than any other library director in the nation.

People portray Ms. Gale as a dignified, Victorian lady who wore lace collars up to her chin until the day she died in 1948.

``She was very, very strait-laced,'' retired librarian Pamela Langston said. ``Any book that had anything in it she didn't think the public should see was put in a room in the back of the library. Even sex-education books were kept there. People had to ask for them.''

While Ms. Gale did not defy tradition, she commanded respect for a job well done, Ms. Langston said. If she had married, the community would have expected her to leave her job.

As the library looks forward to its next 125 years, Mr. Warwick predicts the public will rely more on computers than books to search for facts and statistics. Doing homework, for example, has become more efficient when students use computers rather than printed guides to periodicals.

Librarians always have wanted to make the library an easy place for people to serve themselves, both to save time and to protect their confidentiality, Mr. Warwick said. People can use the library's Quad-LINC program to search libraries throughout the state and have books sent to their hometowns.

Reading for entertainment or education, however, likely will remain tied to books, he said.

``The portability of the book has stood up,'' Mr. Warwick said. ``I don't see that changing.''

What library board member Ruth Evelyn Katz hopes will change is the library's isolation from other cultural arts.

``Every cultural institution in the Quad-Cities will join in saluting our library,'' she said. ``For a long time, I've felt the library seemed to be sort of isolated from the other cultural arts. My goal is to bring all the arts together in celebrating the library.''

The year-long celebration is designed to attract more people to the library and inspire donations to improve it, Ms. Katz said. This month's events include local celebrities reading to children. In March, area librarians have been invited to tell how books have changed their lives during Celebration of the Book at Augustana College.

``This is a perfect opportunity for people to reacquaint themselves with the library,'' Ms. Katz said. ``With such a wide variety of events, there will be something for everyone.''

-- By Carol Loretz (February 9, 1998)

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