Chicago Public Library Archives. Early CPL
Scope and Contents
The Early Papers series of the Chicago Public Library Archives document the foundation of the Library, from immediately after the 1871 fire and includes detailed information regarding the legislative process which gave authority to the city to raise taxes to maintain a public library; extremely detailed information regarding donated books; shipping information and costs of exporting the donations to the United States; lists of who donated what; and general everyday library business. The series also has information about employment matters in the Library and the construction of the new Central Library.
Provenance has been maintained as far as was possible. The papers of the President, Secretary and Librarian were already distinct from each other and the papers of Secretary Wickersham were already organized into the subject breakdowns listed below. To help researchers make maximum use of this series, this subject breakdown has been copied to the other papers. Documents within each subject have been put into chronological order by the archivist. A list of subjects can be found below. Researchers should be careful to consult papers of the President, the Secretary, and the Librarian for any one topic of research.
The collection contains a documentation on a variety of topics including the British (also known as the English Book Donation) and other early book donations, buildings, Central Library (now Chicago Cultural Center) construction, employment, legislation and library business. The materials include bills of lading, bonds, correspondence, financial statements, petitions and reports.
- Creation: 1866 - 1917
- Chicago Public Library (Organization)
Conditions Governing Access
Materials are open without restrictions.
Conditions Governing Use
Please consult staff to determine ability to reuse materials from collection.
Biographical / Historical
The Chicago Public Library (CPL) was founded in 1872 and opened to the public on January 1, 1873. The Library came into being as a result of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Before the fire there were some libraries operating within the city, although none were run by the City nor were they free. Additionally, many of the books in these libraries, most notably those belonging to the Chicago Library, run by the Young Men’s Association, burned in the blaze.
Responding to the disaster of the Great Chicago Fire, Thomas Hughes, British Member of Parliament and author of Tom Brown’s School Days, and A.H. Burgess led a drive in Great Britain to “present a Free Library to Chicago, to remain there as a mark of sympathy now, and a keepsake and a token of true brotherly kindness forever.” The result of this endeavor was around 7,000 volumes being donated to the new library from universities, publishers, learned societies, and individuals including Queen Victoria, Benjamin Disraeli, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, John Stuart Mill, John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold.
The impending book donation caused a problem for Chicago’s municipal leaders. There was no provision in either city or state law which allowed cities to raise funds to maintain free public libraries. A petition was quickly organized by leading Chicagoans that asked Mayor Medill to call a public meeting to establish a free public library for Chicago. The result was the Illinois Library Act of 1872 which was soon followed by a city ordinance proclaiming the establishment of the Chicago Public Library.
Donations flowed in, not just from Great Britain, but from most European countries, including a significant donation of books in German for German speaking residents of the city. Books and money came in from all over the United States and from individuals in Chicago itself. The Board of Directors was established, and the first president named was Thomas Hoyne, the first Secretary was William Bailey (W.B.) Wickersham. On January 1, 1873, the Library opened in one of the few structures which had survived the fire, an iron water tank that was no longer in use located on the corner of Adams and LaSalle Streets. By October 1873, William Frederick Poole, one of the foremost librarians in the country, was appointed Librarian, and by May 1874, the Library began to circulate most of its collection.
During its first 24 years, the Library moved from location to location. In 1897, the newly constructed Central Library on Michigan Avenue, between Randolph and Washington Streets opened. The Library remained at this location for almost 100 years until 1991 when a second new Central Library was built in the south Loop, the Harold Washington Library Center. The original Central Library became known as the Chicago Cultural Center.
18 Linear Feet (in 36 boxes and 1 oversize folder)
Language of Materials
The Early CPL Papers series of the Chicago Public Library Archives document the foundation of Chicago Public Library immediately after the 1871 fire. The series includes detailed information regarding the legislative process which gave authority to the city to raise taxes to maintain a public library; extremely detailed information regarding the first collections; shipping information and costs of exporting donations from Great Britain to the United States; lists of who donated what; and general everyday library business. The series also has information about employment matters in the Library and the construction of the new Central Library.
Arranged in three series:
Series 1: Papers of the President of the Board of Directors, 1871-1897
Series 2: Papers of the Secretary of the Board of Directors, 1872-1912
Series 3: Papers of the Librarian, 1866-1917
Materials are stored offsite and advance notice is required for use. Please request materials at least 24-hours prior to your research visit to coordinate access.
Immediate Source of Acquisition
These materials were collected and archived by staff of Chicago Public Library.
- Chicago Public Library (Organization)
- Chicago Public Library -- History (Organization)
- Chicago Public Library -- Archives (Organization)
- Chicago Public Library. Board of Directors (Organization)
- Hild, Frederick H., 1858-1914 (Person)
- Hoyne, Thomas, 1817-1883 (Person)
- Hughes, Thomas, 1822-1896 (Person)
- Legler, Henry Eduard, 1861-1917 (Person)
- Poole, William Frederick, 1821-1894 (Person)
- Guide to the Chicago Public Library Archives: Early CPL
- Morag Walsh, 2001. Updated and ingested into ArchivesSpace by Michelle McCoy, 2023
- Description rules
- Describing Archives: A Content Standard
- Language of description
- Script of description
- Language of description note
- Finding aid written in English
Part of the Special Collections Unit at Harold Washington Library Center Repository
Harold Washington Library Center, 9th Floor
Chicago Public Library
400 S. State Street
Chicago IL 60605 United States