“The Naperville Public Library, Part I (1897-1986)” by S.M. O’Connor

The Naperville Public Library (N.P.L.) in affluent west suburban Naperville, Illinois has three libraries: the 63,300-square-foot new Nichols Library, the 32,000-square-foot Naper Boulevard Library, and the 73,000-square-foot 95th Street Library.  Although the 95th Street Library is much larger than the new Nichols Library and the information technology department runs out of it, the new Nichols Library is the central library and that is where the Board of Trustees meet.  [I will be referring to the original Nichols Library alternatively as The Nichols Library, as it is labeled over its front door, and the Old Nichols Library, depending on the context. The Old Nichols Library is a couple of blocks to the northeast from the new Nichols Library in downtown Naperville, and one block north of the large Barnes & Noble store at Chicago Avenue and Washington Street.]  While the Nichols Library is located in in DuPage County, both of the other libraries are located in the part of Naperville in Will County.

A number of books focus on or address the history of the Naperville Public Library (N.P.L.).  Timelines of North Central College and Naperville History 1831- 1995 by Pierre Lebeau and North Central College & Naperville: A Shared History 1870-1995 by Ann Keating and Pierre Lebeau were both published in 1995. [Bernard Pierre Lebeau (1932-2017) was Professor of History from 1966 to 2010 and Ann Durkin Keating is Dr. C. Frederick Toenniges Professor of History at North Central College.]  The Naperville Public Libraries: Celebrating One Hundred Years of Community Service a booklet written by Jane Teague was published in 1998.

The Foundation

      The eponym of The Nichols Library was James Lawrence Nichols (1851-1895), a German immigrant from Coburg, a city in Upper Franconia, which is in northeastern Bavaria, who came to the United States of America when he was just six years old.  The unfortunate boy was orphaned at the age of eight, after which he became an agricultural worker who moved from farm to farm.  The farmers for whom he worked treated him brutally, which is why he moved from farm to farm.[1]

“His mother died.  His stepfather abandoned him.  He didn’t speak English.  He had no hope, just despair.  But he had a fighting will.  He managed to live through all the degradation,” said Dolle Nichols, the widow of James. L. Nichols III (1922-1989) told a Chicago Tribune reporter in 1990.[2]

Determined to better his lot in life, he taught himself English, and by the age of nineteen he secured a certificate to teach others. He completed his education at North-Western College (now North Central College), from which he graduated in 1880, after which he served for one year as principal of Naperville’s public schools. In 1883, Nichols was appointed Principal of the Commercial Department of the College, where he taught for eight years. 

He did not simply teach courses on business and economics, he wrote his own textbooks.[3]  Nichols found success as an author and publisher of business books, as a result of which in 1891 he founded J. L. Nichols & Company in Naperville.  His book The Business Guide, published in 1886, sold over 4,000,000 copies.[4]  Other titles included The Household Guide, The Farmer’s Manual, and Safe Citizenship.[5]

James L. Nichols I married, had three children, and built a mansion in Naperville.[6]  Unfortunately his early hardships had left him in frail health and he died in August of 1895, at the age of forty-four.  As he lay on his deathbed at a sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan, he dictated his autobiography and will.[7]  One of his bequests was $10,000 for the City of Naperville to build a library.

Nichols wanted to make certain no child in Naperville would lack books to read as had been his fate.  In order to benefit from his largesse, the city had to agree to maintain the library, to supply it with materials, and provide a staff of librarians.[8]  With his money, the City of Naperville purchased land, hired the architect, built, and furnished the first Nichols Library.

Dr. J. A. Bell was President of the Board of Trustees, which also included the widow of Nichols.[9]  On May 7, 1897, the mayor, aldermen, and Library Board began to plan for the construction of The Nichols Library.[10]  They selected a parcel of land at the west end of Central Park at 110 South Washington Street.[11]  Mifflin Emlen Bell (1847-1904), who had served as Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury Department and had designed the courthouse in the county seat of Wheaton, Illinois, agreed to design the library, provided he had no competition.[12]  He designed many magnificent public buildings, mainly in the Richardsonian Romanesque, Second Empire, and châteauesque styles of architecture.  Local real estate developer Alvin Enck (1864-1918) was the builder, and he chose native limestone as the building material.[13]

DSCN1201Figure 1 Credit: Sean M. O’Connor Caption: This is The Nichols Library or Old Nichols Library at 110 South Washington Street in downtown Naperville, Illinois, as seen on December 12, 2010.  From this vantage point, it is easier to appreciate how much limestone went into the façade.

DSCN1203Figure 2 Credit: Sean M. O’Connor Caption: Architect M.E. Bell designed many magnificent public buildings.

DSCN1202Figure 3 Credit: Sean M. O’Connor Caption: It is the rustication of the limestone that gives away this building is an example of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture.

 

The cornerstone was laid on October 24, 1897.[14]  It bore the metal inscription “693 feet elevation above sea level – U.S. Geological Survey.”[15]  The building has blond brick exterior walls with rusticated limestone at the base, corners, entrance, and windows.[16]  The entrance bay projects out from the façade and has a segmented archway.  There is a steeply pitched gable with large knobs over the front entrance bay.[17]  The windows have stone lintels.[18]  The west façade had a hipped roof.[19]

The Women’s Club provided The Nichols Library with the first 500 volumes in its collection, to which other residents added another 200 books. The building was completed by September 22, 1898 and the opening ceremonies took place that night with 300 people in attendance.[20]  They drank coffee, ate fried cakes, and listened to music played by the Mandolin Club played on the balcony and soloists sing songs such as “That Old Sweetheart of Mine.”[21]  That first year, 639 books were checked out that first year.[22] Naperville then had 2,200 residents. By 1900, circulation reached nearly 7,000.[23]

Over the course of The Nichols Library’s first ten years, there were four head librarians: Edna Goss, Hannah Ditzler Asplaugh, Jennie Niederhouser, and Rose Barnard. Rose Barnard, who graduated from North-Western College in 1906, rode to work on horseback in good weather.[24]  She earned $35 per month.[25]  Ultimately, she resigned because her parents needed her at home, but not before she trained Mary (“Matie”) B. Egermann how to be a book cataloguer.[26]

In 1908, Matie Egermann became the fifth head librarian and would remain at The Nichols Library until 1950. After the U.S.A. entered the First Great World War, she encouraged Naperville residents to donate 1,002 books, over periodicals, eighty-second record albums, and the American Library Association (A.L.A.) War Service Fund for use by servicemen in 1917 and 1918.[27]  In the postwar years, she sent veterans’ hospitals scrapbooks, candy and cookies on St. Valentine’s Day, flowers at Easter, and postcards at Christmas.[28]  She used the war memorabilia servicemen sent her in turn to create a small history museum.[29] Thousands of people viewed that collection before its five display cases moved to Naperville’s Martin-Mitchell residence in 1939 (the same year that the Second Great World War broke out in Europe).[30]

In the 1920s, the Illinois State Library (I.S.L.) published reports on statistics from libraries throughout the state, including The Nichols Library.  By 1921, the Nichols Library served a population of 3,830 people, had 5,518 borrowers, and added 362 volumes.[31]  The Nichols Library had a total of 6,466 volumes, and the circulation was 15,554 items.[32]   Miss Egermann earned a two-week-long vacation.[33]  Miss Ida Dudley left a bequest of $400 for a clock for the Nichols Library.[34]

By 1923, The Nichols Library continued to serve 3,830 people, had 1,824 borrowers, and added 215 volumes.[35]  It had a total of 6,802 volumes and a circulation of 16,964 items.[36]  The Librarian had an annual salary of $700, while the Janitor had an annual salary of $238.[37]  The Nichols Library spent $55.01 on books, $133.20 on periodicals, and $139.80 on binding;[38] $170 on insurance, $123.07 on repairs, $51.30 on furniture, $47.37 on printing, and $1.45 on postage.[39]  The income was $2,053.30 and the expenditures totaled $1,986.29.[40]

By 1925, The Nichols Library continued to serve 3,830 people, had 1,948 borrowers, and added 312 volumes.[41]  It had a total of 7,418 volumes and a circulation of 20,094 items.[42]

There was a jump in the population of Naperville by 1927, and yet the number of borrowers (or number of times people borrowed things) at The Nichols Library declined, while the size of the collection continued to increase.  The Nichols Library then served a population of 4,608 people, had 1,807 borrowers, and added 407 volumes.[43]  It had a total of 7,584 volumes and a circulation of 20,094 items.[44]

By 1929, The Nichols Library served a population of 4,850 people, had 1,851 borrowers, and added 309 volumes.[45]  It had a collection of 7,893 volumes, and a circulation of 18,051 items.[46]

 

STATISTICS FROM THE 1920S

Year

Size of Population Number of Borrowers Volumes Added Total Number of Volumes Circulation

1921

3,830 5,518 362 6,466 15,554

1923

3,830 1,824 215 6,802 16,964
1925 3,830 1,948 312 7,418

20,094

1927 4,608 1,807 407 7,584

20,094

1929 4,850 1,851 309 7,893

18,051

 

In the 1920s, the Board of Health prohibited the circulation of books to victims of contagious diseases and ordered the destruction of suspicious books.[47]  In the aftermath of “a bad year of illness” the 1922-23 Annual Report showed circulation at the Nichols Library had declined for the first time since its establishment.[48]  Before I learnt that this was the case, my supposition had been that the number of borrowers had precipitously declined from the high point of 1921 to the low point of 1923 due to competition from radio broadcasts (which were free) and movie theaters (which were cheap) for the free time of people who might have previously spent more time devoted to reading fiction or poetry to entertain themselves.

During the Second Great Depression, circulation increased.[49]  During that time period, The Nichols Library also received $255 per year through the State of Illinois two-year book relief fund.[50]

On Sunday, January 28, 1934, an arsonist set the Nichols Library ablaze.[51]  He chose the Sabbath because the library was closed, entered through a window, doused drawers and desks with kerosene, and set a fire that damaged the 36,000-entry card catalogue, 9,000-volume collection, furniture, and supplies.[52]  The Nichols Library was adequately insured, but the firebug was never caught, and the library remained closed while it underwent repairs until March 12, 1934.[53]

In 1939, the Children’s Room added to the east room.  Kroehler Manufacturing Company, the largest furniture manufacturer in Naperville, donated Mickey Mouse-shaped tables, chairs, and a coat rack.

Miss Egermann decorated a Christmas tree every year and hosted a reception with an exhibition of her doll collection.  Students came to see the collection, which included dolls that represented a wide variety of ages, sizes, and nationalities.  Miss Egermann used the costumes the dolls wore to teach the schoolchildren about the customs of foreign countries.  She hosted doll drives and sent hundreds of dolls to children’s homes during the Christmas season.

By 1950, Naperville’s population had grown to 7,023, The Nichols Library had 12,323 volumes and circulation had reached 21,119. By this point, Miriam Fry (née Bubert) (1917-2011) ) had been Assistant Librarian for several years, and the Naperville Public Library Board of Trustees asked her to become the sixth head librarian.  Born in Wheeling, Illinois, she was a 1935 graduate of Arlington Heights High School in Arlington Heights, Illinois and a 1939 graduate of North Central College, who had wed Arthur S. Fry at Grace Evangelical Church in Naperville in 1940, and moved to Detroit where he worked for General Motors until his untimely death in 1945.  Miriam moved with their two sons to Naperville.  She served as Librarian (the equivalent of today’s Library Director) from 1950 to 1984.

Her good friend Mrs. Carl (Katherine) Finkbeiner (née Diehl) (1918-2010) offered to help. This arrangement lasted until the 1980s. At first, they did everything – ordered, cataloged and mended books; reference; advice for readers; story times; and checked out books.  Mrs. Finkbeiner, another alumna of North Central College, was Assistant Librarian from 1950 to 1987.

James L. Nichols III (1922-1989) served as President of the Library Board of Directors from 1962 to 1983.[54]  He retired in 1982 after twenty years with the DuPage County, served as township clerk for twenty-five years, and was a township supervisor.[55]  The family continued to live in Naperville, at least as of 1990.[56]  Back then, James L. Nichols IV was a foreman at Fry Properties, Inc. and his son, James L. Nichols V, was five years old.[57]

In 1961, an addition was made to the south of the original structure of The Nichols Library.   It opened in 1962.  Albert R. Martin was the architect.  Mrs. Miriam B. Fry, of course, was the Librarian.

Children’s Services and Technical Services moved to the basement in 1975, which was seen as a sign the library organization required more space.  Within four years, the full storage capacity of The Nichols Library was all used up and 10,000 books were stored off-site, as were some artworks and records.

In 1984 Miriam Fry retired and the Naperville Public Library Board appointed Roger Pearson the first Library Director. The City of Naperville acquired the property at 200 West Jefferson Avenue, and the second Nichols Library opened on March 11, 1986.

 

ENDNOTES

[1] Jane Teague, The Naperville Public Libraries: Celebrating One Hundred Years of Community Service. Naperville, Illinois: City of Naperville (1998), p. 1

[2] Ann Piccininni, “A Family Worth celebrating,” Chicago Tribune, 21 September, 1990 (http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1990-09-21-9003190330-story.html) Accessed 10/13/18

[3] Teague, p. 1

[4] Ibid

[5] Ann Piccininni, “A Family Worth celebrating,” Chicago Tribune, 21 September, 1990 (http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1990-09-21-9003190330-story.html) Accessed 10/13/18

[6] Ann Piccininni, “A Family Worth celebrating,” Chicago Tribune, 21 September, 1990 (http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1990-09-21-9003190330-story.html) Accessed 10/13/18

[7] Teague, p. 1

[8] This is similar to the requirement that steel magnate Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) and later the Carnegie Corporation of New York had that towns and colleges in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Eire, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and other countries had to make commitments to provide sites for Carnegie libraries and financially support them or he or the trustees of his foundation would not agree to make grants to fund their construction.

[9] Teague, p. 2

[10] Teague, p. 2

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[13] Teague, p. 2

[14] Teague, p. 2

[15] Ibid

[16] Ira J. Bach, A Guide to Chicago’s Historic Suburbs on Wheels & On Foot. Chicago; Athens, Ohio; and London: Swallow Press, Ohio University Press (1981), p. 409

[17] Bach, p. 409

[18] Bach, p. 409

[19] Bach, p. 409

[20] Teague, p. 2

[21] Ibid

[22] Ibid

[23] Ibid

[24] Teague, p. 2

[25] Ibid

[26] Ibid

[27] Ibid

[28] Ibid

[29] Ibid

[30] Ibid

[31] Illinois State Library, Report of the Library Extension Division – A Continuation of the Illinois Library Extension Commission for January 1, 1919 to December 31, 1921.  Springfield, Illinois: Illinois State Journal Company  (1922), p. 38

[32] Illinois State Library, Report of the Library Extension Division – A Continuation of the Illinois Library Extension Commission for January 1, 1919 to December 31, 1921.  Springfield, Illinois: Illinois State Journal Company  (1922), p. 39

[33] Ibid

[34] Illinois State Library, Report of the Library Extension Division – A Continuation of the Illinois Library Extension Commission for January 1, 1919 to December 31, 1921.  Springfield, Illinois: Illinois State Journal Company  (1922), p. 15

[35] Illinois State Library, Report of the Library Extension Division for January 1, 1922 to December 31, 1923.  Danville, Illinois: Illinois Printing Company  (1924), pages 38 and 43

[36] Illinois State Library, Report of the Library Extension Division for January 1, 1922 to December 31, 1923.  Danville, Illinois: Illinois Printing Company  (1924), pages 39 and 43

[37] Illinois State Library, Report of the Library Extension Division for January 1, 1922 to December 31, 1923.  Danville, Illinois: Illinois Printing Company  (1924), p. 30

[38] Ibid

[39] Illinois State Library, Report of the Library Extension Division for January 1, 1922 to December 31, 1923.  Danville, Illinois: Illinois Printing Company  (1924), p. 31

[40] Illinois State Library, Report of the Library Extension Division for January 1, 1922 to December 31, 1923.  Danville, Illinois: Illinois Printing Company  (1924), pages 31 and 43

[41] Illinois State Library, Report of the Library Extension Division for January 1, 1924 to December 31, 1925. Springfield, Illinois (1926), p. 42

[42] Illinois State Library, Report of the Library Extension Division for January 1, 1924 to December 31, 1925. Springfield, Illinois (1926), p. 43

[43] Illinois State Library, Report of the Library Extension Division for January 1, 1926 to December 31, 1927.  Springfield, Illinois (1928), p. 44

[44] Illinois State Library, Report of the Library Extension Division for January 1, 1926 to December 31, 1927.  Springfield, Illinois (1928), p. 45

[45] Illinois State Library, Report of the Library Extension Division for January 1, 1928 to December 31, 1929.  Danville, Illinois: Illinois Printing Company (1930), p. 50

[46] Illinois State Library, Report of the Library Extension Division for January 1, 1928 to December 31, 1929.  Danville, Illinois: Illinois Printing Company (1930), p. 51

[47] Teague, p. 2

[48] Ibid

[49] Teague, p. 3

[50] Ibid

[51] Ibid

[52] Ibid

[53] Ibid

[54] Ann Piccininni, “A Family Worth celebrating,” Chicago Tribune, 21 September, 1990 (http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1990-09-21-9003190330-story.html) Accessed 10/13/18

[55] Ibid

[56] Ibid

[57] Ibid

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