Without This Peorian, Public Libraries Might Not Be The Same - Or Even Exist
Public libraries as we know them today may not exist without the Herculean efforts of one Peorian nearly 150 years ago. But he's remained a relatively obscure historical figure.
Erastus Swift Willcox was born in New York in 1830. Life eventually brought him west to Illinois. He worked as a Farmington bank clerk, and a professor of modern language at Knox College in Galesburg, before settling down permanently in Peoria.
It's in Peoria where Willcox began to lobby for what was then a novel concept: a free public library.
"I think it was his love of languages, his love of learning and books that really sustained his desire to build a library here," said Jennifer Davis, public relations manager for the Peoria Public Library.
Davis has extensively researched Willcox and his role in library history.
Back in the 1860s, the prevailing method of borrowing books was via a subscription service.
"It was very much driven by class, whether or not you were able to have access to books, since everything was a subscription. And he didn't believe that should be the case," Davis said. "And so again, he came up with the idea that libraries could be supported by tax dollars, which was very controversial. Even today, taxes are controversial. But at the time, that was such a new...it hadn't been done."
While New Hampshire adopted the country's first public library law in 1849, it was Willcox's concept that served as the model eventually emulated by 47 other states.
Despite skepticism among businessmen in the Peoria Mercantile Association in which he served as a librarian, Willcox drafted legislation allowing for the establishment of tax-supported public libraries in Illinois. He coaxed state Rep. Samuel Caldwell to introduce it in Springfield in 1872.
And that's where Willcox and Peoria's role get lost in the mix a bit. Around the same time, Chicago Mayor Joseph Medill was lobbying for similar legislation pertaining specifically to the Windy City. Much of Willcox's legislation was cannibalized in the crafting of the final library bill signed into law.
"We've always thought that Peoria should get more recognition and be a little more famous for the role that we've played in having libraries be the way they are, which is free and open to the public. And the only thing that we can kind of maybe think that's why we haven't been is, Chicago, for a while, also tried to take credit for the bill that passed that created the free libraries," Davis said. "But after many years, and after research, even they came to realize, no, it was Peoria. It was E.S. Willcox. His bill was the one that was passed. It was amended to help Chicago, but it was his bill that was passed."
Willcox served as the Peoria Public Library's second librarian. It's a role he would embrace for the rest of his life. Willcox would accumulate one of America's more robust — and costly— library collections in Peoria, often to the chagrin of the Peoria City Council.
Davis resurfaced a early 20th century account in which Mayor E.N. Woodruff admonished Willcox for his spending. But Peoria's longest-serving mayor would later recall those encounters with fondness.
"Mayor Woodruff, in recollections we have, talked about how he had to talk to E.S. Wilcox and say, 'You need to stay within your budget.' And (Willcox) is like, 'Well, if you won't invest in the in the education of Peorians, then I guess it's gonna have to come out of my pocket.'
"So many years later, Woodruff very fondly remembered how devoted Willcox was to growing Peoria's library, and making sure that we actually had collections that were very valuable and rare, and recognized as top notch collections around the world," Davis said.
Willcox was intimately involved with Peoria's libraries for more than half a century. He died on the job in 1915, when the increasingly deaf librarian was struck by an oncoming streetcar near the old downtown library at Main and Monroe.
The Peoria Public Library keeps a biography and scrapbooks documenting Willcox's life in its Local History Collection at the Main Branch library. While those materials can't be checked out, they are viewable upon request.
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