EPL History

Evanston Public Library Lore

In our day to day lives it is all too easy to take the institutions that we count on for granted. We forget that many people made decisions over the years to bring us schools, hospitals, businesses, governments, and a library. What follows are the highlights of the Evanston Public Library’s long history.

Among the pioneers in the area was an educated woman who placed a value on books, Mrs. Rebecca Mulford, wife of Major Edward Mulford, a gentleman pioneer who came out of New York in 1833. She brought the first collection of books to the area.

Mrs. Mulford’s books were given to Methodist Episcopal Sunday school as a nucleus for a library.

Edward Eggleston, of Hoosier Schoolmaster fame, organized a class of boys who borrowed books from his library. Later, he urged L.L. Greenleaf to found a library association.

Evanston Library Association was founded. Constitution provided, “To establish and maintain a public library and reading room, and, in connection with this, by all suitable means to awaken a desire for sound knowledge and a correct taste, and to provide for the gratification of the same among all classes of the community.” Ordinary membership: $5.00; life membership: $30 for gentlemen, $20 for ladies.

Evanston Library Association opened its quarters on 2nd floor at 613 Davis Street. “On account of circumstances connected with the Great fire in Chicago no meeting of the Trustees was held this evening. –Minutes, October 10, 1871.

The citizens of the village, without dissent, voted on April 15 for a two mill tax for a free public library. Vote: 337 for, 0-against. The new board met in July to elect officers and to receive the assets of the Evanston Library Association: 932 volumes, ‘other properties and obligations.’ Evanston in 1873 still procured its water from wells and cisterns, was lighted by kerosene street lamps. The only ‘high school’ was conducted by Superintendent Otis Haven in upper grade of the Benson Avenue school. Grosse Point lighthouse and University Hall were under construction. North Evanston was to be annexed and a health department yet to be established. The library board: J.H. Kedzie, President; Samuel Green, secretary. Other members: Louis Boutell, Dr. J.S. Jewell, O.S. Willard, Edward S. Taylor, Andrew Shuman, L.L. Greenleaf, Thomas Freeman.

The first librarian selected was Thomas J. Kellan. His salary was five dollars a week, and his duties included “care of the room.”

Library began to purchase books for children under ten.

Library moved to second floor of the newly completed Village Hall on April 27.

Miss Mary B. Lindsay became librarian. She had trained in the Albany, New York library training school under Melvil Dewey and was the first trained librarian in this area.

“A fine collection of works on art is a feature of the library and we intend to make that more available by cutting off part of the reading room for an Art room, where all persons desiring to study art or questions of art can have free access to the shelves of that department. This may be a step here to the policy of allowing free access to all the books, which is being adopted in the public libraries of Cleveland and some other large cities.” –M. Lindsay in Chicago Evening Post

Library collection was reclassified according to the new Dewey decimal classification scheme. Board determined to establish a new card catalog to replace the finding lists. Professor F.W. Nichols of School District 2 was permitted to draw for his two schools books to the number of 100 for use by his students, inaugurating the Evanston Public Library extension program of branches and school service. Public library facilities were opened to northwestern University students through an agreement between boards of the two institutions.

“Book mutilation in Evanston. The authorities of the Evanston Public Library are looking for a man who has a mania for destroying valuable books. Within a week several volumes have been mutilated by a red hot instrument run through the pages. From the atlases maps have disappeared. Serialized works have also suffered. The Council passed a new ordinance making the punishment more severe.” –Times Herald Patrons of the library presented a petition to the board of directors asking that the Salvation Army be restrained from holding meetings on library corner because of noise. Board proclaimed the first of several “Library Days” with all-day festivities, tours and speeches “to popularize” the library and extend its field of usefulness by promoting better acquaintance.

Library adopted the open shelf system.

Library formed a league among school children “To create a deeper interest in books and good reading among the young folks. Motto: Clean hearts, clean hands, clean books.”

C.F. Grey, a generous and prominent Evanstonian, offered city $100,000 toward erection of a library building provided a suitable site would be given by city.

Library opened on Sunday evenings, 2:00 to 9:00 p.m. “It is exceptional for libraries to be open Sunday evenings. Three hours of evening use more than equal four hours’ afternoon use.”

Library board and city gave up attempt to secure site for library, and lost Grey gift.

Title to the Northeast corner of Orrington and Church was conveyed to the city by Northwestern University for $31,600 for library site. This was the site of the original First Methodist Church – where on October 19, 1870 the Evanston Library Association adopted its constitution.

Carnegie gift of $50,000 accepted by the Library Board for the construction of a Library building.

Evanston Public Library moved to its own building and new home at 1703 Orrington Avenue on January 1. Cost of the “classic Greek structure”: $135,464.69. Coe Collection given to the library: a reproducing pianola and rolls installed in soundproof room on the mezzanine, a large collection of musical scores, and an endowment of $6,000. First deposit station opened at Washington School.

Financial crisis! New law changed assessment procedure and library reduced hours: no evening hours on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and no Sunday service; library closed from July to August 15, staff not paid.

Funeral services for Mary B. Lindsay held in the Library; city flags at half mast. South Branch opened at 926 Chicago Avenue.

Marcus Skarstedt resigned after year and a half leave of absence working with service camp libraries. Ida Faye Wright appointed librarian. Miss Wright had served as EPL children’s librarian before becoming assistant librarian at Lincoln Library, Springfield.

Library book auto started. EPL first to use a mobile unit in a city. Others had only been used in rural areas.

A special department developed to assist Young Adults—librarian specially trained in this work hired. Special quarters for Art and Music on lower floor of library, and Library Hall became exhibition and program center for the Evanston Art Center.

South Branch moved to Chicago and Lee.

Phonograph records added for home use.

Ida Faye Wright retired; Andre S. Nielsen appointed librarian.

Miss Vera Megowan gives a new specially equipped vehicle to serve as a traveling branch. It was the first commercially built bookmobile to be used by the library. Special election held on December 23rd to increase maximum tax rate to two mills: 1,021 for and 132 against.

16mm film service inaugurated by the library. One of the first public libraries in the country to offer this service for home use.

Library board decided to close library on Saturday nights.

First circulation of long-playing recordings.

City created parking lot behind library with cooperation of Library Board.

North Branch opened at 2026 Central Street – formerly adult branch at Haven school.

Library bond issue for $60,000 to remodel and enlarge building defeated: 5,674 yes to 8,842 no.

Library announced $20,000 remodeling. While working on library remodeling, workman found 49 year old milk and beer bottles under the Library Hall stage. Evanston Art Center held outdoor art show on library lawn.

New $8,000 bookmobile put into service replacing the earlier one which had worn out.

City Planning Commission approved Library Board proposal for new building at Church and Orrington – same location Library has had since 1908.

City election on $1,375,000 bond issue for new Library: 3,599 for and 3,174 against.

Dedication of the new Library building.

Eleanor E. Perkins gave first of four lectures, “Are We Using Our Educated Women?”

Library board endorsed membership in North Suburban Library System. Paul Gorby elected first system President.

Library added framed art prints for home use. Most popular print is Buffet’s “Somme River Lock.” Andre S. Nielsen, librarian for 23 years, retired. Donald E. Wright appointed librarian. Library installed photocopy machines for use by public.

Library added large print sight saving books for those with vision difficulties.

Slide collection developed and inaugurated.

Sunday hours reinstituted; four hours’ service equal regular nine hour day. Library Board approved reciprocal borrowing plan enabling Evanston card holders to borrow from over 30 North Shore libraries and the Chicago Public Library. New bookmobile arrived and put into service.

Round-the-World Cooking series inaugurated featuring local ethnic groups. Reproductions of sculpture added to library’s circulating collection. Library provides 8 mm films for use at home. Govenor Richard Ogilvie honored at lunch in Library and presented Illinois flag to President of Board, James McLeod.

Library celebrates Centennial Year.

The lease for a building to house the West Branch is signed. North Branch begins the use of volunteers, some of them retired librarians, to staff the circulation desk. The Library’s film department makes available a film for any patron planning a Bicentennial activity. Evanston police are summoned to the Library, but arrive too late to apprehend the young man who has streaked the stacks.

West Branch Library opens at 1715 Simpson Street. In May, Muhammad Ali, heavyweight champion of the world, is in the neighborhood and pays the new Branch Library an impromptu visit at the invitation of Staff.

Main Library Staff fills out a building questionnaire to begin quantifying the Library’s growing needs for space.

The Technical Services Department begins using the BALLOTS (Bibliographic Automation of Large Library Operations using a Time-sharing System) online cataloging system centered at Stanford University. A security system called KNOGO is installed at the Main Library. The Board receives the report from Geudtner and Associates on its study of Library space. The report concludes that it is not feasible to expand into the basement parking garage or to build a new addition. South Branch expands and uses the added space for a Children’s Room.

Staff begins using the new CLSI (Computer Library Services Inc.) on-line circulation system at the Main Library. Light pens are used to scan the new bar codes affixed to each item in the collection. Approval of the new budget enables the Main Library to resume Sunday hours during the summer months. The Jo-Anne Hirshfield Memorial Poetry Awards program is inaugurated. Relocation of library materials to South Branch basement storage begins, and Main Library shelves are extended in all public service departments, reducing available seating space.

The Board votes to purchase an online public access catalog. Two OCLC (Ohio College Library Consortium) terminals are installed in Technical Services. Access to the OCLC database of over 5,000,000 catalog records dramatically reduces the number of titles requiring the creation of original catalog records. The Board now considers the space problem its highest priority.

In October, Evanston Public Library patrons begin using the new online public access catalog with CLSI touch-screen terminals. Two new rental collections debut at the Main Library: the videocassette collection and the duplicate, browsing collection of rental best sellers. Items from both collections are loaned for one week. Rental fees are one dollar for videocassettes and 75 cents for bestsellers. Architect Walter Scott Hallen reports that the space problem is critical and questions feasibility of an addition.

West Branch Library closes, its annual circulation having never reached the level of the nearby North Branch’s monthly figures. In retrospect the Branch location – too close to other Library facilities and outside of a busy retail business district – made success unlikely. The Library cooperates in the founding of the Foster Reading Center as a more effective means of promoting reading in the neighborhood. The Library Staff and Board develop a comprehensive building program document.

Architect David Zeunert studies the Main Library building with a structural engineer and emphasizes in his report the critical nature of the space shortage and the problems presented by the various alternative plans for expanding the library.

The “Future Library” Planning Council members meet with Mayor Lytle to report on the architects’ studies of the space crisis. Evanston Library Friends is founded, as a “self-sustaining organization open to all with the purpose of supporting the Library through educational, cultural, social, civic, and fund-raising activities.” Library meeting rooms and the auditorium are closed, and their space converted to public services.

First annual Family Night at the Library, sponsored by the Evanston Library Friends. Library Building Consultant Robert H. Rohlf issues his review of all previous studies of the space shortage at the Library and concludes: “The most efficient and effective solution is the construction of an entirely new structure for public library use in Evanston.”

A new Evanston Bookmobile hits the road with computerized book checkout. Compact discs are added to the Library’s collection. The Board begins planning to hold an architectural competition to select an architect for the new Library building.

North Branch Librarian and locally famous book reviewer Virginia McCarthy retires.

In March, the Evanston Public Library Board votes to close and remove the card catalog. One month later, the card catalog is dismantled and removed from the Library. Microfilming of old Evanston newspapers is initiated as a joint project with Northwestern University. At the 115th birthday party for the Library, all 116 candles, including the one to grow on, are blown out with one mutual wish: for a new library building.

Two hundred people attend a forum on the Main Library Project. Staff issues its Revised Building Program Statement. The Board hires professional consultants to conduct an architectural competition for design of the new building.

The framed art collection is discontinued because of declining use. The outgrown CLSI library automation system is replaced with DRA (Data Research Associates) hardware and software.

Twenty-eight year old Joseph Powell wins the international design competition for the new Evanston Public Library building. The Art Room at the Main Library is converted to a Fiction/Periodical Room. The Library is closed for five days while the art books are integrated into the main collection and the fiction and periodicals are moved into the room.

Longtime Library Director Don Wright retires. A reception is held for incoming Library Director, Neal Ney. A minor fire in the elevator on November 6th temporarily closes the old library two days before its final closing. The Library moves to an Interim Site at 1600 Orrington. Old Library is demolished.

Construction of the new Library begins in January. Selection of public art for the new building begins. Rental collections of bestsellers begun at North and South Branches.

The move into the new building takes twelve working days and involves the inter-filing of books from four locations. The Fund for Excellence is launched at a September 24th preview of the new building. The new building, twice as large as the building it replaced, opens to the public on October 10th. The new building is dedicated on November 6th. Automation facilities in the new building include self-checkout terminals, a network of CD-ROM databases in the reference room, and a computer laboratory in the children’s room.

ECTV (Evanston Cable Television) airs a video tour of the new Library, “The Evanston Public Library Has Something for Everyone.” The Library unveils its web site (http:\\www.evanston.lib.il.us) and begins providing Internet access for the public.

With the adoption of The Evanston Public Library Strategic Plan 1996-2000 in March, collection development emerges as the focus for the Library’s Board. The Evanston Public Library receives a Library Services and Construction Act Grant for a Hispanic Outreach Program. The Library begins a rental collection of CD-ROM software. The rental fee is $2.00.

The Bookmobile ceases operation. The new position of Children’s Outreach Services Librarian is created as a liaison to teachers and librarians in the Evanston schools. With the installation and dedication of “Bookends,” the two stainless steel sculptures by Richard Hunt on the upper west facade of the Library, the public art plan for the Library is completed. Library outreach services include a grant-funded cooperative program with the Foster Reading Center to encourage the reading habit in young children. A Speaker’s Bureau is established, made up of Library Staff trained as spokespersons to address the community about their fields of expertise.

The Library celebrates its 125th anniversary.

The Board of Trustees votes unanimously to send the painting At the Fountain by William Adolph Bouguereau to auction over the objections of many citizens. The independent film forum Reeltime, a collaboration between the Evanston Public Library and NU’s Mary and Leigh Block Museum, debuts. The Fund for Excellence is established.

Board approves A Decade of Outreach, the Library’s Strategic Plan 2000 – 2010. An Internet workstation with several specialized features to accommodate the disabled is made available in the library’s Reference Dept. EPL receives funds from the NSLS Human Genome Project Grant to purchase materials and offer programs.

The federal Children’s Internet Protection Act is passed, but filters will not be installed on EPL’s Adult Services computers. EPL Reference Dept. participates in Answers Unlimited, an NSLS-sponsored online reference service. The Board considers relocation of South Branch.

Generations on Line, a software program designed to introduce older adults to use of the Internet and e-mail, is available on a dedicated workstation in the Reference Dept. Online reference resources are available to Evanston residents remotely.

The computer training room opens on the third floor and the Reference Dept. begins offering free computer classes. EPL offers expanded interactive online reference services through myweblibrarian.com. The painting, Discover New Worlds, by Eric Rohmann is purchased for the Children’s Dept.

Peregrine Falcons nest on the Library’s third floor window ledge for the first time in the summer of 2004 and the pair of baby peregrine falcon chicks are the first confirmed hatchlings of the species in Evanston. Launch of eBook collection.

The Most Wanted collection of books, available only to Evanston residents, is created to replace the rental collection. EPL joins the Cooperative Computer Services (CCS), a consortium of 22 area libraries, which share a combined catalog. EPL’s catalog is moved from DRA to SIRSI. Security cameras are installed in the library and garage.

Rick Kinnebrew, Outreach Services Librarian receives a $10,000 grant from the Evanston Community Foundation to fund a pilot program in educational/play literacy at the Child Care Center and District 65 Head Start. This program becomes known as LEAP (Literacy Education at Play) and provides pre-school children the opportunity to mimic or play adult roles, and thus to practice early literacy skills. New library phones are installed.

The Children’s Department, renovated and enlarged, and The Loft, EPL’s new teen space on the third floor, open in September with a weekend of special programming. Library Director Neal J. Ney retires on the first of November.

Mary Johns becomes Library Director. David Jordan, Virtual Services Librarian, launches the library’s new website. Library computers are migrated to the city network and the library staff participates in Web 2.0 training. The Loft wins two design awards: the first in a competition sponsored by the International Interior Design Association (IIDA) and the American Library Association (ALA) and the second from the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Evanston Library Friends ceases operation due to lack of active members. The public computer reservation and print management systems are implemented. A Foundation 65 Grant supports District 65 kindergarten class visits to the library.

EPLF reorganizes and sponsors fund raising activities to keep open branch libraries. The Library’s bi-monthly electronic newsletter is launched as well as e-mail notifications for patron holds and overdue items. The Summer Reading Stop is first held at Dempster-Dodge Plaza. Board adopts the Library Fund Model.

The South Branch closes and the Mighty Twig, operated by volunteers, opens in south Evanston. Illinois Worknet Center opens in the third floor training room. Board approves the 2011-2014 Strategic Plan. Mary Johns resigns as Library Director.

Karen Danczak Lyons is appointed Library Director.

EPL takes over the space formerly operated as The Mighty Twig and opens the Chicago Ave.-Main St. (CAMS) location on January 12.


EPL commissions an Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) study to take a formal look at the realities and perceptions of equity across the Library’s assets, services and partnerships. The study catalyzes an open discussion about new approaches to meet the needs of underserved communities in Evanston, adding a Racial Equity Task Force and new engagement librarians, and guiding the diversification of voices represented in the collection. 


The Chicago Ave./Main St. (CAMS) Branch and the North Branch close. 


EPL opens a branch library in the new Robert Crown Community Center on Main Street. The branch and Main Library are temporarily shuttered less than a month later in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Library launches expanded programs and operations in outdoor spaces throughout the summer months, a trend that EPL’s Engagement team continues beyond the immediate global health threat. 


Karen Danczak Lyons retires from her post as Library Director.


The Library celebrates 150 years of connecting the Evanston community to ideas, resources, events and more. (Celebrate with us!)  Also, the library digitizes local newspapers, including the Evanston Review (1924-2009), its predecessor publications (1872-1924), and the Newsette and CCC/Newsette, Evanston’s African-American newspaper published between the 1940s and the 1980s, a treasure trove for genealogists and historians.

Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.

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