Beginnings of The Urbana Free Library
The first documented library organization in Urbana was the 1854 Urbana Library Society. This was a subscription library organized by Urbana citizens. In 1872, interest in an Urbana library was rekindled by a group calling themselves the Young Men’s Library Association of Urbana. Fifty-two young men met in early December 1872 at Busey Hall and created a joint-stock association with each member asked to contribute $25 to found the group. By January the following year, enough money was raised and the association opened a subscription library in Urbana and changed their name to the Urbana Library Association.
The reading room was officially opened to the public in February 1873 and the remainder of the library was opened in May with Frank M. Allen as librarian. Books and magazines were donated by community and association members and other content was purchased with subscription funds. In 1874, the local government became interested in taking control of the subscription library. On June 1st, the city council proposed a new free public library in Urbana and a week later the proposal was approved. Another week later the ordinance for the establishment of the library passed and The Urbana Free Library was born June 16, 1874.
Former Library Locations
The first known location of the Urbana library was on the second floor of Tiernan’s block on Main Street in 1872. Later that year, the library moved to the Masonic Temple on the southwest corner of Main and Race Streets. The library remained in this location until 1876 when it moved across the street to the Gill Building, now known as the Knowlton and Bennett Building. The library in the Gill Building occupied a 28 feet x 38 feet back room on the second floor for a cost of $150 a year.
In 1894, the library moved to the first floor of the Urbana City Building. Library attendance increased greatly following the move, something attributed to the location of the library on the first, rather than the second floor. It initially occupied a single room, but an addition was added to the west side of the building to make more space for the growing collection and number of patrons. Library growth steadily continued into the 20th century and the two rooms failed to meet the needs of the community. In addition to space limitations, the police bullpen was below the library and patrons were interrupted by loud citizens sobering up in the holding cell. This combination of issues led to a proposal for a new library building by the Urbana Commercial Club in 1908
The Mill Tax
From its inception in 1874, The Urbana Free Library was supported by the mill tax. The one-mill tax collected $1 for every $1000 of assessed property tax in Urbana annually. This money was used to support the library in every way, including rent payment, buying books, subscribing to magazines, paying the librarian, and more. In 1888, the tax was increased to a two-mill tax to meet the needs of the growing library. This annual funding was essential to the proposal for a new building in the early 20th century. The library board of directors relied upon this tax to acquire a site and attract Andrew Carnegie to donate money. It was also vital to the dream of a new library after Carnegie withdrew his proposal and before Mary E. Busey offered her generous gift.
The Carnegie Library
In 1908, the Urbana Commercial Club proposed a new library building and reached out to American industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie for help. Carnegie was known for donating money to communities in need of libraries that could not afford to build their own. In 1910, Carnegie’s secretary responded to the request, informing the Club that if they purchased a site and raised 10% of the total cost of the building, he would donate the funds. After a year of planning and searching for a new site, the city of Urbana announced that Andrew Carnegie would sponsor the new library building at a cost of $40,000. In 1914, a proposal was made to Urbana citizens asking them to pass a $10,000 bond measure supporting the Carnegie library building site. This was the first proposition in the history of Urbana for which women were permitted to vote and it passed with an overwhelming majority. As the library committee continued planning the new building, they were shocked by news that Andrew Carnegie retracted his proposal. According to sources, when Carnegie learned that Urbana raised $10,000 for a new building he withdrew his offer because he felt the city could afford its own building. Following the June 1914 decision, W.E. Coffin, the Chairman of the library building committee, responded to his change of heart saying, “Andrew Carnegie can take his blood money and go to hell. Urbana is going to build a library with Urbana money, and Urbana is going to own it.”