On Friday, May 9, 1958, I was a teenager in Galesburg. My mom, Rosie, and I were at Ellis Jewelers at 219 E. Main Street. She was a saleswoman and I was her occasional assistant. It gave us time together and a place where I learned a lot about our community. That evening there was a “living history” lesson for everyone.
It was almost 7:30 p.m. As it was early May, it was warm but not too hot.
There weren’t many shoppers downtown on this beautiful spring evening. I didn’t have much to do, so my mom told me I could walk outside. As I walked out, I was immediately surrounded by a smell that reminded me of something burning.
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It was a strong, acrid smell. Back then it was not uncommon to smell the leaves burning, but this was different.
Then there was the sound of sirens and loud voices. Police cars and fire engines drove past Main Street.
People were screaming and running. I could hear them saying something about the library. People were screaming that our massive, impressive Carnegie Library was on fire. I could not believe it.
Mom and I started running with everyone. Everyone was moving in the same direction. We were heading towards the corner of Simmons and Cherry streets.
It was the site of the Carnegie Sculptural Library. The building had been constructed in the early 1900s. This was made possible by a $50,000 donation from businessman Andrew Carnegie. Now it was on fire!
Before we even got to the site, we could see fiery flames and thick smoke blanketing the sky. It looked like a horrible movie, but the smell and the sounds made it too real.
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Flames, smoke and even debris drifted above the trees. We reached where an even larger group of people were standing.
We watched the fire move as if it had a mind of its own. Galesburg police held back the crowd. Firefighters were doing their best to battle the ravenous flames. The water pressure just wasn’t enough to stop them or even slow them down.
The flames raged through the building and destroyed everything in its path. We could hear and even see the burning books and papers.
Firefighters from Knoxville, Abingdon and other communities joined the fight. But it was useless. The fire moved like a monster seeking destruction. The flames escaped from the large windows on the second floor and snaked down to the first floor. Along its destructive path, the mighty fire destroyed furniture, equipment and books…more than 200,000 books.
Miraculously, not a single human life was lost, but many valuable artifacts disappeared forever. Throughout the night we witnessed and mourned the loss of the Carnegie Library. The next morning, only walls, glowing ashes and ashes remained.
Following the destruction of the library, a temporary location was set up. The community believed that the Carnegie would soon be replaced. This does not happen. It took many lifetimes before a new library became a reality.
Some of us were there when the Carnegie burned down. Now we are witnessing the construction of the new library. It took a grant from the state, the citizens of Galesburg and nationwide support to make this happen.
Our children and future generations will benefit from a library in ways we can’t even imagine. Existing and new clients will create and learn from resources that Carnegie librarians would not have considered or authorized.
Dear readers, people ask if we still need libraries. I answer with an enthusiastic “yes”!
Libraries and people are changing. The future is beyond books and papers. Libraries are becoming a conglomeration of old and new data, skills and techniques. Libraries have become havens for social, intellectual, emotional and even physical development.
The new library will provide unique opportunities for research and study. Historians and players can collaborate on projects. Creative programming will appeal to the interests of teenagers, retirees and families. The new facility encourages individual and collective projects. It will include spaces, activities and programs for everyone. I remember the old one but look forward to the new one.
Thanks to Emily DuGranrut, Archivist of the Galesburg Public Library, for verifying the accuracy of my memories and projections. This is another reason to appreciate a library. It serves as a resource.
Communities have visions. The library under construction at 264 W. Main St. is full of promise. Collectively and collaboratively, Galesburg is building a library that recalls the past and embraces the future. See you at the 2024 opening celebrations!
Naomi Law was an educator and administrator in Joliet and Oak Park, Illinois. She is the author of “The Adventures of Orie the Orpheum Mouse” and volunteers in the community.