SYCAMORE – One of the first Sycamore residents to get a library card was Mrs. W.S. Clark on Aug. 6, 1892.
Her husband, W.S. Clark, followed suit a week later. Their names still are on the original borrower logs at the Sycamore Public Library. That record, along with the original catalogs used to track checkout history of the library’s books, chronicle how the library served its earliest patrons.
“Sycamore is so big into local history,” library director Jesse Butz said.
The records from the library’s earliest days in the 1890s are stacks of books with faded and cracked bindings, stored in a back room. They hold particular interest for Butz, whose undergraduate degree was in history and who loves old books.
The ledger books lay flat and open on a table, and the early history of the library plays out in the entries. The accession logs track every book as it was added to the collection and when it was withdrawn. It was a process done by hand, Butz said.
A similar process logged the patrons – when they gained borrowing privileges and when their name was removed from the list – sometimes because they moved away, but more often because they died, Butz said.
Now library cards have to be renewed every three years because people move around a lot more than they did in the 19th century, he said.
The library records, including which books were added that year, or what the handwritten minutes show was discussed at board meetings, provide some insight into the city’s reading habits at that specific time.
Some of those early books still are in the library, although not available for checkout. On the second floor, an antique cabinet contains some of the first volumes in the library’s collection, including works by Dante and Charles Darwin, former President and Illinois native Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs, and Henry Stanley’s “In Darkest Africa.”
Sycamore’s first library opened in 1892 on State Street between Maple and Somonauk streets. The first books were purchased with $800 in public funds appropriated by the Sycamore City Council.
The accession log shows it took the library about 30 years to acquire 8,000 items. Butz said the library will now do that in about a year – it budgets about $80,000 to acquire books each year and has a collection of about 85,000 physical objects including books, movies and periodicals.
Successive volumes of the library board’s minutes show a change from handwritten to typewritten minutes by the 1920s. The change in the book logs is evident is well, with handwritten records of the first half of the century being typed by the 1980s.
Today, library records are fully digitized, Butz said, but the same information is recorded. He said the library keeps the old books around because they show the rich history of the area.
“You get to see this snapshot of very specific history,” Butz said.