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Friends of the NIU Libraries

Friends of the NIU Libraries: Past Programs: History of NIU Libraries

History of NIU Libraries
Presented by David Hamilton
October 17th, 2001
Staff Lounge, Founders Memorial Library (Lower Level)

David Hamilton traced the early history of the libraries at NIU complete with a slide show of photographs held at the Regional History Center showing the beginnings of the libraries.

Image of David Hamilton

The cities of DeKalb, Rockford, Polo, Oregon, and Fulton all competed against each other in 1895 as state officials decided where to built the next Normal School in Illinois. The other cities offered the use of their public libraries. To keep DeKalb competitive with the other cities, Jacob Haish offered money to purchase books if the school would be built in DeKalb. After DeKalb became the chosen location, Haish donated $10,000 for the building of the library and another $1,400 to purchase furniture. Hamilton related a story on how some local newspapers incorrectly reported information about the $10,000. The Daily Chronicle reported the money was earmarked for a gym while the newspaper in Belvidere reported it was for a telescope but Hamilton discovered records in the University Archives that Haish offered $10,000 for a gym, telescope, or a library. Fortunately for the students, Mr. Haish and the Board agreed upon a library. The other prominent city business leaders, primarily Issac L. Ellwood, Clinton Rosette, and Joseph F. Glidden, assisted with the efforts to bring the Normal School to DeKalb, but the first library built in Altgeld Hall was named for Haish because of his strong support for the first library.

Reading Room of the Haish Library
The first president, John Williston Cook, ordered all of the books for the library and over 2,000 arrived in the first shipment. (He also gave out all the students' grades). By the end of the first year the library operated, it contained almost 6,000 books. Hamilton found the price for the collected works of Shakespeare during those early days of the Haish Library--$17.80. The first room of the library could hold about 100 students. The location of the library in Altgeld Hall proved to be unfortunate; students needed to walk through the library to get to their classes. image of Haish Library

blocked fire exit
Blocked fire exit in the overcrowded Haish Library.
Katherine Walker directing students
Librarian Katherine Walker (in the center near the top of the image) directs students in the overcrowded Haish Library.

Crowded hallway in the Haish Library

Crowded hallway in the Haish Library.

image of President Leslie Holmes carrying books
President Leslie Holmes carries the first load of books out of the Haish Library to the new Swen Parson Library. He is carrying the two heaviest volumes held at the library at the time.

Swen Parsons the New Library
After the university outgrew the size of Haish Library, a new library was built in Swen Parson Hall. Budget money could be obtained for the construction of the library for its completion in 1952, but not enough money could be found to pay movers to move the books until next year's budget in 1953. Presidents of the student organizations on campus developed a solution for the financial problem. They decided to have everyone possible help move the books. On December 10th, 1952, about 1,700 students and about 1,500 others, mostly staff, faculty, citizens of DeKalb, and officers in the Air Force all worked together to move 85,000 volumes of books in one day. President Leslie Holmes carried the first load of books from Altgeld to Swen Parson and students sang Christmas carols while they worked. image of students moving more books
Students carrying books down the stairwell in Altgeld Hall.
image of Swen Parson Library

A comfortable setting at the library in Swen Parson Hall. Eventually, the university outgrew the library again and a new one needed to be built--the present day Founders Memorial Library.
Please note: All of the black and white photographs are courtesy of the Regional History Center. Some sizes of the photos were adjusted as needed to fit into this Web site.


For more information, please call (815) 753-9838 or e-mail libraryfriend@niu.edu.

Last Updated: December 14, 2010