If you had a chance to check out our 2nd floor display during July, you would have seen a number of photographs showing the creation of the current library building, which opened to the public in 1958.
By the mid-1950s, it had become obvious to everyone that the original Carnegie library at the corners of Prospect and Northwest Highway had become hopelessly inadequate for the growing Park Ridge population. A referendum passed in January of 1956, approving a $350,000 bond to build a new library, and ground broke on the project six months later.
In the fall of 1957, a local paper recorded progress on the construction:
“Exterior work on the new Library Building is now all completed except for minor cleanup activities . . . Inside the building, the work on trim and woodwork is in the final stages. So also is the painting and decorating of walls and ceilings . . . The Library Board and the Library staff are working on plans for moving day. This will be quite a job, involving the moving of thousands of books and the related library materials, equipment and records.”
The new building was beautiful – a model library in 1957 – and a tribute to its designers and builders. But the conundrum of how to move all the contents of the old library over to the new one without mixing everything up and leaving a logistical nightmare for the librarians still needed to be addressed.
How do you tackle such a huge project? You call in the Boy Scouts.
Actually, make that also the Camp Fire Girls, the Cub Scouts, and every other youth service organization that might contribute helpers. More than 800 children eventually played a part in carrying books over by hand in December, 1957, during what was supposed to be their Christmas break.
To be fair, the children earned credit towards their Scout badges and were giving a commemorative badge after the event, but the sheer number of items they moved – more than 20,000 – may go down in history as the single biggest volunteer event the Library has ever hosted.
The children, dressed in their service uniforms, were given numbers on their back and lined up outside the old library building, where they received small armloads of books from a staff member. With the help of the Police they trooped across Northwest Highway and Touhy, and then down Prospect to the front doors of the Library. Inside, more staff members guided them down the empty aisles to where the books would be shelved.
Barb Olsen, who was a Bluebird at the time, remembers the thrill of stopping traffic. “That was a big deal for a kid the 1950s,” she says.
Another volunteer, Dianne Kaiser, also remembers the lights and activity. “I can’t remember how many trips back and forth we made,” she remarks, “but it was so exciting to move into such a wonderful new building.”
The book move was no small feat to pull off considering that the weather was cold – only about 10 degrees above zero – and kids being what they are, there was a certain risk involved in trying to keep them all together.
Don Sebastian, a life-long resident and President of Sebastian Realty, admits that it almost got to be too much, even for the Scouts.
“It was tedious day,” he remembers. “At lunch time they let us sit on the floor of a big empty room on the lower level, and we ate our sandwiches. They also let us run around there and blow off steam.”
Which was possibly a mistake, he admits, because by the afternoon the recruits had begun to break rank, screaming and running across the lawn with their books (which occasionally fell into the snow, according to later news reports).
“We were dying to get rid of them,” Sebastian says.
Talking to the participants more than 50 years later, however, what stands out is their awe at the new Library, which was light-filled and cavernous, unlike the cozy, dark interior of the Carnegie Building. The long corridors of empty bookshelves were slightly intimidating to the children as they filed through. The picture below will give you an idea of what it looked like to them – interesting how time (and growing collections) have a way of shrinking space remarkably!
It’s probably no coincidence that the Children’s Department, which was housed in the lower level and had a separate entrance, would soon echo the feeling one had in the old library, with its overflowing shelves and tight little corners where a child could hide away with a book and not be bothered by any adults.
Thanks to the hundreds of intrepid book movers, the new Library was able to open on schedule, with the official dedication taking place on January 13, 1958. Fifty-five years later, we’re happy to say thank you again.