The School of Information Sciences at Illinois (then known as the Illinois State Library School) sent the first librarians to the United States’ western frontier in the early 1900’s. As pioneers immigrated to towns in Wyoming, New Mexico and Oregon, graduates of Illinois set up libraries to educate the growing population. Often the only women for miles, these librarians created literacy programs with very few resources.
Katharine Sharp (above), of whom Melville Dewey, creator of the Dewey Decimal System, said, “The best man for the job [of creating a library school] is a woman.” The Illinois State Library School opened at Urbana in 1897 and soon began sending its graduates to establish libraries in frontier territories.
The first graduating class from the library school are pictured above on the steps of Altgeld Hall, which was the first library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Heading a library in the frontier states often meant the clientele consisted of unruly cowboys. Keeping order was often made easier by the fact that the librarian was a single women – and perhaps the only single woman for miles in any direction.
When Belle Swede (above) went to the University of Idaho to head its new library, she found there were no books. She had to go from department to department to demand their return.
Pioneering librarian Mabel Wilkinson had advice for those who would follow her into the western frontier. She said a new librarian who went west should be able to drive a buggy, ride and tack a horse, follow a trail, shoot straight and be able to ‘rough it’ whenever necessary.
The early librarians knew their work was important. “They were missionaries for culture, missionaries for literacy and our democracy depended on them because a democracy depends on an informed population,” said Illinois Professor Emerita Betsy Hearne Claffey.
The School of Information Sciences at Illinois continues to lead the way in shaping the future of information. Learn more about the iSchool and its programs.