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A Narrative History of the Library

Written in 1992 and updated in 2002 by Doug Downey, former Northbrook Public Library Board member and Friends of the Northbrook Public Library Board member.

Northbrook's first public library was a reading room established in 1919 by the newly formed Citizens' Club of Shermerville, a predecessor of the Northbrook Civic Foundation. It was located in a room above a store on Shermer, across from what is now the Village Green, and was staffed by members of the club and local teachers. The room was closed in 1920 and its books moved to Shermerville School. (The school is now the southern part of Crestwood Place, the senior housing center at Waukegan Road and Milton.)

Shermerville changed its name to Northbrook in 1923. It remained a small community until after World War II when the building boom began. In 1951, Bertram Pollak, president of the Northbrook Civic Association, suggested that the association investigate ways to establish a public library. (The Civic Association became the Northbrook Civic Foundation in 1965. Mr. Pollak served as Village President during 1957-69.) This was done by a committee under C. E. Barthel, Jr. The association enlisted the help of other local groups--including the League of Women Voters, the Service Club, the Northbrook Chamber of Commerce, the public school PTA, and the St. Norbert's PTA--and together they conducted a successful campaign to pass a library referendum. The referendum established a public library and created a board of library directors with the power to levy library taxes up to a specified maximum. The referendum was held May 29, 1951, and was passed by a margin of six votes.

The library opened its doors on June 28, 1952, in space in the old village hall (the fire station, and now the Northbrook Civic Foundation building). Freda Thorson was the librarian. The collection consisted of several hundred gift books and a loan of 4,000 volumes from the Illinois State Library.

In the fall of 1953, the Civic Association voted to use its building fund of $27,500, money accumulated from 16 years of Northbrook Days, to erect a library building on the northeast corner of Shermer and Church streets. The land was purchased for $10,000 and a building was designed that would cost $27,000. (That $27,000 building today is the western half of the medical building on the Shermer-Church site.) The association arranged for a mortgage of $10,000, which was to be assumed by the library. This was the seed of what was to become a long-standing problem: the library board, aware of how narrowly the 1951 referendum had passed, decided against funding with a bond issue (which would have required a referendum) and decided instead to pay off the mortgage out of operating funds that would ordinarily go for books.

The building was finished on time, using much-donated labor. There was, however, no money left for furnishings; the Friends of the Library conducted a door-to-door gift campaign and collected $7, 000 to finish and equip the building.

The building was dedicated on March 21, 1954. By 1961, it was too small, and an addition was constructed. This was financed by a mortgage obtained by the Civic Association; again, the mortgage was to be paid off out of the library's operating fund.

By 1963 the library was in trouble. Several of the board members had lost interest and failed to attend meetings. The board's by-laws and policy manual had disappeared and valuable meeting time was wasted reinventing the wheel The tax-rate ceiling -- 12 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation -- had failed to keep pace with inflation, and the necessity of using operating funds to pay off the mortgage was causing the book-purchasing fund to suffer. Also, salaries were low and it was difficult to keep employees. At this point, Dr. Homer O. Harvey, superintendent of Northbrook School District 28, was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board and set the stage for the next major step: a new referendum.

Freda Thorson retired as head librarian in 1965 and was succeeded by Dorothy Curley. By now it was clear that the Shermer building was too small and had no potential for expansion. The board voted unanimously to hold a referendum to issue bonds to finance the construction of a new building. Funds to pay off the bonds would come from a special tax levy, freeing the operating funds that had previously been used to make the mortgage payments. But there were two obstacles: (1) convincing the community to pass the referendum, and (2) finding an affordable building site in a central, highly visible location.

The second problem was solved first, thanks to the Northbrook Village Board. At the suggestion of Village trustee James Mathews, the Village donated to the library a portion of the skating rink immediately north of the village hall, at the corner of Cedar and Cherry. The price was right, the site had a major problem: it was on a flood plain.

The firm of Hammond & Roche was selected to design the new building, in part because of James Hammond's previous work, the award-winning Skokie Public Library. To a large extent, the flood-plain location dictated the design of the building: the main book collection was to be on the second floor, open to public view through large windows that, in the words of James Hammond, would 'serve as a beacon' to attract people to the building; and a berm was to be constructed to protect the library and the village hall from possible flooding by the nearby creek. (A berm, a board member once explained to a citizen who made the mistake of asking, is "a dike with literary pretensions." Whatever its pretensions, the berm did its duty during a downpour on August 13-14, 1987, protecting the library and village hall from Northbrook's biggest flood within memory.)

The 27,000 square-foot building was to cost $1,000,000. A federal grant of $225,000 was obtained, and the Civic Foundation bought back the old library building for $140,000. Because of the grant, the actual bond issue was for $800,000 rather than $1,000,000; but the grant provisions required that the voters pass a referendum for the full amount.

The referendum sought authorization to (1) issue bonds totaling $1,000,000, and (2) to raise the tax-rate limit from 12 cents to 21 cents. The federal grant caused some problems. Some residents opposed it because they felt it would mean federal control of Northbrook's reading habits; others opposed it because they felt the money should go to communities more needy than Northbrook. (The federal control never arrived. And no needy community met the requirement of passing a tax-increase referendum.) There was also opposition from Northbrook's ice skating enthusiasts--this was before the Park District sports complex had been built--because of the loss of half of their ice space at Tower Rink. Nevertheless, the referendum passed by a healthy margin.

The new library--the northern half of the present building--opened May 25, 1969. The children's room was on the ground floor; next to it was a meeting room named in honor of Bertram Pollak, one of the library's strongest supporters and a major benefactor. The second floor contained staff offices, the adult collection of books and periodicals, the reference department, and a new type of collection: phonograph records.

In 1970 the library received a Distinguished Building Award from the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects.Image of the library

Meanwhile, Dorothy Curley had resigned and been succeeded by Richard Combs. Mrs. Curley had played a major role in organizing the referendum and planning the new building. Mr. Combs concentrated on assembling a highly capable professional staff and in finding ways to make the building "user-friendly."

The new library was designed to serve the community's needs for 20 years. Those were a quick 20 years, however, because by 1975 Northbrook had outstripped all growth predictions and the library needed expansion. James Hammond's firm -- now called Hammond & Beeby -- designed an addition of 20,500 square feet. (Most of the design work was done by James Hammond. However, the auditorium was designed by his partner, Thomas H. Beeby, who later won fame as the architect of Chicago's Harold Washington Library Center.) The addition was financed by a $1,000,000 bond issue authorized by the village board; under Home Rule, a referendum was not necessary. The addition was completed on schedule and under budget.

In 1965 the Illinois legislature authorized the establishment of a network of regional library systems designed to improve overall service. The Northbrook Public Library was a charter member -- in fact, the first member -- of the North Suburban Library System, which came into being in June 1966. Under the system, interlibrary loans were expedited, reciprocal borrowing initiated, and a computer network established. In addition, member libraries received state funds to specialize in specified areas; Northbrook's was architecture.

Richard Combs resigned in 1975 and was succeeded by Frances Bradbury. It was during Mrs. Bradbury's tenure that two significant changes occurred: the addition of videotapes to the circulating collection and the introduction of computers. Computers were first used only as part of the circulation department's record-keeping system; later, they permitted library users to have access to the catalogs of all member-libraries of the North Suburban Library System. Then the other shoe dropped — computers replaced the card catalog. At first, it seemed that only librarians and children were capable of using the new system; eventually, however, the system was simplified to the point where even untrained adults could use it. Usually.

A high point--literally--in Mrs. Bradbury's career was the Great Snow of 1979 when it became necessary to dispatch a crack squadron of snow-blower operators to the library's roof to prevent it from collapsing under the weight of the snow. Mrs. Bradbury retired in 1985 and was succeeded by Chadwick Raymond.

In 1991-92 a major rehabilitation project was undertaken: new meeting rooms were added, utilizing the overhang next to the auditorium; staff areas were redesigned to achieve more efficient use of space; the automobile traffic pattern was improved and additional parking spaces were created; and a major redecorating project was completed.

Within a few years, however, it became apparent that more than a rehabilitation was needed -- the library, once again, was running out of space. Also, the mechanical systems were showing their age, the shelving units were too close together to allow wheelchair access, and there were very few places where patrons could sit and read. The board determined that one or more branches would be impractical, causing an expensive duplication of services; and that abandoning the preset building and relocating to a new site would be prohibitively expensive. The architectural firm of Frye Gillan and Molinaro was commissioned to find ways to expand on the present site.

Plans were drawn up, costs estimated, and in a referendum on April 1, 1997, Northbrook’s voters approved of a bond issue of $10,250,000 to reconfigure and expand the existing facility. The building project was also assisted through an Illinois State Library Live and Learn Construction Grant of $240,750.

The expansion had four elements:

  1. An addition of approximately 35,000 square feet, bringing the total size to 85,341 square feet. The addition, along with a major reconfiguration of the existing facility, provided several benefits. The children's area was doubled. Increased space in other areas accommodated a growing collection while providing space for more patrons and computer workstations. Other improvements included the Friend’s Gift Shop, expanded Internet access and computer workstations in the Reference and Youth Services areas, an Interactive Classroom (which was furnished in 2001 through a donation from the Civic Foundation, and by memorial contributions in honor of Bertram Pollock), a new Multimedia Department with a wireless listening center, five groups study rooms, a video wall, and a commemorative brick plaza.
  2. Major repairs, including exterior rehabilitation and replacement of the original heating, ventilating, and cooling equipment,.
  3. Creation of additional parking and site improvement for protection from the creek, immediately east of the library site.
  4. Bringing the library to full compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
    Groundbreaking was Sunday, May 17, 1998. For the year-long construction period, the library collection was moved to a former Jewel food store two blocks east of the permanent site. The temporary site was retrofitted during April, May, and early June, and the move took place June 15-27, 1998, during which time the library was closed for business. The temporary site was crowded but workable, and won praise as “A Jewel of a Library.”

The permanent building reopened its doors to the public on July 26, 1999; the official reopening ceremony was held on September 25, 1999. The Trustees at the time of the reopening were: Stephen Amberg (Board President), Marc Lonoff, Vera Mayer, Kathryn Plumb, Alan Auerbach, Robert Esbrook, and Howard Peltz.

The story of the Northbrook Public Library has been the story of dedicated citizens and groups of citizens: the Northbrook Civic Foundation, which was responsible for the library's establishment and which has continued to support it through grants; the Friends of the Library, the Service Club, the Garden Club, the League of Women Voters, and other organizations who have devoted time and effort to supporting and promoting the library; the individuals who have served, without compensation and at the cost of many lost hours of sleep, on the Library Board, the members of the Northbrook Caucus who have spent time educating themselves about the library and then interviewing, screening, and selecting candidates for the board; the generous individuals who have donated funds, and, on occasion, labor to the library; other units of local government, including the Village, Park District, and school districts; and the library staff itself. It was once suggested that the library be named for an individual, one of Northbrook's most distinguished citizens. But that would have been wrong; the Northbrook Public Library has truly been the creation of the community as a whole.

Learn more about the library's history