This week in history: Emily Taft Douglas goes to bat for bookworms

The Chicago-born politician, who died Jan. 28, 1994, served just two years in the U.S. House of Representatives, but she focused on bringing greater access to libraries in her short tenure.

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Emily Taft Douglas

Emily Taft Douglas poses for a photo on Nov. 11, 1994, just after winning election to the U.S. House of Representatives as a representative at-large.

From the Sun-Times archives.

As published in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:

Without the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the city might have taken years, even decades, to fund its first free public library. But thanks to an 8,000-book donation from the United Kingdom, Chicagoans rallied and on Jan. 1, 1873, the first Chicago Public Library location opened its doors. The previous year, Illinois had passed a law enabling cities to establish tax-supported libraries.

Decades later, some rural areas of Illinois still lacked libraries — a major resource of knowledge and community, especially in those pre-internet days — and in 1946, U.S. Representative at-large Emily Taft Douglas decided to do something about it. The Chicago-born politician, who died this week on Jan. 28, 1994, introduced a federal bill to provide library funding in rural towns.

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“Ninety percent of the rural area of Illinois and 70 percent of the towns lack libraries,” Douglas told Paul R. Leach, the Chicago Daily News’ Washington bureau chief, in a March 12, 1946 article. “More than 1,705,000 Illinoisans are without them.”

Unlike other Illinois representatives in districts, Douglas had no boundaries as a representative at-large. For a lengthy part of the state’s history, it had either one or two at-large seats. The last election for an at-large district in the state happened in 1946, which Douglas lost, and the seat was abolished for good in 1949.

The bill sought to give states as much as $125,000 a year for library work, the article said. The federal government would give out up to $75,000, and another $50,000 would come from the state. Additionally, the bill would provide an annual grant of $25,000, which could then be bumped up to $50,000 if the state matched that original grant amount.

“None of the federal or state money would be used for buying land or erecting buildings,” Leach explained. “It would go into purchase of books, newspapers, educational films and periodicals.”

Besides the building and land prohibition, the proposal provided very little supervision when it came to how states wanted to spend the money on their libraries, the article said. That gave states more leeway to get creative with how their libraries served the population.

Illinois, for example, “now has a small fleet of those ‘bookmobiles,’” Leach wrote. These motorized libraries, which delivered a selection of books, newspapers and magazines to areas without a nearby library, are still in use today. The state also funded subscription services so users could have books sent to them by mail.

“We cannot be complacent about our great American opportunities when we recall a fourth of our people, 35 million, have no access whatsoever to libraries,” Douglas wrote in the September 1946 edition of the ALA Bulletin, a publication for the American Library Association. “We cannot cease stressing the fact that a relatively small expenditure implementing well-developed plans, setting up proper-sized administrative areas, branch libraries, service stations and bookmobiles, can bring world thought — world culture, if you please — to isolated farms.”

Unfortunately for Douglas, she lost her seat in 1946 before the bill could pass, but 10 years later, her vision became a reality when Congress, which included her husband Sen. Paul Douglas, passed the Library Services Act, which authorized $7.5 million per year in federal funds to help states and territories establish and extend their libraries. Thanks to the bill, states purchased 288 bookmobiles and hired almost 800 staff members.

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