Urbana Free Library: 140 years of community services

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The Urbana Free Library wasn’t always free. Two years before its conception in July of 1874, it began as the Young Men’s Library Association, a fee-based organization.

“When (the library) became part of the city, the city took over responsibility of funding it, and they have property taxes that pay for it,” said Celeste Choate, executive director of the Urbana Free Library.

In fact, this shift from paid subscription libraries to public entities was occurring throughout the country in that time period. This is shown in other institutions with “free” in their name.

“You’ll still see that in other libraries in the U.S.: the Philadelphia Free Library, the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore,” said Kathy Wicks, the library’s associate director. “(Its name) goes with the whole history of the library … it’s been here a long time, so it seems right to have that name.”

The Urbana Free Library has been around since July 2, 1874, and the library has been celebrating its 140th anniversary over the past year. Each month since last August, there has been a theme that highlights one aspect of the library’s services. January focuses on Adult Services.

The kickoff theme last August spotlighted the Champaign County Historical Archives, which were created around 1956. These archives catalog local historical events, people and news — including that of the library itself.

Having had three previous locations, the Urbana Free Library was forced to move several times to accommodate a growing book collection. Finally, the library dropped its anchor at the corner of Race and Elm streets in Urbana in 1918. This was thanks to a $35,000 donation from Mary E. Busey in memory of her late husband General Samuel T. Busey (of Busey Bank).

“Public library collections just generally have changed,” Choate said in terms of the materials the library has offered over the years. “So for example, a long time ago, reading novels was kind of scandalous. (People thought that fiction) was just like brain candy, and it wasn’t good for you.”

Society has come a long way since then, and the library community has constantly shifted in terms of what local people want to read and check out.

“Now, we have pre-loaded Nooks that people can take home for adults and for kids, as well as having e-books that people can download to their own devices,” Choate said.

Other materials include online and CD music, audiobooks, board games and even energy meters so people can check their home’s energy usage.

“As the community and its needs have changed over 140 years, what public libraries and what we specifically collect have changed,” Choate continued. “And we expect to be expanding that over the next year as well and having some more types of specialty things.”

In addition to the materials to check out, the Urbana Free Library also provides a series of classes, events and services, such as baby and toddler reading times, meeting places for community groups and an extensive teen open lab. The open lab provides access to 3D printers, video games and even a recording studio within the library.

One of the library’s biggest events for the past seven years has been the Fairy Tale Ball, an enchanted evening where families come to the library dressed up as their favorite characters to participate in activities, games, dancing and storytelling. This year’s event will be on April 27.

“It started out as part of a grant with the Champaign Public Library called Heroes at Your Library,” Wicks said. “And the children’s librarians came up with the idea of a Fairy Tale Ball because we have a very fine fairy tale and folklore collection here at the library. They wanted to highlight the collection, but they also wanted to bring people together.”

In fact, bringing people together and serving the community are the main reasons that Wicks and Choate enjoy working for the library. Choate has been the director for less than a year, while Wicks is a 25-year veteran.

“Seeing the changes over the years and seeing the people appreciate the services that we have here,” Wicks said, is the most rewarding part of her job. “I took this job thinking that it would be a temporary measure, but here I am 25 years later, still in the same place … I’ve always felt that this is family.”

Garth Seiple and Diane Klock, two local residents and library goers, enjoyed a lunch break in the library’s café section.

“The staff is great, particularly the folks who get you coffee,” Seiple chuckled, referring to the coffee shop on the first floor. “It has a large selection of magazines and newspapers you can read, and I like going through their new arrivals section of the library. It makes it easy to find a lot of good reading.”

The couple also likes to check out music CDs to listen to during long road trips.

“Well, I just love libraries. So it’s always just a nice atmosphere,” Klock said. “I just think there’s always a lot of people here that make us really feel comfortable. It’s a nice place to just spend some time.”

Reema can be reached at [email protected]