On November 25, 1872, Rock Island became the first city in Illinois to open a public library. The library was housed in Room 17 of the Post Office Building, located northwest of Second Avenue and 17th Street. The room was rented for $25 a month.
In the first month that it was open, 3,411 people visited the library. An inventory taken at this time lists 2,174 volumes, periodicals, and documents.
This collection of books had come from a private library in Rock Island: the Young Men's Literary Association. And so did the public library’s only librarian: Miss Ellen Gale. She had been hired by the Association four years earlier when she was just 15 years old.
Miss Gale was born in Oswego County, New York, in 1853. She moved with her parents to Rock Island in 1857. The family moved to St. Joseph, Missouri, and then back to Rock Island in 1868, when she was hired as a librarian.
As Roald Tweet wrote in Miss Gale’s Books, “Miss Ellen Gale had no special training to be a librarian; there were no schools of library science as such in 1868. But she loved books, and believed in their power not only to entertain but to shape minds and hearts.”
Over the next decade, the library’s collection would triple, then grow to 14,866 books by the end of the century when plans for the library’s own building were coming to fruition. Land at the corner of Fourth Avenue and 19th Street was purchased in 1900. The new building’s design was selected on January 10, 1901.
When the library opened its doors on December 15, 1903, the public was greeted by the library president and board members, and given tours by Ellen Gale and a second librarian, Miss Harriette Carter. The Bleuer Orchestra played inside the library. Rock Island Argus headlines proclaimed the library as "Rock Island 's New Temple of Literature."
The building’s architect Leonard Drack also designed the original Modern Woodman Building (1898) that currently houses the Rock Island County administration; the London Building (1889) which now houses Quad City Arts; and Immanuel Lutheran Church (1896) on Fifth Avenue.
The library opened the day after the Wright Brothers attempted their first flight at Kitty Hawk. And as Roald Tweet also wrote, “Through World War I, through the Roaring Twenties, and through the worst of the Great Depression years, Miss Gale and her assistants worked quietly but firmly to make the best books available to all the citizens of Rock Island.
“There was soon a separate children's room and experiments with branch libraries in several local elementary schools. Community groups began to use the meeting and assembly rooms on the second floor. The book collection grew.”
Miss Gale resigned on May 3, 1937. In her resignation letter, she wrote, “many regrets in giving up a work which for so many years has been the chief interest of my life." She died 11 years later at the Happy Haven Rest Home in Silvis, Illinois. She was 95.
Ellen Gale is buried in Chippiannock Cemetery with a small gravestone that simply states her name, as well as the years of her birth and death. And the words, “Librarian, R I Public Library, 67 years.”
Bruce Walters is a Professor Emeritus in Art conferred by Western Illinois University.
This is part of an occasional series on famous (or infamous) people buried in cemeteries in the Quad Cities, and their history that is not so well-known today. If there’s a piece of history buried here that you’d like to learn more about, e-mail the location and a brief description to BD-Walters@wiu.edu.