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  • Cultural Record Keepers:The English Book Donation, Chicago Public Library
  • Constance J. Gordon

The Chicago Public Library officially opened to the public on New Year's Day of 1873. Key to the formation of the library was a notable gift from the British people that began an ongoing relationship between Chicago and the United Kingdom, a relationship that continues to the present day.

This story begins on the evening of October 8, 1871, when the Great Chicago Fire began to ravage the city. The fire broke out on the city's west side and spread rapidly for about thirty-six hours; approximately three and a half square miles of downtown Chicago burned. The destruction was almost complete and included the loss of all thirty thousand volumes of the Chicago Library Association, the city's largest subscription library.1

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Bookplate courtesy of the Chicago Public Library, Special Collections and Preservation Division.

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Very soon after the disaster the world responded by sending generous donations of money, blankets, and clothing to the stricken city.2 But the most lasting gift came to be known, ultimately, as the "English Book Donation." Working together, London businessman A. Hutton Burgess and Thomas Hughes, a member of Parliament and author of Tom Brown's School Days, recruited donations of books and other printed material for Chicago. Burgess and Hughes published a circular asking authors, publishers, and booksellers to contribute "a complete collection of modern works in all departments of literature. . . . The public generally, and especially the owners of large private libraries, the Heads of Societies, and the representatives of distinguished and historic names" were asked to donate "old books of all sorts" and also "money for purchasing rare works, so as to give completeness to the gift as a national act." London's Crystal Palace Company agreed to let its space be used to receive, classify, and pack the books for shipment to America.3 In the Crystal Palace building John Robson, a Briton who had been the last director of the Chicago Library Association, organized the donations with great dedication.4

Eventually nearly eight thousand volumes arrived in Chicago.5 A special bookplate, printed in black with a red border, designated each book as "a mark of English sympathy" and included the name of the donor. The list of donors is impressive. Queen Victoria donated The Early Years of His Royal Highness the Prince Consort, 1819–1841 by Sir Charles Grey (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1868). This volume was personally signed by the sovereign on a preliminary leaf.6 (The bookplate shown here was placed in Victoria's donated book but does not bear her signature.) The Chicago Public Library accession books record Queen Victoria's gift as #3385, accessioned on April 11, 1873.

Many other prominent Britons contributed generously. Included among them was Prime Minister William E. Gladstone, who sent a volume of his collected speeches. Herbert Spencer donated his Essays: Scientific, Political and Speculative, and John Stuart Mill gave printed copies of his speeches on various subjects such as "The Subjection of Woman." Lewis Carroll gifted Chicago with copies of both Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. Christina Rossetti donated Goblin Market, and Other Poems, and Charles Kingsley gave several works, including Westward Ho!7

Publishers and booksellers donated many volumes as well. Both the Oxford University Press and the Cambridge University Press contributed hundreds of handsome titles; British publishing houses also gave liberally, especially Macmillan and Company.8 The most valuable single [End Page 372] donation was made by the Commissioners on Patents in London. This was a complete set of British patents, beginning in 1617.9

The impending book donation prompted leading citizens of Chicago to petition the mayor to call a public meeting to establish a free public library in Chicago.10 This public meeting led directly to the Illinois Library Act of 1872, authorizing cities to establish tax-supported libraries throughout Illinois. On April 3, 1872, the Common Council of Chicago passed an ordinance officially founding the Chicago Public Library. The library formally opened its first home in a long...


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