The Villa Park Public Library is a product of the village that it serves. It has been that way since the beginning, when the Villa Park Woman’s Club first dreamed of a library. Villa Park was still a sleepy little village in 1928 when the Woman’s Club decided to create a local library. Now, a sophisticated, culturally diverse, suburban community, the village has grown and changed dramatically in 75 years. The library has grown and changed with it.
Two subdivisions, Villa Park and Ardmore, joined together to create the Village of Ardmore. The village was legally incorporated on August 8, 1914, with a population of 300 people, creating a municipality which could acquire tax money for making community improvements. After several years of contention, the name was changed to the Village of Villa Park on September 17, 1917.
The Villa Park Woman’s Club, founded in 1922, began considering the need for a community library in 1927. In February 1928, the club held its first library fundraising event at the Villard Theatre. The club’s newly-formed chorus participated in a talent show and a movie was shown. Ticket sales for this event and various other donations brought in $409.87.
To start the library collection, members of the club donated a number of books. Club members then began a door-to-door campaign, pulling little red wagons down the street to collect books from their neighbors. After various other fundraising efforts, the club felt ready to open the library.
In August 1928, with 400 books, the Villa Park Woman’s Club opened the Villa Park Library in one room of the J.C. Sterett real estate office at 317 S. Ardmore, the northeast corner of Ardmore and Central. The library was a volunteer-run community library. Mrs. Leona Yull was the first volunteer librarian. Other Woman’s Club members were expected to take their turns at serving in the library and to get replacements when they couldn’t serve.
Open from 2:00 to 5:00 pm on Mondays and Fridays, the library circulated 306 books in its first month. The real estate office proved to be extremely cold in winter, however, and Mrs. Yull moved the library’s collection to several graciously-offered shelves at Ardmore School for the winter.
By 1929, it was apparent that more room was needed. The library moved into a twenty-five by thirty-two-foot room on the second floor of the new Villa Park Village Hall. Mrs. Yull was succeeded by Mrs. Roy Smith, who served in that position for 11 years. The library stayed at the village hall until 1944, and was operated by the Woman’s Club until 1940. Between 1940 and 1943, the Library Extension of Works Progress Administration (WPA) administered the library, although the Woman’s Club retained ownership.
The WPA agency came to an end in 1943, and the Woman’s Club again took control of the library. Feeling the library should be tax-supported, the club vigorously campaigned in favor of a May 1943 referendum to create a truly public library, funded by property taxes and with a public board to oversee operations. The community strongly supported the new library.
In December 1943, The Wander Company, owners of Ovaltine, donated $5,000 for books for the new library. Others in the village contributed funds for books, often for memorial books.
By November 1944, the library needed more space. It moved into the Burns Building at 322 S. Ardmore, ground floor at Ardmore and Central. In May 1945, the library was open from 1:00 to 5:00 pm and 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm, Monday through Friday. There were no Saturday or Sunday hours.
By 1945, the library had two staff members. The librarian was Mrs. Margaret Eugenia Vinton. Mrs. W.W. Ohrman was her assistant. In 1945, the library began providing “Information Service”, the forerunner of reference services.
The Wander Company donated another $1,000 for books in 1947. With increasing use and a growing collection, the library board proposed to build a new library building at Highland and Ardmore. The public voted down the $90,000 bond issue. The library then accepted an invitation to rent part of the basement of the Villa Park Savings Bank at 207 S. Villa.
By 1950, the librarian was Mrs. William Sanford, who had considerable professional experience as a librarian. She had worked in several departments at the Chicago Public Library and done some project work for the Illinois State Library.
By this time, Mary Alice Ohrman (Mrs. W.W. Ohrman in all official references) had been assistant librarian for 2 1/2 years, and she had taken some library science courses through the University of Illinois. She had, by then, been a resident of Villa Park for 28 years, almost from the time the village was incorporated, and was very active in church and club work.
In the summer of 1951, another very important service was added. The library opened its first summer story hour for children and held its first summer reading program. Participation was listed as 141 children and 62 of these won certificates for reading more than 10 books during the program. By 1951, the library had 13,000 books and 45 periodicals. But it did not have a real home.
Many residents felt the library should move out of the bank basement and into a permanent home. An organization called “Library Friends” was created in April 1951, to support library needs and focus community attention on library services and facilities. In 1954, the Friends of the Library created and made the first contribution to a property and building fund.
In September 1954, the village board learned that Trinity Lutheran Church planned to build a new building, directly across from the existing church on Ardmore. Some investigation indicated that the old church building could be purchased for $20,000 but that it would take another $17,000 to remodel it. The village board earmarked $37,000 for the purchase and renovation of the building. The board also promised to set aside $4,000 yearly to maintain the building. No new taxes were required of the residents.
And, a tiny fireball-of-a-woman named Mary Alice Ohrman assumed the duties of head librarian.
Construction holdups on the new church delayed the library’s move into the old church building. Planning its own remodeling, Villa Park Savings Bank needed the basement space the library had been using. The library would have to move to temporary quarters elsewhere. The bank offered to help pay for both moves, since it was inconvenient and costly to move the library twice. So, in September 1955, the Villa Park Public Library moved into the Villard Theatre at 122 S. Myrtle.
Mrs. Ohrman was undaunted by the temporary nature of the location. In January 1956, she started the library’s first book discussion group, a Great Books group. And she planned for the new children’s department in the new library, hiring a children’s librarian, Dorothy St. Clair, and a young adult/teen librarian, Mrs. Robert Grosscup. Like Mrs. Ohrman, Dorothy St. Clair would hold her position for many years.
Finally, the big day came. After 28 years, the Villa Park Public Library had a real home. The library re-opened October 22, 1956, in the newly-remodeled church building at 305 S. Ardmore.
The ultimate cost was $42,000, with $20,000 being the purchase price and $22,000 for remodeling. The architect for remodeling was Gustave Orth of Hinsdale.
In addition to the street-level adult library, the new library had a separate children’s room on the lower level and a lower level meeting room with a kitchen nearby. There were six study carrels, one under each stained glass window. The new charging machines required patrons to have library cards for the first time – instead of just signing their names – to take out books.
The Library greatly expanded its services and its community outreach. Many new services for young people and adults were added.
The Friends of the Library provided financial assistance and served as advocates for the Library. Under Mrs. Ohrman’s leadership, the Library maintained its very close relationship to the community. Individuals and groups donated money for memorial books, and organizations provided resources for special needs. Interesting library programs and reading groups drew in people, young and old.
As books multiplied on the shelves, circulation figures skyrocketed. In ten years, 1955 to 1964, circulation figures tripled, climbing to 136,866 in 1964. A study done in 1965 by Herbert Goldhor, director of the Graduate School of Library Science at the University of Illinois, showed that the remodeled church was no longer adequate for the Library’s needs. The Library board, the staff, and many library users already knew that.
In 1967, the state gave approval for a $160,000 building grant and the Library board held a referendum on April 18 to raise the rest of the money to build a new building on basically the same site as the building in use. The April referendum lost by 400 votes (2217 to 1787). But the next referendum, in October 1967, passed by an almost 2 to 1 vote (1328 to 738).
The village had once again spoken out in favor of its Library.
The new building opened on August 4, 1969, and was dedicated on October 19, 1969. The old church-library building was soon demolished to make room for parking, the stained glass windows auctioned off.
In August 1969, Mrs. Ohrman reported to the board that the circulation for the past year had been at an all time high of 146,642. Then, that month, she turned the job of head librarian over to Jim McIlhinney, the new administrator. Ohrman was 70 years old. She had served the Library and her community for at least 25 years, including 21 years as a municipal employee. She stayed on for two more years as assistant administrator. James McIlhinney stayed for six years, until September 1975. He was followed by Florence Roselli, who served as administrator until April 1979, taking the Library through its 50th anniversary celebration. Both built on the achievements of Ohrman and added touches of their own, especially in bringing cultural programming and historical research to the Library.
In summer 1979, Ted Balcom was hired as administrator. During Balcom’s reign, the world went digital. And so did the Library. Computers and computerization were expensive, but clearly needed. Books, as well as exotic new media, were added to the collection.
In 1991, the state imposed a tax cap which prevented the Library from levying most of the tax rate which had been approved by the voters in 1987.
The Library could not maintain existing services on the lower tax rate, and by 1995 the Library was reducing services–cutting back on hours, freezing salaries, and holding small fundraising events to try to overcome some of the deficit.
Further, the Library was now 26 years old. The building needed considerable work. It was not equipped to handle all the electronic equipment needed for the computer systems. The electrical wiring and circuitry were insufficient. Clearly, a new referendum had to be held.
The residents of the community once again said yes to the Library, passing the referendum by almost 200 votes. (1634 to 1450)
It took until October 1997 to complete all the work needed to bring the Library into the electronic age. Jean Haselhorst, daughter of Mary Alice Ohrman, cut the ribbon to open the newly-remodeled library. The renovated upstairs meeting room was named the Mary Alice Ohrman Program and Meeting Room.
The Library continues to receive active support from its community through tax money, voluntary contributions, and gifts of volunteer time. For special events and specific needs, the business community and civic groups regularly come through with help. A recent Library newsletter, for example, listed recent contributions and memorial gifts from six individuals and eight community organizations. Activities such as the Library’s annual murder mystery play require lots of volunteer time and business contributions, which are graciously given.