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updated: 4/13/2011 4:32 PM

Vision, work built Arlington Heights library

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When I heard that the Arlington Heights Memorial Library was the second busiest single-location library in the whole country, I wanted to go back in time and tell the six women who first dreamed of the library on a bitterly cold day in 1887 how hugely successful they had been. I wanted to say to them, "You were raving successes. You wouldn't believe."

Actually, believing was what those women were good at. When they first gathered at the home of Elizabeth Walker, the wife of a new school principal in town, they were clear that they believed in the future. They believed in learning and scholarship and books. They called themselves "The Reading Circle." Soon they were joined by other women who wanted to read books and talk about them.

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From the start, they began to stockpile books against the day when they would establish a public library. They wanted what Helen Keller called "the sweet gracious discourse of book-friends" for their neighbors and their neighbors' children.

By 1894, The Reading Circle women had accrued 150 books, one at a time, starting with "The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin." Enough, they thought, to open a Lilliputian library in the home of Lucy and Effie Shepard, 310 N. Dunton, now the site of the First Presbyterian Church.

When we first moved to the village in 1954, there were still people in town who remembered the interest the Shepard sisters showed in what they were reading when they went there as kids for a new book every week.

I don't remember, of course, the early members of The Reading Circle, or even Misses Lucy and Effie Shepard. But for the 44 years my husband has been on the library board I have followed the fortunes of the library with intense interest.

I have learned what it took for a library of 150 books in the Shepard sisters' living room to expand into a handsome 132,000-square-foot site where patrons come to take out more than 2 million items a year.

On occasion, when Richard Frisbie has stood on the library steps to collect signatures for his campaign, he has found that library patrons -- people who read books! -- had not only never heard of him, they had never heard of the library board. To their minds, the library just was. Creating a great library is not that easy.

From my observation post, I've seen how much hard work -- and great attitude -- has gone into creating our library. Library boards and staff have worked together to move the library from its inadequate Belmont location to Dunton and Euclid. Board President Florence Hendrickson, for whom the Hendrickson Room is named, had large vision and an incredible willingness to work for the good of the community.

"There's nothing you can't do if you make up your mind to do it," Hendrickson said.

Her counterpart during the change in venue was Executive Librarian Mary Lee Ewalt, another woman of vision. When architect Robert Chaney asked Mary Lee for her farthest-out dream of what the library should be, she described a building with all the shelves on the outside, the charge desk eliminated, and patrons who could take books as they pleased and return them at their leisure.

It was a vision that members of The Reading Circle could have agreed to, and that staffs and boards of the library over the years have let influence them. It is no accident that the Arlington Heights Memorial Library is the second busiest single-location library in the country.

It is the work of many hands … and hearts.

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