The former Haase house location gave way in 1995 to the current facility. | Courtesy of Forest Park Public Library

The Forest Park Public Library (FPPL) celebrated its 100th birthday in style, with an evening of fun and food, on June 11. There was a puppet show and a scavenger hunt for kids. They also could get their faces painted, or their picture taken in a photo booth. In addition, they could try Lego racing and a button-making machine. 

Adult activities included literary trivia: five books were cut up into snippets and placed in separate Mason jars. Readers had to guess the titles from the scraps. Brown Cow ice cream was served and the birthday cake was provided by Kay’s Bakery. 

Mayor Calderone read a proclamation adopted by the Village Council commemorating the 100th anniversary. The proclamation neatly traced the library’s history. But the mayor, a lifelong resident, first recounted his own memories. 

“A lot has changed over the years,” he said. “I remember the old library. It was just a house. This is a marvelous improvement. People come here to learn and expand their horizons. The library also gives teens a good learning environment.” 

Looking back at its modest origins, it’s obvious Forest Park did not follow the usual path to establishing a community library. In fact, at the time of the library’s founding in village hall, Forest Park was the only town in Illinois with a population of 15,000 that didn’t have a separate library building. Back then, 75-80% of libraries in America were financed by the Carnegie Foundation.

Andrew Carnegie’s generosity created 1,689 libraries in communities across the U.S. The criteria for landing a library included demonstrating need, providing a site and paying staff to maintain it. The foundation worked with women’s clubs. It is not known why Forest Park did not get a Carnegie library, but the impetus for the FPPL did come from a women’s organization.

In October 1915, Mrs. A.E. Winterroth of the Women’s Citizen Committee wrote an open letter expressing the need for a public library. In May 1916, a benefit dance was held at the Forest Park Amusement Park to raise funds for the project. In August of that year, a special election was held and residents voted to establish the library.

The collection had already been started at the village hall on Desplaines, on June 20, 1916. The library had 2,000 volumes located on the second floor. The room had just two study tables and only 30 patrons could fit inside. Still, the collection continued to grow to 16,780 volumes, as the library was used by 2,500 patrons and 3,000 students. 

The first library board was elected in November 1917. In August 1922, the FPPL offered its first card catalog. Josephine Austin, who would leave her personal mark on the library (the meeting room is named in her honor), came aboard in October 1936. As part of her legacy, Miss Austin hired a young widow named Cora Sallee and assigned her to clip significant stories from the local newspapers. As a result, the Forest Park Historical Society now has a topographical index to search village history. 

The Friends of the Forest Park Library was formed in 1940 and is still active today (they provided refreshments for the 100th birthday party). In 1946, having long outgrown its space at village hall, the library board voted to purchase the home of Pauline Haase on the northeast corner of Jackson and Desplaines.

The Haase family were the founders of Forest Park and remained movers and shakers in the community. After the house at 7555 W. Jackson was purchased for $25,000, Wilbert Haase paid $5,000 toward the $20,000 renovation of the structure. By 1958, space was again a problem. The collection had grown to 25,000 volumes squeezed into 11,500 square feet. A sizable addition was built in 1960 and the Great Sun Window was installed three years later. Another addition was completed in 1972 but the library still looked like a family home. There weren’t any suitable structures in town to accommodate it. 

The library continued to modernize its services, though, loaning films in 1977 and adding homebound delivery in 1979. In March 1984, longtime Forest Park teacher Helen Imber gave the library a gift of $380,000. She later bequeathed her entire estate toward the construction of a new building. 

Voters approved a $2.7 million bond issue in the early 1990s to construct the library. The Haase house was torn down and the new library was dedicated in October 1995. By this time, the library had over 70,000 items in its collection. It began offering internet service in February 1999. In 2011, a dedicated space for teens was opened on the lower level. 

Mayor Calderone said the library’s founders couldn’t have imagined how much it offers today. He congratulated the library for its dedicated service to the community and noted that the words of the proclamation would live on in history. The mayor recognized the incoming director, Pilar Shaker, who begins her duties on June 30. 

“If you want to start early for free, it would be OK with the board,” he quipped. 

He singled out former director Rodger Brayden for applause and recognized library board members Karen Childs and Lin Beribak, who cut the cake for the guests. He also thanked Community Engagement Librarian Alicia Hammond and Manager of Adult Services Magan Szwarek for doing such a great job organizing the anniversary party. The pair have put together events for the year-long celebration of the centennial.

New board President Karen Childs praised the efforts of staff members to commemorate the past and bring the library into the 21st century. Childs has lived in Forest Park for 22 years and spent the past 15 as a board member. She was head of the search committee for the new director. While they searched, she was pleased with the performance of Interim Director Marilyn Boria, whom, she said, filled in capably. 

Childs grew up in River Forest and always loved reading. She now takes her five kids to the FPPL. 

“The staff is friendly and youth services is excellent,” she said, adding, “It’s hard to predict the next century due to changing technology. We need to keep our fingers on the pulse of the community.” She said there are fewer gathering places for residents and they are re-evaluating use of the library space.

Shaker echoed these sentiments. “We have to be agile and able to adjust. We may need to have community rooms, instead of rows of shelves.” Shaker grew up in Oak Park and now makes her home in River Forest. She was drawn to this area, due to its diversity and location. “Proximity to downtown makes Forest Park uniquely special. As for diversity, “The library can spotlight the differences and commonalities in Forest Park and host community events. I’m so impressed that so many families and groups use the library.”

Hammond would agree. “There’s so much potential in the community. We see ourselves as partners, providing free access to information: books, internet and programs. We need to find creative ways to get people to try something new.” 

That Saturday morning, the library tried something new. They partnered with Pineapple Dance Studio to hold a yoga class at The Grove.

The library has been joining forces with other village businesses. 

“How many towns have an ice sculpture business and an archery store?” Hammond marveled. Yearbook has also been an important partner, designing the library’s promotional materials for the centennial. The library still holds its Trivia Night at the Beacon Pub.

“It’s a casual, fun town,” Hammond noted, “where people don’t take themselves too seriously.” This extends to the library staff. “We have to make sure this is a welcoming place to come. We have science and art programming for kids and teens. We provide hands-on learning. We’re not afraid to get messy with glitter and glue.” 

Hammond certainly embodied that spirit at the party, with glitter on her face and a unicorn painted on her cheek. 

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.