Who could resist this whimsical entryway? Visitors never know just what wonders will greet them on their next trip to this award-winning library.

Gail Borden Public Library: A Beloved Elgin ‘Citizen’ Turns 140

With countless reading opportunities and fun events for all ages, the Fox Valley’s oldest library is something to celebrate. See what makes this Elgin treasure unique.

Who could resist this whimsical entryway? Visitors never know just what wonders will greet them on their next trip to this award-winning library.
Who could resist this whimsical entryway? Visitors never know just what wonders will greet them on their next trip to this award-winning library.

Carol McKellar loves Gail Borden Public Library, 270 N. Grove Ave., Elgin. Her family has enjoyed the books, programs and services of her city library since her three children were young.

“Gail Borden offers such an amazing variety of opportunities to learn and interact,” says McKellar, who reads biographies and historical fiction, and an occasional magazine, in the library’s reading room. She’s attended guest lectures at the library, and taken her children to puppet shows and 4-H meetings there. “It’s not your typical library.”

The library especially has been helpful to McKellar’s children: Katie, 23, and 17-year-old twins Matthew and Kristen. Katie has Asperger syndrome, which made learning a challenge while growing up. Her parents enrolled her in library programs at age 2, igniting within her a lifelong affair with reading and exploring. “The library has always been Katie’s favorite place on earth,” says McKellar. “She’d be there for hours and hours. Some days, we had to pick her up and carry her out.”

More recently, Katie has volunteered at the library, and with her mother’s help, delivered books to homebound patrons. “Katie’s learned amazing job skills,” says McKellar. “She’s even seen the back halls of the library. It’s like her home.”

McKellar isn’t alone in her good feelings about the library. The 140,000-square-foot facility is the third-largest library facility in Illinois, and its Rakow Branch, 2751 W. Bowes Road, is a 10,000-square-foot LEED gold-certified green building. Between its two locations, the library welcomes a million visitors each year, employs 180 people and has 300 volunteers. Its collection includes about 500,000 titles, and its main facility has a cafe, Teen Room and a River Room with views of the Fox River.

What started out as a small collection of books in rented space has grown into one of the most respected libraries in the country. In 2010, the Gail Borden Library received the 2009 National Medal for Museum and Library Service, the nation’s highest honor for these institutions. This year, what was the Fox Valley’s very first library has reached a milestone: 140 years serving the Elgin area.

This spring, the library marked the occasion with a special reception, which featured librarians dressed in period clothing, model displays of the library’s past and current homes, and a chronicle of the library’s history.

“This celebration means we’ve grown along with the community,” says Denise Raleigh, division chief of public relations and communications. “We’ve learned so much about our history. For example, we’ve talked about bringing a mobile book service to the community, and through our research, discovered that we had a similar service in the 1960s. In the 1970s, we had an interactive play area when no other library was doing it. We’ve always tried to service the diverse needs of our community.”

History Lesson

Industrialist Gail Borden never lived in Elgin, and he never donated funds for the library that bears his name. He was born in New York in 1801, and in 1856, received a patent on the process for condensing milk. Borden opened his third plant in Elgin, where his third wife, Emeline Church, once lived. Elgin was an attractive site, since it was near many dairy farms. The Elgin Milk Condensing Co. operated from 1865 to 1919, on Brook and North streets.

The city’s first library opened on March 19, 1874, on the third floor of the Home Bank on East Chicago Street, under the leadership of Louis Yarwood. The collection consisted of 2,000 books, which came from private collections and donations. Board member Edward C. Lovel even bought books for the library while touring Europe.

By 1893, the citizens of Elgin were desperately seeking a building for their library, which was scraping by in rented rooms downtown. Elgin residents Samuel and Alfred Church, stepsons of Borden, offered to purchase and donate the Scofield mansion at 50 N. Spring St. All they asked in return was that the library be named Gail Borden Public Library, after their stepfather, who had died in 1874 in Texas.

“It’s a fascinating history of our library service,” says Raleigh. “Gail Borden was a worthy man for his stepsons to make this generous donation in order to find a home for the library.

“Our story has always been about keeping up with the needs of the Elgin community. In the 1880s, there was a need to purchase German-language books for our German population. These days, our Spanish collection serves an important purpose. It’s about needs and wants. In the beginning, there was no youth collection within the library system. Now, it’s fundamental to who we are, because we realize success in school is strongly related to library usage. It’s heartwarming to see the library’s response to things that happen in our town.”

Opportunities Galore

Today, the library offers much more than books and movies – just glance through its community newsletter. In addition to the usual summer reading programs, the library hosts karaoke nights, foosball tournaments and open mic nights for teenagers; programs on frog calls and tai chi; adult lectures on the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and how to plan a trip to Disney World – led by an expert who’s visited the theme park a dozen times.

Last year, the library hosted a museum-quality exhibit of the ancient SuperCroc, which included a 40-foot-long life-size skeleton, and the step-by-step process of uncovering the creature.

“We were excited to bring an exhibit like this to downtown Elgin, for many people in the area who would not otherwise have this type of experience,” says Carole Medal, the library’s executive director, and one of two Gail Borden directors to have served as president of the Illinois Library Association. “The best part is the amazement, wonderment and awe of the children knowing that it’s right in their own backyard.”

In 2005, the library hosted an exhibit called “Giants: African Dinosaurs,” which was toured by 14,000 schoolchildren during class field trips. Two years later, it brought another successful exhibit, “Space: Dare to Dream,” where children actually talked to astronauts on the International Space Station – a feat no other library had ever done.

“We took a calculated risk,” says Raleigh. “There was so much technology that could have gone wrong, but the best part is that some of the children who were involved have gone on to participate in robotics programs.”

That includes McKellar’s twins, Matthew and Kristen, who were so inspired that they started a robotics program with friends. Members of FIRST Tech Challenge Robotics Team 5037, the two have been part of back-to-back state championship teams and have competed at the international level. “It all started with the Dare to Dream program,” says their mother. “All the resources that the library offers really opened their eyes to the different possibilities that exist.”

Library officials believe that exhibits like these are important to the Elgin community for several reasons. They have broad appeal that will connect people of different ages, backgrounds and socioeconomic levels. They also help to motivate young people to read and learn about science.

“The reason we do these exhibits is because people want to know more about it,” Medal says. “It’s visual, and it sparks imagination. Right here, under the same roof, are materials for them to explore, read and check out. The basis for all of this is to improve literacy.”

More to Come

When it comes to serving the community, Gail Borden Library staff is constantly thinking outside the box,.

“We serve a diverse community,” says Raleigh. “We watch trends to see what’s been checked out and what’s not being used. We look at formats closely. Technology is huge for us. We teach a lot about technology, such as e-books and audio books. The number of options available to the consumer is exploding.”

This summer, a nine-foot tall version of Clifford the Big Red Dog is on display in the main library, as part of the annual summer reading program. The exhibit is on loan from the Minnesota Children’s Museum. “We will have 10 engaging stations during the summer to bring people to the library and get excited about the books we have in the building,” says Raleigh. “We want to encourage people to read and get their library cards.”

Another summer exhibit, “Wild Things,” showcases a collection of original paintings and illustrations by children’s author Maurice Sendak, in honor of the 50th anniversary of his popular Where the Wild Things Are. It runs from July 19 to Sept. 19.

“We want to connect with the community,” Raleigh says. “In our daily lives, we don’t meet up with people from different cultures, diversity and generations. The library brings people together. Hopefully, at the core of it all is literacy.”

The library is now sowing the seeds for Elgin’s next generation, with its Welcome Baby program, which gives all babies born at Advocate Sherman Hospital a library card, in the hope that they’ll join story time when they’re old enough. “Literacy is generational,” Raleigh says. “We have so many adults who came here as children and now bring their children. If we can reach children at an early age, everyone wins in this community.”

McKellar agrees. Her children are proof of that. “It’s so fun to be part of the energy and the growth of the Gail Borden Library,” she says. “It’s a great asset and such a community hub. The book collection is the core of the library, but its impact goes far beyond that.”