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Commentary: The fall and rise of a great library

Galesburg's Carnegie Library
The Carnegie Library in Galesburg caught on fire May 9, 1958.

Of all my Galesburg memories, the one that I remember most took place on Friday, May 9, 1958. I recall that it was almost 7:30 on that spring evening. Since it was May, the weather was perfect. It was warm but not too hot.

Then, I noticed the stench. It was a familiar odor but it seemed out of place. It smelled like a hot grill but it was not a pleasant smell.

Suddenly, we could hear loud sirens and voices. It sounded like dozens of police cars and firetrucks were headed right in our direction. People were yelling and running. We could hear folks screaming that our big, impressive, mansion like Carnegie Library was on fire.

Everyone took off toward the library. When we arrived at the corner of Simmons and Cherry streets, there was already a large group of people standing in front of the burning building. The police were trying to control the crowd.

We could see flames and smoke rising from the roof of the building. The entire scene looked like a horror movie, but it was all too real.

Galesburg firefighters were joined by Knoxville, Abingdon, and other firefighters from neighboring communities. Those men worked valiantly but the water pressure was just not strong enough to fight such a big fire.

The fire seemed to have a mind of its own. Flames reached out and devoured everything within reach. Books and papers quickly disappeared. The fire raged throughout the building and destroyed everything in its path. Even as we stood there, the fire was becoming more powerful. The flames moved down from the roof to the second floor and rapidly took over the first floor. It destroyed furniture, materials, and books -- thousands and thousands of books.

Originals, first editions, and one of a kind items were in the clutches of the fire. The fire burned throughout the night, but in my memory, it felt like everything was gone in seconds. The magnificent Carnegie Library, with its stacks of books; high ceilings and massive staircases, was no more. Only a bleak shell remained of what had been.

Not one human life was lost but hearts were broken. Memories were scattered among the ashes.

Commentator Naomi Law

It is now Spring 2023. We have used a “temporary” library for the past 65 years.

It has taken lifetimes and decades to reach this point but these are now times for celebrations. Our community has already begun to experience the promise of the new facility. This completed building will honor the past but reflect the future. Technology, resources, innovative programs, and limitless community events will become integral parts of the new library.

Libraries, like people, can rise from the ashes. We can evolve. Libraries can reflect a vibrant community that celebrates information, technology, skills, and creativity. Libraries, like living, breathing communities, are destination points. They are where abilities, beliefs, and values are respected. Libraries can project and encourage generations to come.

A rendering of the new public library in Galesburg that is under construction.
A rendering of the new Galesburg Public Library under construction in the 200 block of West Main Street in downtown Galesburg.

Our new library includes teen zones, a balcony, and a cozy fireplace. There are study rooms and multiple gathering places. It is a haven for community interactions as well as individual projects. Participants in the 100 Extraordinary Women’s Project (which expanded into over 200) will be recognized and appreciated for years to come. Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga words, history, activities, and music will serve as a favorite spot for children. It will become a generational haven.

As I speak, the new Galesburg Public Library is under construction. It is being built on Main St. Collectively and collaboratively, the community is providing a place that respects the past and envisions the future. Welcome to an evolving vision of a library!

Now, I have shared with you some of my experiences from the beautiful, majestic Galesburg Public Library made possible by Andrew Carnegie. What you don’t know is that I have also written a book about the fire that destroyed that wonderful world of books, memories, and history.

Like my book “The Adventures of Orie the Orpheum Mouse,” this one is from a mouse’s perspective. This mouse is named Drew, after Andrew Carnegie, of course. Drew is a thoughtful little mouse who lives in the Carnegie with his rodent family, mouse friends, and one friendly library cat.

The book, “Jump, Drew, Jump" is the story of Drew’s harrowing decision to remain on the roof of the burning Carnegie Library or to jump from the top of the building. The tale is followed by questions for the readers as they learn more about the Galesburg Public Library. There is even a reference to a fantastic article written by the incomparable journalist, Jane Carlson.

“Jump, Drew, Jump” is still at the publishers and will be available in a few weeks. A book signing will be held at the Library and other locations. Watch the media for an official announcement. I’ll save a book just for you.

Anyway, I love libraries and I love history. In my opinion, libraries will always exist in one form or another. Let’s continue to tell stories of our history. Let’s continue to write about the history that has shaped us. Our memories, articles, and books will have to be stored someplace. I would like to believe that in some way, you will always be able to find whatever you need at a library.

Naomi Law is a retired administrator from the Joliet and Oak Park Public school systems. She has served as an elected official for the Laraway Public Schools and the Oak Park Public Library. Since retiring, she has been an active volunteer in the Galesburg community. She has been a newspaper columnist and has two books available through Amazon and bookstores. 

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio.

Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.