Our expansive library open to every member of our community started out as a small collection for a small group of readers. In 1868, about 300 books plus periodicals were assembled in a modest reading room on the second floor at No. 7 Main Street in Champaign. Forty members of the private Champaign Library Association paid dues to use the collection.
After several years of ups and downs (and a move to the second floor of No. 26 Main Street), the association voted itself out of existence in 1876 and gave its assets to the city of Champaign, with a vision of creating a library open to everyone.
The Champaign Public Library and Reading Room dates to July 21, 1876, when the City Council accepted the Library Association‘s gift and budgeted $1,000 a year for the library. The library moved next door to No. 24 Main Street and boasted 750 volumes. The only librarian was paid $20 a month.
Anyone over the age of 10 could borrow books, though only the librarian was allowed to hand them out and reshelve them. After thirteen years, the library was moved to the southwest corner of the then-new City Building at University and Neil Streets, where it stayed until 1896.
In 1894, Champaign banker and philanthropist A.C. Burnham announced a substantial gift of $50,000 for a new library as a memorial to his wife, Julia Finley Burnham, a former member of the library board. Of the total, $40,000 was for the site and building and $10,000 was for a book endowment. The Burnham Athenaeum at 306 W. Church Street opened on December 17, 1896, with two librarians and 5,593 books. When it closed, the same building was bursting at the seams with 40 employees and over 100,000 items.
An approximately 40,000-square-foot Main Library at 505 S. Randolph Street was dedicated in November 1977. Designed by Hammond Beeby and Associates of Chicago, the building was funded largely by a $2.3 million referendum.
A new Main Library opened in January 2008 with a collection of close to 285,000 items and three times the space of the building it replaced. Ross Barney Architects designed the building, which was funded by a combination of public and private funds.
In 2023, the Main Library expanded into the lower level, opening The Studio at the Library and adding a staircase to The Studio and FriendShop Bookstore. This new 8,000-square-foot creative space offers innovative tech and a programming space for afterschool activities for teens, creative workshops for adults in the evenings, and open hours for everyone on the weekends. The project was designed by Product Architecture + Design and funded by the Library Foundation, Library Friends, and the City of Champaign.
The Douglass Center Library was organized in 1970 to serve both Urbana and Champaign, a joint project of the two cities’ libraries, Lincoln Trail Libraries System, and the Champaign Park District. The Library was named for Frederick Douglass, the American abolitionist and journalist who escaped from slavery and became an influential lecturer — including at least one stop in Champaign.
For five years, the Douglass Center Library occupied a room in the Douglass Community Center at 801 N. Sixth St. In 1972, the library began to operate as a branch of the Champaign Public Library. In 1975, Urbana discontinued its involvement in the project for financial reasons. The following year, the Branch was moved to a small building at 310 E. Bradley Avenue.
The existing 6,074-square-foot Douglass Branch Library opened in June 1997 with space for 10,000 items. The building was designed by Olsen + Associates and constructed at the south end of Douglass Park at 504 E. Grove Street. The facility was jointly funded by the Library, the City of Champaign, the Illinois State Library, the Champaign Park District, and the Champaign Public Library Foundation.
Frederick Douglass: In Remembrance, a work of art by Preston Jackson that stands near the entrance to the Douglass Branch, was commissioned by the Champaign Public Library Foundation and dedicated August 14, 1999. It was funded by gifts from the Friends of the Champaign Public Library, area business, and donors from the community, and in part by a Live and Learn Construction Grant from the Illinois State Library, a division of the Office of the Secretary of State.
The Friends of the Champaign Public Library group was founded in 1965 and supports the library through sales in their FriendShop Bookstore. The Champaign Public Library Foundation was established in 1993 “to ensure an extraordinary library for our community” by encouraging private gifts.
1868 Reading Room
1876 Public Library
1896 Burnham Athenaeum
1970 Douglass Center Library
1975 Douglass Branch Library
1977 Main Library, 505 S. Randolph
1997 Douglass Branch Library, 504 E. Grove
2008 Main Library, 200 W. Green
2023 The Studio Expansion Project at the Main Library