The Early Years
Once probate of the will was complete, the John Crerar Library was incorporated on October 12, 1894 under the provisions of Illinois legislation enacted in 1891 titled "An act to encourage and promote the establishment of free public libraries in cities, villages and towns of this State." In accordance with the wishes stated in the will, the board of directors named as the first president of the Library Norman Williams. This first board of directors is a roll call of eminent men of the time: Marshall Field, E.W. Blatchford, T.B. Blackstone, Robert T. Lincoln, Henry W. Bishop, Edward G. Mason, Albert Keep, Edson Keith, Simon J. McPherson, John M. Clack and George A. Armour. Many of these men had been personal friends as well as those which whom he had done business. The board made arrangement for an endowment whose income was to be used eventually for the erection of a permanent building. It would be more than two decades before such a structure would be completed.
During 1895 and 1896, several important activities took place that set the scene for the opening of the Library. After an extensive search by the board of directors, Clement Walker Andrews was appointed first librarian in 1895, and staff were hired. The sixth floor of the Marshall Field & Co. building were leased for temporary quarters. The purchase of books in science and technology was begun, with the accessioning of the first volume in February 1896. When the library opened to the public, it contained 22,000 volumes of works in science and technology.
Without much fanfare, the John Crerar Library opened its doors to readers on April 1, 1897.
The collections grew rapidly. In 1903, there were 100,000 volumes in the collection. An agreement was reached with the Newberry Library in 1906 to transfer collections in medicine, expanding the collecting scope of the John Crerar Library to include medicine. By 1907, the collection had doubled to 200,000 volumes. In 1904, the fifth floor in Marshall Field building was leased to hold the collections and services of the thriving library. Shortly thereafter, a mezzanine was constructed between the fifth and sixth floors to provide additional space for the library and its operations.
Active planning for a permanent building started in 1910 with a proposal for a building in Grant Park east of Michigan Avenue between Madison and Monroe Streets. The plan was opposed by various parties and a suit was filed in the courts. After a period of litigation, the Illinois Supreme Court eventually ruled against the Library. The Directors began their search for another suitable location, and in 1912 selected a site at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Randolph Street. The architectural firm of Holabird and Roche of Chicago was selected in 1913 to design the new building. However, construction was not begun for several more years, and due to the considerations of wartime economy several revisions were made to the plans. The building was partially completed by May 1920 when the Marshall Field location was closed. In August 1920 a temporary reading room was opened on the third floor of the new building to accommodate patrons. Apparently behind the scenes there were some unorthodox arrangements made that allowed staff to continue providing services to the readers:
"From September to the following February and May this temporary reading room functioned, the attendants sliding down stairs to the street, into the adjoining building, up a freight elevator to where the books were lying, backs up (showing the call the numbers), finding the call (or not), then back again. To replace them would require the same journey over again."
— John Christian Bay
The library as a whole was finally opened to the public on May 30, 1921, following a ceremony of dedication on May 28.