"Illinois Innovators," a program produced by the Big Ten Network, highlights the ways in which Illinois's academic programs, students, and faculty are changing the world. In this premiere episode, the "Women Who Went West" segment details the incredible history of GSLIS, which sent the first librarians to the frontier under the leadership of the School's first dean, Katharine Sharp. As pioneers immigrated to the western towns of Wyoming, New Mexico, and Oregon, GSLIS graduates set up libraries to educate the growing population. Often the only women for miles, these librarians created successful literacy programs with very little resources.
A Brief History
By Kevin Ward, Class of 1995
The Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has its beginnings rooted in both a revolutionary woman and the turn-of-the-century times that surrounded her. When Katharine Sharp was completing her library degree at the New York State Library School in 1892, her merits as a librarian had captured the attention of Melvil Dewey who then recommended her to the Reverend Frank W. Gunsaulus, newly appointed president of the recently established Armour Institute in Chicago, as director of the institute's programs: "I want the best man in America to start the library and library school and carry out your [sic] ideas...The best man in America is a woman, and she is in the next room" (cited in Grotzinger, 1992, p. 5).
The first library science program in the Midwest began in the fall of 1893 with Sharp and May Bennett as the sole instructors; two more were added in 1896 and by 1897, after graduating fifty-nine students, Sharp had come to realize that her dream of a university-anchored library program was not going to take root in the technical school atmosphere of the Armour. Sought by both the Universities of Wisconsin and Illinois, Sharp opted for Illinois and in the fall of 1897, the Illinois State Library School opened in Urbana.
By 1903 the faculty numbered six to the forty-seven students, and the university library of 40,000 volumes had been organized and management established (Grotzinger, 1992, p. 12). Through her strong sense of purpose and leadership in the new discipline of library science, Sharp led the Illinois State Library School to a point of excellence and achievement rivaling the largest programs including that of her mentor, Melvil Dewey. Katharine Sharp retired from the school in 1907 but left in her wake a firm foundation of excellence and accomplishment that would mature into the current-day Graduate School of Library and Information Science.
Since its beginnings at the Armour Institute in Chicago, through its move to Urbana as the Illinois State Library School, the school has changed as the discipline has changed. Renamed as the University of Illinois Library School in 1926 as the program became a graduate school, the Graduate School of Library Science in 1959 with research and a doctoral program being added, to the Graduate School of Library and Information Science in 1981 to recognize new aspects of librarianship, the program has graduated nearly 7,000 students and has been instrumental in both defining the discipline and providing qualified professionals to the field.
Reference: Grotzinger, L. (1992). Remarkable beginnings: The first half century of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science. In W. C. Allen & R. F. Delzell (Eds.), Ideals and Standards: The History of the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science. Urbana-Champaign, IL: Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois.
Note: See the American Library Association Archives at the University of Illinois Archives website for “The Best Man in America is a Woman:” Katharine L. Sharp and the First “Lady Librarians” (published September 30, 2013).