This past October the Evanston Public Library hosted its very first annual Storytelling Festival. There were tents, international storytellers, events for people of every age, the works. It was a massive success, packing the rooms in almost every area. And it’s fitting that EPL should salute storytelling in this manner since you could say that it was a storyteller who started the library in the first place.

Meet Edward Eggleston (1837-1902). I guess you could call him one of our hometown celebrities. A novelist, editor, historian, and storyteller, Mr. Eggleston called Evanston home from around 1866 to 1870.  

I don’t think he ever originally intended to found a library, of course. Mr. Eggleston was just very interested in education for youth. He created the first kindergarten in Evanston and began a class for boys called the Little Club. In the evenings boys ages six to 16 would meet in his home. He’d start them off with a religious talk and a Bible reading, followed by stories. At the end of these meetings he’d let the kids dive into his personal library and borrow his books.  Good stuff too. Not didactic texts but stuff like “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

Mr. Eggleston soon became a victim of his own success, though. So many boys started attending his home that the meetings had to move out of his house into the kindergarten building next door. As for his personal library, it couldn’t meet their demands. Desperate to appease these book-hungry boys he turned to the leading citizens of the city and asked for a village library. As a result of his actions, the Evanston Library Association was founded in 1871. Not long thereafter it turned into the Free Library of the Village of Evanston.

Years later, one of those grown-up boys, Henry B. Hemenway called Mr. Eggleston the “father of the public library.”  And all it took was some good old-fashioned storytelling.

For more information on Mr. Eggleston and a host of other interesting Evanston-related facts, check out “The ABCs of Evanston” by Janet G. Messenger, now available at Evanston Public Library.

Betsy Bird is the Collection Development Manager of Evanston Public Library. She has been writing for the Evanston RoundTable since 2016.