They Never Wearied of Stories: Discover a Surprising Children's Library
Updated: Mar 18
What can the height of a table tell you?
Walking into a special children's library of long ago, a small table could tell you a surprising story.
At the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, the Children's Building housed a garden playground on the roof, a wondrous collection of toys from different lands, and a library filled with treasures.
And, in that welcoming library, low tables stood at the best height for children to use. Scattered across the tables were bright, current copies of magazines such as St. Nicholas, Wide Awake and Harper's Young People. These weren't just for display in an exhibit, but for children to handle and read the stories.
On the shelves, children were encouraged to take down and open the books—titles they themselves had chosen as their favorites, not the ones adults thought they should read. In a departure from the usual policy, schoolchildren themselves were asked to name their favorite books and authors.
The woman in charge of the library, Clara Doty Bates, received hundreds of letters back from boys and girls naming their choices. She filled the shelves with the stories most popular with children.
Who Made This Library Different?
Clara Doty Bates is a name new to me. I discovered that she was a storyteller, a poet, and a children's book author herself. During the World's Fair in her native city of Chicago, she also brought new ideas to the developing field of children's libraries.
We expect to see colorful and inviting children's areas in public libraries now. But in 1893, most girls and boys had never seen a library room set aside for them. It wasn't until 1896 that an architect's blueprint marked off a separate children's room for a library in Brooklyn.
No Books in Sight, at First
The idea of the Children's Building came later in the Fair's planning, championed by the Board of Lady Managers. No funds were given by the Fair's authorities for the building. The Lady Managers made it a grass-roots effort, raising all the needed funds through hard work, volunteer effort and meticulous planning.
Unfortunately, by the time the children's library was in the works, publishers had become heartily sick of being asked for book donations to benefit various departments of the Fair. When requests were made for children's books, most flatly refused any more charity.
One Book, With an Autograph
Regrouping, the women sent personal letters to children's book authors. Would they send one book and sign it?
Yes, of course they would. The authors' fountain pens became busy, and the library received a collection of authors' copies from around the world. "Here may be found the books of all lands and in all languages," Emma B. Dunlap wrote about the library.
For Clara Bates's children's library, the collection grew to 600 books. This was quite an accomplishment after it looked "as if the library would be of a novel kind—one entirely without books."
Along with their books, authors also sent along autographed manuscripts, illustrations and photographs.
A Place for Stories
Starting as an unfunded dream, the Children's Building became the most popular of all buildings of its size at the Chicago World's Fair.  And, rising from the challenge of receiving no official funds, the Lady Managers made a profit of $17,715 from the sale of souvenirs in the Children's Building.
Most importantly, thousands of children discovered, probably for the first time, a library of imagination, play, and wonder designed especially for them.
As Clara Doty Bates said, "Children from every part of the country have haunted the room...to lose all knowledge of outside wonders and beauties under the spell of some favorite book."
She later remembered, "They wearied of sight-seeing and pageantry, but never wearied of stories."
I'm grateful to Clara Doty Bates, and other children's library pioneers, for these wonderful places of adventure, imagination and learning treasured from my own childhood visits to the library.
History of Youth Services Timeline. UNC School of Library and Information Science.
Nix, Larry T. “Library History Buff Blog.” Early Children's Rooms in Public Libraries, 3 Feb. 2011.
Elliott, Maud Howe, ed. Art and Handicraft in the Woman's Building of the World's Columbian Exposition. London: Forgotten Books, 2015, 165.
Campbell, James B. Campbell's Illustrated History of the World's Columbian Exposition, vol. 2.
Weimann, Jeanne Madeline. The Fair Women: The Story of the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893, 352.
Wadsworth, Sarah and Wayne A. Wiegand. Right Here I See My Own Books: The Woman's Building Library at the World's Columbian Exposition. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012.
If I'd been around in 1893, I 'd have gladly sent in an autographed book for the Children's Library.
I'm currently writing a children's mystery set at the World's Columbian Exposition in the fascinating year of 1893. Mystery Fair will be available soon for pre-order. The first book in the trilogy, Mystery Shores, is available now here.