Front & Center: How Illinois' Secretary of State became a librarian

June 8, 2012

The top funding sources for Illinois adult literacy programs are the community college board and the secretary of state's office. That got us wondering: What does the Secretary of State have to do with literacy?

Turns out, the Illinois Secretary of State is also the Illinois State Librarian. Through that, the office distributes $6 million a year in literacy grants to local tutoring programs.

The library - and state archives - have been part of the secretary's job, at least informally, going way back to Illinois' first secretary of state, a guy named Elias Kent Kane, who later was a U.S. senator from Illinois.

Mark Sorensen is past president of the state historical society and he used to work for the state archives. Sorensen said Kane was entrusted with the few records the young state had, and he had to transport them when lawmakers picked a new capitol city.

"He had to use an ox cart," Sorensen said, and a slave. "It wasn't his particular slave that he owned. Basically, they kind of cut their way on whatever path or road that needed to be made from Kaskaskia to Vandalia."

Through the wilderness about 100 miles, they carried the state's weights and measures and papers and books.

The state's collection of books started off as mostly a legal reference for lawmakers, then folks started thinking about variety.

"Well, gee, in order to be a well-rounded member of the General Assembly, some extra reading material might be handy," Sorenson said. "So in the 1850s, you start bringing in novels...like Frankenstein, The Hunchback of Notre Dame...as well as books of maps and laws."

Through the years, the secretary of state picked up responsibilities, including a massive motor vehicle division that today is really what the office is known for.

When fourth-term Secretary of State Jesse White hears complaints from the public, they're not about library fines; they're about fees for drivers licenses and license plates.

"But when I am in a library setting, they know the rest of the story," White said in a recent interview.

Illinois is not unique in having the state library under the secretary of state. Seven others do it that way, according to the National Association of Secretaries of State.

Only two other states give their the secretaries of state control of drivers licenses.