Women’s Legacy at Skokie Public Library

By Perry Nelson, Information and Research Librarian

If you’ve attended library events, chances are you’ve been in one of our event spaces, such as the Cosmos Room, Radmacher Room, Petty Auditorium, or Carolyn A. Anthony Business and Community Center. These four spaces are all named in honor of women in Skokie—women who have had a significant impact on the library as well as our larger community. Learn more about these women, and you’ll be ready with a fun fact next time you’re waiting for your library event to begin.

The Cosmos Club: The Original Library Advocates

The Cosmos Club of Illinois, which officially began on April 15, 1929, was part of a greater women’s movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As home appliances and other domestic products began to result in more leisure time for some women, women formed social clubs. These clubs were similar in concept to the many men’s clubs that already existed but often had different priorities.

Early women’s clubs often took the form of study or reading circles and were intended to advance the education of their members. Gradually, the clubs took up social and political causes. Women’s clubs were the backbone of the suffrage and temperance movements. They also pushed their local and state governments to provide social and public services.

The founding members of the Cosmos Club both conceived of and created Skokie Public Library. By July 1929, just a few months after the club began, the executive committee had already announced their intent to form a free library. They donated their own books, rented rooms, bought furniture and shelves, and hired a librarian from Evanston (Letitia Light) to catalog their materials. When the library opened for the first time on February 8, 1930, club members staffed the library. The library was run and funded almost entirely by the Cosmos Club until 1941, when Skokie citizens voted to fund it with tax dollars. Skokie Public Library has its own elected Board of Library Trustees and its own tax levy.

The contributions of the Cosmos Club to the library can’t be overstated, but we often struggle to not only honor but to name the members. Members of the Cosmos Club were usually credited in newspapers and even in their own documents with their husbands’ names. In October 1929, the club held a bake sale to fund the library. They made $42.50—equivalent to $757.30 in today’s dollars. In the Niles Center News, Mrs. C. Howard Yates was named as chairman for the event. Using the library's reference resources, we discovered that her first name was Marion.

The Cosmos Club disbanded in 1979. Too many club members contributed to the library to recognize each of them individually. We honored these women who served the Skokie Community for more than 50 years by designating the meeting room near the west entrance as the Cosmos Room following our 2021 renovation. We hope you’re able to think of their efforts when you see that room.

Selma Regan Petty: From Community Club to Community Cornerstone

Selma Regan Petty is one of the members of the Cosmos Club we are able to honor individually. Not only was she one of its founding members and its second president, she spent most of her life serving the community and helping the library grow. She was involved in the library from the very beginning—in fact, she hung drapes in the library’s first location (her name appears in newspapers from the time as Mrs. Leo Regan). She solicited donations from local businesses so the Cosmos Club could open the library. She volunteered her time before the library had paid staff. In an article in The News on April 15, 1971, she recalls persuading Mayor George Blameuser to check out a book for his children.

Selma’s involvement didn’t stop when the Cosmos Club was no longer running the library. She was elected to the very first Board of Library Trustees in 1941 and served until her health forced her to retire in 1973. Her dedication and presence were so strong that when she retired, it was front-page news! She chaired the furnishings committee when the library moved to its own building in 1942, and she was president of the Board from 1959 to 1960.

The library moved to our current location in 1960 and expanded in 1972. Following that expansion, one of our new spaces was named in her honor—the Selma Regan Petty Auditorium. It feels especially appropriate to have chosen that room. In the same 1971 article where she reminisces about the early days of the library, Selma talks about her hopes for the space that would ultimately be named for her. While construction was still occurring, she imagined theater, musical performances, and art shows there, all things you can still find in and near the Petty Auditorium today.

Mary Radmacher: Championing Access to Evolving Library Services

Mary Radmacher became chief librarian in 1956 and stayed until 1985, serving as director for nearly 30 years. From the start, she focused on making the library as welcoming and accessible as possible. Two of her first changes were removing a sign that asked visitors to keep quiet and making sure that the library’s phone number was listed in the public directory.

Mary Radmacher spearheaded many services that now seem like integral parts of the library. From our bookmobile service and Young Steinway Concert Series to our building, her vision still resonates throughout the library.

When she joined the library, it was in leased rooms at 4915 Oakton Street. By 1957, just a year after she was hired, she had plans for a dedicated new building at our current address. She personally selected furnishings to go with our new space and gathered original art for the walls. That building, which opened in 1960, won several awards for its design.

However, by 1965, library services had expanded so much that the new building was crowded, leading to additions in the early 1970s. Mary also oversaw building the most comprehensive collection of reference books of any public library in the northern suburbs, leading to our being the backup reference service for all north suburban libraries.

Rapid progress wasn’t unusual for Mary Radmacher, and she never stopped looking forward and making changes. When she retired in 1985, the library was in the process of computerizing its card catalog—she was still making the library more accessible, just like when she publicly listed the phone number. On November 24, 1995, her 80th birthday and 10 years after her retirement, we dedicated one of our community meeting rooms to her. The Radmacher Meeting Room continues to be an active event space that community members of all ages use for learning, entertainment, and connecting with other community members.

Carolyn A. Anthony: Commitment to Collaboration and Community

When Mary Radmacher retired, the library’s Board searched nationwide for someone to lead the library and hired Carolyn Anthony. She joined the library in 1985 and retired in 2016. It’s hard to overstate the impact she had on our services over those 31 years. She won individual awards. The whole library won awards, including being the first public library in Illinois to be awarded the National Medal from the Institute of Museum and Library Services in 2008. We expanded the building again. We added the internet, a parking lot, and digital materials. Rapid changes in technology meant library services were completely transformed–always with the Skokie community at the heart. Carolyn started out overseeing the digitization of our physical card catalog, and only 10 years later, she was spearheading the creation of community websites.

Carolyn’s innovations weren’t all technological, or even limited to the library. She developed community partnerships that led to the creation of the Skokie Festival of Cultures, Coming Together in Skokie, and Skokie’s Spring Greening. She also made the library a community hub, attracting people into the library to take advantage of computer centers, a media lab, hands-on discovery spaces, and a growing array of events.

Carolyn also worked to protect each library user’s privacy. When the Patriot Act passed in 2001, she transformed library recordkeeping to prevent us from keeping personal information that we could be compelled to report. She even lobbied Representative Jan Schakowsky and Senator Dick Durbin when the Patriot Act came up for renewal in 2006, part of her commitment to serving our community members.

In 2023, seven years after her retirement from the library, we named the recently renovated Business and Community Center in her honor. She made possible the original Business Center in 2012, and demonstrated how powerful collaboration can be when the library and business community support one another. Her commitment to community and collaboration are important library values to this day.

Lasting Legacies

The members of the Cosmos Club, Selma Regan Petty, Mary Radmacher, and Carolyn A. Anthony all made substantial contributions to the library. While we are delighted to share more about their legacies, they are only some of the people—many of them women, many of them often overlooked—who have helped the library to grow over the course of the nearly 100 years since the Cosmos Club started with just a couple of rooms and 1,000 books

If you’re interested in learning more about another woman who shaped the library, explore the archive of Dr. A. Louise Klehm. She was not only Skokie’s first female doctor, but she was also the first community member to donate a book to the Cosmos Club’s efforts. And if you dive further into local history archives and discover another figure from the library’s history, we’d love to hear what you learn.