James Nichols was born in Germany in 1851. His father died when he was very young. His mother remarried, and the family came to the United States when James was six years old. Two years later, his mother died, and his stepfather left him. He spent years living with various families and employers, frequently suffering cruelty and abuse. At 12, Nichols could not speak English, but by 18 he had mastered the language and had enough education to obtain a teaching certificate.
Somewhere in young adulthood, Nichols shed his birth name, choosing as his namesake an old American naval hero, James Lawrence, whose final command was, "Don't give up the ship."
Nichols attended North-Western College (now North Central College), graduated, and eventually returned as a popular professor. He wrote "The Business Guide," intending to use it as a textbook. The book was first published in 1886 and sold three million copies by 1917. He ended up leaving the college to work on his publishing company and other business interests.
James Nichols died August 18, 1895. On his death bed, he bequeathed $10,000 to the City of Naperville to establish a library. His wife, Elizabeth, recalled, "He expressed to me a desire to leave a gift of a Library to Naperville, so that no boy or girl should be without books, as he had been."
The Early Years: 1898 to 1909
On September 22, 1898, the Nichols Library formally opened at 110 S Washington Street. There was a party and book donation. About 300 people attended and contributed 200 books, in addition to the 500 that were already purchased, so that the Library could open with about 700 books.
Edna Goss, the first librarian, worked for a period of three months to organize the Library, catalog the books, and teach a local librarian. The woman she taught, Hannah Ditzler, became chief librarian in December 1898 for a salary of $25 per month.
Hannah retired in 1905 and was followed by Jennie Niederhauser (1905-1907) and Rose Barnard (1907-1909).
The Matie Egermann Years: 1909 to 1950
Mary Barbara Egermann (known to many as Matie) was appointed head librarian in 1909. In 1915, she asked the Library Board and the City for space on the upper level of the Library to create the first city museum. It first contained military memorabilia and early documents, but it later grew to include photos, books, letters, and diaries of old Naperville families. During World War I and II, Egermann organized book drives and letter campaigns for the soldiers, many of whom sent her dolls and souvenirs.
When the Martin Mitchell Museum opened in 1939, Egermann's collections at the Nichols Library were moved to the new museum. Today, this museum is known as Naper Settlement.
The Miriam Fry Years: 1950 to 1983
When Matie Egermann retired in the fall of 1950, Miriam Fry, who had been assistant librarian since 1946, took over as chief librarian. She worked to have a telephone installed in the building and kept the doors open every weekday. She also hired her childhood friend, Katherine Finkbeiner, as her administrative assistant. The two worked in tandem for over 30 years.
With the original library building running out of space, an addition was opened in 1962. By 1974, the building was so crowded that an architectural consultant was hired to figure out how to use every nook and cranny of the building.
The Library eventually realized that a new building would be needed to keep up with Naperville's population growth. On a second attempt, a referendum was passed in 1983 to build a new library. After the referendum, site, and plans were taken care of, Miriam Fry retired as chief librarian.
Years of Growth: 1984 to present
Roger Pearson was hired to take over in 1984. The new Nichols Library opened on March 11, 1986. At Pearson's second board meeting, he had recommended automating the library card catalog. That new system went online in September 1989. As Naperville's population continued to increase, land for a second library facility was acquired, and the upper floor of the Naper Blvd. Library opened to the public on December 29, 1992.
Even as the Naper Blvd. Library was expanding until it filled two floors, library administration was looking into sites on the south side of Naperville for a third location. Roger Pearson departed to take a position in California, and Donna Dziedzic was hired as an interim director in 1996. She had no intention of applying for the permanent position but later changed her mind. She told the Naperville Sunday, "After I got here, I fell in love with it. I couldn't believe the level of commitment of the staff."
After remodeling projects at Naper Blvd. and Nichols, land was purchased for a third building. The 95th Street Library opened to the public on September 21, 2003. Dziedzic retired in 2011, and John Spears was appointed as director.
After Spears' departure in 2013, Julie Rothenfluh, the longtime deputy director who started at the Library in 1997, was selected as executive director. She oversaw a $5 million dollar renovation project of all three buildings from 2016-2018. Rothenfluh retired in 2019 and left the Library in the hands of her deputy director, Dave Della Terza. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in his first year as director, Della Terza was forced to reimagine library services and how Naperville Public Library could best support the community during uncertain times.
In 2022, Della Terza oversaw a rebranding effort of the Library, which included a new Naperville Public Library logo. The new design, inspired by 3D paper art, features purple, green and orange banners that are meant to look like Ns, representing not only Naperville but each of the three library locations – Nichols, Naper Blvd., and Ninety-Fifth Street.
Since its inception in the late 19th century, Naperville Public Library has grown along with the city it serves. No matter what the future holds, the staff will continue to respond to the needs of the community in creative and innovative ways.