Angeline “Ange” V. Milner, for whom Milner Library is named, is one of the people who has helped build a foundation of student success at Illinois State University. The University’s first full-time librarian helped create a library that was integrated with the programs and research needs of the University.
Milner served as librarian from 1890 to 1927 and retired due to her poor health. She died in 1928 at the age of 71. Angela Bonnell, M.S. ‘02, head of government documents at Milner Library, has closely studied the life of Milner. Bonnell wrote her thesis for her master’s degree in history from Illinois State on the first 50 years of the institution’s depository library.
“So much of what we are now is based on her practices then. She was just an incredible individual for a variety of reasons. She broke a lot of stereotypes that I had, and I wanted to learn more about her,” Bonnell said.
In recognition of Women’s History Month, we interviewed Bonnell about Milner, one of the pivotal figures in Illinois State’s history.
Who was Milner before she became an integral part of the University?
Milner, a Bloomington native, was the eldest of six children and was a part of one of the town’s most notable families, Bonnell said. Milner didn’t finish high school or pursue higher education, she was trained as a librarian later in life, said Bonnell.
From 1875–1878, Milner attended summer school at what was formerly known as Illinois State Normal University (ISNU), where she met Illinois State alum Stephen Forbes, the first chief of the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS). Forbes would become an important figure in her life as she took his classes and taught her about classifying and cataloging.
How did Milner get her start at the University?
Forbes hired Milner at his laboratory in 1880 to mount plant specimens and serve as a librarian for him to catalog science books until 1884. Then INHS relocated to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1885, Bonnell said.
In 1889, ISNU students demanded university leaders provide them with a modern library, Bonnell said. Before there was a designated library space, a collection of books stored in the former Old Main served as a makeshift library. As part of creating a library, the University decided to find a full-time librarian and hired Milner.
“When she was hired, she integrated five collections of books in a single location, creating the first real modern library,” Bonnell said.
In 1898, the library would relocate to the second floor of the Gymnasium (now Cook Hall) and relocate again in 1914 to North Hall, which was demolished in the 1960s. Eleanor Weir Welch succeeded Milner as the library’s second director, and in 1940, the University was able to move the library to what is now known as Williams Hall, creating a library in its own building. Because of Milner’s footprint, the University named the new library in her honor.
How has Milner’s legacy transformed Illinois State?
“A legend of her own time on campus,” said Bonnell.
Not only was Milner well-known on campus and in the Bloomington-Normal community, but she was also recognized nationally through her roles as a founding member of the Illinois branch of the American Library Association and as a member of the National Education Association. Bonnell described Milner as a forward thinker and embraced technology, so when Milner Library (now Williams Hall) was dedicated in her honor, the University provided a typewriter room and stereopticons for students to use academically.
“She never limited herself by what society told her what she could or could not do. Librarianship was a profession that was dominated by women. She looked for ways to explore and teach students, even with technology,” said Bonnell.
Milner built long-lasting relationships with students who called her “Aunt Ange” as a term of endearment.
“She opened her home to students for dinners to feed them and talk to them. Milner broke the stereotypes of how librarians are perceived—quiet and to themselves. She hosted large parties at the library or her house,” she said.
What are some of her achievements that others may not know about?
Milner also integrated a library instruction program that was emulated across the country, Bonnell.
When World War I began, the University created a War Service Committee, which Milner served on. She created a war roster file to document the service of over 800 men and women, wrote 600 handwritten letters, and kept a complete record of all former and current students who served in the war.
Aside from her library duties, she was also a prolific author and published over 80 articles and short monographs over her career, which helped librarians and teachers working in small and rural school libraries.
When she died, how did the University continue to honor her legacy?
The University’s library changed locations throughout the years, but Milner’s influence remained and continues now in its current location in the building adjacent to the Bone Student Center.
“Each space represented a change in progress. Years after Milner died, they constructed the new building (now Williams Hall) in 1940, and the University did things she had planned. They devoted several rooms for instruction within the library along with exhibit space,” she said.
Milner’s core beliefs about giving students individualized attention, providing services and books, and the space and technology needed for scholarly achievement continues well after her death.
“A library is more than just a collection of books. It’s the services we hold. And I think that’s what her real legacy is: She was student-focused, and always looked for student success,” Bonnell said.