LITCHFIELD, Ill. — Even before you enter the stately limestone library with leaded glass windows and copper-colored trim, you see signs of the local celebrity. Not at eye-level—look lower, and there, hovering in the shadows behind the glass door, are two ice-green eyes, staring up at you with frank curiosity.
You may recognize those emerald orbs from the Stacks the Library Cat mugs, the T-shirts or the photos at the Litchfield Public Library website. But if not, their owner will be happy to introduce herself, pushing her head under your hand, rubbing a silky black flank against your leg, leading you, fluffy tail trailing at half-mast, to the polished wood circulation desk where she does her best work.
Stacks, believed to be the last full-time, free-ranging library cat in Illinois, hops onto the desk, stretches out luxuriously and falls into her signature near-snooze, a restful state that invites pats from shy tweens, curious senior citizens, even a 1-year-old who proclaims ecstatically from her mother’s arms, “Like cat!”
That’s a popular sentiment in this town of 6,900 set amid cornfields 250 miles southwest of Chicago, but in the larger world, library cats face an uncertain future.
Their ranks are down considerably from 2010, when there were at least five library cats statewide. A Tribune search, based on an old master list and a query published in the Illinois Library Association’s electronic newsletter, turned up just two full-time feline residents: Stacks, of course, and Newby, a handsome black cat with a dash of white on his chest who resides in the staff offices of the Nippersink Public Library in Richmond.
That’s a decline of 60 percent in six years. And Lisa Rogak, co-author of the new book “The True Tails of Baker and Taylor, The Library Cats Who Left Their Pawprints on a Small Town … And the World” says that other states are losing library cats as well.
“The odds are, unfortunately, against them,” Rogak said.
“Even (at) the library in Spencer, Iowa, where the incredibly world-famous library cat Dewey lived, the board of directors voted that no animals—aside from service animals—can be allowed in the library.”
Librarians point to several factors working against the pint-size literary lions, including concerns about allergies, the digital age pressure to seem “modern” and “relevant,” a highly litigious society, even social media, which can amplify the concerns of a small but passionate anti-cat minority.
“There are some people who just don’t like cats,” said Anne Newman, library director of the Paxton Carnegie Library, where Max, a former shelter cat, presided from 2002 until his death in 2011.
“It’s like there are some people who don’t like clowns. They don’t want cats near them, and to those of us who do like cats—or clowns—it doesn’t make sense. There were people in the community who were terribly unhappy that we got a cat, and boy did they let us know. It was a struggle, and I’m too old to go through that struggle again.”
The post of library cat is often traced to ancient Egypt, where cats protected precious papyrus scrolls from the ravages of hungry rodents.
Library cats in Illinois carry on that proud tradition, but a good library cat is more than just a mouse hunter. She’s an ice breaker who brings people in and makes them feel at home.
You can see that dynamic at work in Litchfield, where the 112-year-old classical-revival-style library is a meeting place for young and old, complete with a coffee station and candy for sale at the circulation desk.
When an elderly person’s spouse dies, he or she may come into the library every day just to touch base, says library director Sara Zumwalt. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, a young man was overheard at the circulation desk introducing a series of distressing topics—a pet’s death, the perils of an emergency escape from New York. Each time, assistant librarian Karen Butts listened attentively and then turned the conversation in a more upbeat direction.
Stacks, too, does her part for the community: modeling full-body relaxation from her perch on the circulation desk, sitting on laps, accepting the attentions of the lonely and the petless.
“People come in and say, ‘Where’s the cat?’” said Zumwalt.
Among the Illinois library cats that have left their posts in recent years: Paige, Turner and Mr. E, popular figures at the Round Lake Area Public Library until concerns about staff members’ allergies led to their early retirement in 2009, according to library director Jim DiDonato. Emma, of the Harvard Diggins Library in Harvard, retired in 2010. Olivia and Cricket of the Bunker Hill Library died in about 2009. Newby’s sister Callie died of kidney disease last year.
Cats still apply for what they appear to view as a plum position. Jasper, a tabby who lives next door to the Galva Public Library, escorts patrons into the library, where staff in turn escort him back outside, according to library director Melody Heck. Olive, a calico with a big personality, strolled into the Jacksonville Public Library in fall 2015 and made it clear she wanted to stay, even waltzing into the children’s librarian’s office, as if to say, “I’m ready for my interview.”
She didn’t get the job, but she did find a home with Linda Kimber, the mother of assistant library director Hillary Peppers.
Stacks’ route to the library was a literary one. Seven years ago, some library board members who’d read the best-seller “Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World” said they wished Litchfield could do something like that. “We can,” Zumwalt said. She went to a local shelter and selected a friendly, laid-back 1-year-old who’d been found in a February ice storm.
“We’ve really never had anybody totally freak out about her,” Zumwalt said. “We’ve had a couple of people say, ‘I’m allergic,’ (and) I’ll put her away. And we did check with the vet before we got her because allergies are serious, and he said with the size of our building—as long as you don’t pick her up or sit in her spot—if we keep the library clean, then we really shouldn’t have any problems.”
Once a man doing a presentation at the library expressed an intense fear of cats, and a very indignant Stacks was relegated to the staff bathroom.
But, for the most part, the 6,800-square-foot library is her castle.
“She has a throne,” Zumwalt said, referring to an ornate red stool near the circulation desk. “She’s the queen, and I’m the empress, so we get along fine.”