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VISITORS welcome
Leaders, public gather for library opening

Susan Cousin and her 9-year-old granddaughter Sunni Miles leaned over the crowded railing on the second floor of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Thursday afternoon, overlooking the opening-day ceremony a floor below.

Steady rain didn't prevent them, or hundreds of others, from packing the event.

"We both share a love of books," Cousin said. "We wanted to be a part of history."

A low-key event was promised. Instead, the Capital Chamber Singers sang, a cappella, "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Catholic Bishop George Lucas invoked God's grace and Lincoln's enduring wisdom. Democrats such as Gov. Rod Blagojevich and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin swapped pleasantries with Republicans, including former Gov. Jim Edgar and U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood. All four shared the stage with library director Richard Norton Smith and Illinois State Historic Preservation Agency chairwoman Julie Cellini, who added their own celebratory words.

Springfield, they all said in one way or another, has something to be proud of - a world-class facility two rocky decades in the making.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library is a state-of-the-art research facility that, as Blagojevich put it, will be a "mirror held up to America's heartland," a place that will breath new life into the stories preserved there - of Illinois pioneers, abolitionists and famed writers who helped build the state from its black dirt up.

The presidential library, which absorbed the former Illinois State Historical Library's 12-million-item collection and 47,000 Lincoln-related artifacts, is part of a $150 million complex that also will include a visitors center, a park and a high-tech Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, set to open next spring.

Earlier this year, Durbin, who is credited with dreaming up the idea two decades ago, publicly questioned whether his hometown was ready for such a high-profile complex and the tourists it's expected to draw. He said he's pleased with how the city has responded to his challenge.

"I've really been encouraged by the community's response," he said.

"We're 100 percent on target," Springfield Mayor Tim Davlin said. "We've got a group of problem-solvers on the readiness committee. All the players are together."

Besides curious onlookers and dignitaries, others who attended the opening ceremony were there because they sensed not only the library's historical impact, but its commercial implications.

Carol Hawn, a sales representative for Coca-Cola, serves many downtown businesses. She stood with dozens of others on the library's third floor, the only space left a few minutes before the ceremony began at 1:30 p.m.

"A lot of (my customers) are saying how business is going to increase because of the traffic flow the library and museum will bring," Hawn said.

An invitation-only event was held beforehand to name the public reading room facing South Sixth Street after the late Chicago Sun-Times columnist Steve Neal.

Neal, an early advocate for Smith's appointment as director, also wrote columns exposing alleged political indiscretions involving the library and museum during former Gov. George Ryan's administration. A portrait of Neal on the reading room's west wall was unveiled by Blagojevich and Neal's wife, Susan.

The library was supposed to open last year, but several building-related issues kept pushing back the opening day.

Two years ago, Ryan threw a glitzy "grand opening" the public could view only from behind a fence. The more open affair Thursday, with snacks at the end for all, was a deliberate adjustment to create a more friendly image of the institution.

"It's beyond belief," said state Sen. Larry Bomke, R-Springfield, somewhat light-heartedly. "It's the second opening. How often do you get to do that?"

The library remained open until 8 p.m. Thursday, primarily to give first-time visitors a chance to explore the nearly 100,000-square-foot facility.

Beginning today, regular library hours will be 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays; 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Wednesdays; and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays. The library will be closed on Sundays.

For general information about the library, call 558-8882.

Pete Sherman can be reached at 788-1539 or pete.sherman@sj-r.com.

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