ALA Annual Visit: Chicago Libraries

The Chicago Public Library System is over 100 years old.  The city council passed an ordinance in 1872 to establish a free public library after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 devastated the city.  In fact, the first Chicago Public Library was opened in a water tank that had survived the disaster.

Now, there are 80 individual branches in the system, which have seen, in just the first four months of 2017, over 2 million visitors.  The diversity and personality of the city’s neighborhoods are reflected in the architecture and expertise of each building.  The problem for any visitor is figuring out which library to see during their time in the city.

I would suggest that library lovers start with the Harold Washington Library, which is the system’s central library.   It is located in the South Loop on State Street between Van Buren and Congress Parkway.  It opened in 1991 and is named after Chicago’s first African American mayor, Harold Washington.  It houses the flagship YOUmedia space, which is 5,500 square foot youth centered makerspace where everything from music producing to knitting is offered.  Located on the first floor it is a vibrant space with accents of orange and green and is open most days starting at 1pm. Stop by some afternoon and witness its hum of creativity and learning.

Another must see library branch is CPL’s Chinatown branch.  Located on Wentworth, it is only about a mile and half west of McCormick Place.  It was one of the seven recipients of the 2016 AIA/ALA Library Building Awards.  It is an elegant design of rounded steel and glass, which provides lots of natural light to its large open spaces.  It’s floor plan, with its wraparound central courtyard, pays subtle homage to traditional Chinese home design.  Vibrant murals and signs with Chinese characters also firmly root the building in the culture of the neighborhood.  Make sure to wander through the children’s section, with its curved shelving and oversized blocks, it is sure to promote avid young readers.   

If you are willing to go a little farther afield there are some great branches in the surrounding neighborhoods.  In Ravenswood there is the Conrad Sulzer Library, which features the Northside Neighborhood History Collection.  The Timothy Beach Blackstone Branch in Kenwood on the Southside was the first ever Chicago Public Library branch to open in 1904.  It is modeled after a temple in the Acropolis in Athens.  It’s classical interior features a rotunda, mosaic tiles, and a stained glass ceiling.  The Pullman Branch was once part of the Pullman School of Manual Training and part of its facade is made to look like open books.

Outside of the Chicago Public Library system, the city also has some wonderful private libraries in institutions such as the Newberry Library, the Art Institute, the Field Museum, and the Oriental Institute.  Here is a post from Atlas Obscura that talks about Chicago’s “secret” libraries, including one that catalogs leather culture.  

Hopefully if you are attending ALA this year you will carve out some time in your busy schedule to visit a local library.  With so many to choose from there is a little something for everyone.  Take some time out of the heat or the crush of the exhibit hall and remind yourself why you came to the convention in the first place, because libraries are wonderful places to be.

Bridget Farrell is a middle school librarian in a northern suburb of Chicago.

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