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A Librarian’s Guide to Chicago

Heading to the ALA Conference this weekend? Don't miss these 5 sights.

This week, thousands of librarians will flock to Chicago for the American Library Association’s (ALA) Annual Conference. They’ll have plenty to see and do on the exhibition floor (and at nearby hotels, me thinks), but no bibliothecographic trip to Chicago would be complete without visiting at least some of the sites below. Also worth visiting: the new American Writers Museum on Michigan Avenue, as well as the library at the Union League Club of Chicago, which is usually closed to the public but open for tours June 23-27 (call Cheryl Ziegler at 312.427.7800 for an appointment).

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1. The Original Chicago Public Library

Technically, Chicago’s first public library was in a water tank at LaSalle and Adams. After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, a British author named Thomas Hughes organized a massive donation of more than 8,000 books to Chicago, which were stored in a circular water tank for almost 25 years while the city rebuilt itself.

Then in 1897, the neoclassical Central Library opened at Michigan and Washington — today, it’s known at the Chicago Cultural Center. You can still see the building’s literary legacy in the interior architectural details. “The Washington Street entrance, grand staircase and dome area contain inscriptions of 16th century printers’ marks, authors’ names and quotations that praise learning and literature in mosaics of colored stone, mother of pearl and favrile glass,” says the Chicago Public Library. And yes…you might recognize the building from this scene in The Untouchables.

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2. The New Chicago Public Library

In 1991, the city’s central library collection was moved from the current Chicago Cultural Center to the new Harold Washington Library Center on State Street. The postmodern building is still controversial for its odd, fabulist design, but it’s undoubtedly one of the city’s most unique and iconic structures. I personally love the rooftop owls, and often wish the building’s interior maintained the same sense of whimsy. Don’t miss the exhibition spaces or the Winter Garden on the top floor.

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3. One of the World’s Best Humanities Research Libraries

Also known as “the library from The Time Traveler’s Wife,” the Newberry Library is one of the oldest independent research libraries in the United States. It first opened at a different location in 1887, and moved to its current Spanish Romanesque home in 1893. The Newberry specializes in the humanities, and holds a treasure trove of rare books, manuscripts, maps, images, and music, including a Shakespeare First Folio, an original Birds of America, and the oldest known copy of the Popol Vuh. Since it’s a research library, you can’t just waltz in and start reading — you need a reader’s card first, and all books must stay in the library. However, public areas on the first floor include a charming bookstore and exhibition space, and major renovations in 2018 will make the building more welcoming for the casual visitor.

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4. The Birthplace of the Chicago Black Renaissance

In 1932, the Hall Branch Library opened in the Bronzeville neighborhood on the South Side, just in time to coincide with the area’s burgeoning arts and culture scene. As the Harlem Renaissance petered out in New York, the Chicago Black Renaissance blossomed in Bronzeville. Writers like Arna Bontemps, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay and Richard Wright used the Hall Branch as a meeting place in the 1930s and 40s. It was also the first Chicago library with an African-American branch manager, Vivian G. Harsh (pictured above, center, on opening day).

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5. The Coolest University Library of All Time

If you want to see the future of the library, look no further than the University of Chicago. Local starchitect Helmut Jahn designed the new Mansueto Library, which opened in 2011. The showpiece is the giant elliptical glass dome, which covers a 180-seat Grand Reading Room. But the coolest part is the system of robotic cranes that retrieve millions of books from underground stacks in an average of 3 minutes (see the “How It Works” video below). Note: the library is only open to students, faculty, staff, alumni, and researchers.

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