Chicago Public Library (CPL) will celebrate its 150th birthday this year, commemorating the opening of the city’s first public library in 1873.
While private libraries already existed, the Chicago Public Library system was born out of ashes, opening only two years after the devastating Great Chicago fire. The first library opened in a repurposed water tank on LaSalle and Adams that had survived the fire, and was created as a type of charitable book depository where members of the English Aristocracy donated books to the city . As time went on, CPL evolved to fit the community. What started as free libraries for the public turned into what is now a place for community outreach, teaching, and recreation, bringing Chicago’s neighborhoods together.
In 1897, the library moved to a larger, more permanent location in what is now the Chicago Cultural Center. The land where the building sits required the inclusion of a memorial hall in honor of soldiers and sailors from Illinois. This is the reason the paintings on the walls of the Chicago Cultural Center include Civil War scenes.
The new building was larger than the original water tank and designed to be “practically incombustible” in the event of a fire. To this day, the Chicago Cultural Center building is thought to have the largest Tiffany glass dome in the world.
In 1904, CPL opened its first neighborhood branch, Blackstone, in Hyde Park bordering Kenwood. The building was designed in the Greek style, inspired by the Erechtheion in Athens. The inside features marble and gold details, as well as several murals representing labor, science, literature, and art.
While the beauty of the building still draws attention, today the Blackstone Branch holds much more than books. When the South Side Weekly visited the library for this story, a performer was singing songs for kids, and posters and handouts described not only library events, but also community programming, events, and meetings for Hyde Park residents. Another poster detailed how to use inclusive language when discussing substance abuse.
Simply pulling up the calendar of events for CPL exemplifies how diverse the patrons of the library are, and how CPL has adapted to meet the needs of many different communities. From teen poetry meetings to classes on computer literacy, CPL has much to offer. This is intentional, according to CPL commissioner Chris Brown.
“Over the last couple of decades we’ve really built our libraries and developed them from what were primarily storefront locations. It really goes back to our history. After the Great Chicago Fire we didn’t have a public library so our first location was in a water tank. It’s also kind of poetic, our first library was something that survived the fire, something that was a beacon of hope, something that didn’t burn down.”
CPL has focused on creating branch libraries that are within walking distance for every Chicagoan, Brown explained. “A lot of our early libraries were inside stores; they were called book depositories. We also had reading rooms out of fieldhouses,” said Brown. “[However,] it was really our chief librarian, Henry Legler, in the early twentieth century who created this plan for walkable library access in every neighborhood. That is something we’ve continued to build upon.”
The first of these libraries was a regional library named after Legler, opened in the West Garfield Park neighborhood. Regional libraries are larger, with more space for programming, more staff, and larger collections of books.
Currently, Chicago Public Library has eighty-one locations serving their mission to “welcome and support all people in their enjoyment of reading and pursuit of lifelong learning. Working together, we strive to provide equal access to information, ideas and knowledge through books, programs and other resources. We believe in the freedom to read, to learn, to discover.”
Through this mission and in more recent years, the role that libraries and librarians play in their communities and branches has evolved.
This year, library cardholders have used CPL computers, which are available to the public and have become a crucial commodity for all, more than 500,009 times.
In response to the current opioid crisis, librarians have been trained to administern Naloxone, a lifesaving drug that can reverse the effects of an overdose.
The library also has “Money Smart” events, partnering with the Federal Reserve of Chicago to give financial literacy classes. For students, the libraries offer free homework help on school days.
In the current political environment, libraries are under attack. CPL has stepped up to the plate against attempts to censor books. “Last year CPL established ourselves as a Book Sanctuary,” said Deanie Adams, a CPL regional director.
“We also hosted the signing of HB2789 last month at the Thomas Hughes Children’s Library in Harold Washington Library Center—which prohibits Illinois public libraries from banning books. These book challenges are particularly insidious once you take a closer look at the titles that are most challenged, which disproportionately are books that are by and about people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community.”
In 1975, CPL commemorated Vivian G. Harsh by renaming the collection she’d worked on after her. The Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature was then moved to Woodson Library. Harsh was the first Black woman to head a branch in the 1930s, and the collection is “one of the largest repositories of information on the Black experience in the Midwest.”
In 1991, a new central library on State and Jackson was completed—the Harold Washington Library, named after Chicago’s first Black mayor, who had passed away in 1987.
CPL is only growing. “We are building… the first-ever library branch on a presidential center site. It’ll be the first public library that a president has invested in,” said Brown.
“We’ve also just announced this year’s funding to update and renovate the Woodlawn library, known as the Bessie Coleman Branch. We are working with the community to really plan, develop, and design that. We have continued to evolve our libraries.”
In addition, CPL has created partnerships with various City of Chicago departments to make their services go further. Library access and the many resources that CPL offers are crucial in disinvested and marginalized communities.
“We have a number of innovations in the last decade that were in partnership with the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA). These are co-locations where we both build affordable housing in proximity to library branches. We have the Little Italy branch, some on the North Side; but we most recently opened the Altgeld branch on the far South Side. [This branch] includes a childcare center,” said Brown.
For the future of the library, building the staff at CPL is imperative to continuing community support, according to Adams.
“One of the best ways to ensure that we continue to see diverse collections and welcoming spaces is to also ensure that we have a diverse staff. I want the young people in our communities that might be interested in librarianship to have access to a path to this profession. CPL has been partnering with After School Matters for many years to create hundreds of internships each summer for high school students in the library, and I’ve gotten to see former interns apply to jobs at CPL after high school or college to start their career with us.”
The CPL calendar will list events celebrating this major anniversary throughout the city this year, as well as hosting several exhibitions on CPL’s history. CPL is also starting a podcast on their history and libraries.
Olivia Zimmerman is a writer and historian from Chicago. This is her first time writing for the Weekly.