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Get Lit at Your Desk: University of Chicago Web Exhibits

By Betsy Mikel in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 3, 2010 6:40PM

RR Donnelley, who printed the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog, is featured in one of the University of Chicago Web exhibits.
We don’t read as often as we should. With such a short window of warm sunny days, we’d rather spend the time with friends outside. And those pesky desk jobs seem to cut into our reading time, too. Ironically, work is where we seem to have the most available free time. If only we could whip out a book instead of waste all that time mindlessly scrolling through Tweets and our Google Reader subscriptions, we’d have so many more intelligent things to add to happy hour conversations. To solve this problem, Get Lit at Your Desk explores some online literature that’s based right here in Chicago.

We were happy to find out about the University of Chicago’s Web exhibits, which are essentially online tour guides through the history of various topics. Material from many of the exhibits is drawn from books and manuscripts in University of Chicago Library’s Special Collections Research Center. Reading through each exhibit from beginning to end definitely takes a large chunk of time, but you’ll feel much smarter for it. For our literary minded selves, two exhibits piqued our interest.

  • Part historical, part philosophical, the Book Use, Book Theory: 1500 - 1700 exhibit attempts to answer the question “What does it mean to use a book, rather than read it?” So one section explores the fact that sometimes readers use books for something other than their intended purpose (let’s just say that in the 1500’s, anatomy books intended to be used as reference texts for doctors could be used for… erm… certain forms of entertainment). And we were surprised to learn that self-help books are not at all a contemporary invention. During the Renaissance, those with access to books apparently had plenty of “how to be a good and proper Englishman” books at their disposal.
  • The other exhibit hits closer to home by exploring the impact a Chicago-based firm had on printing technology and print media. Printing for the Modern Age: Commerce, Craft, and Culture in the RR Donnelley Archive begins with the birth of the company that has become the largest provider of print and print-related products and services in the world. This exhibit takes readers through some of the technological and social advancements in the printing world. In 1908, for example, RR Donnelley created an apprenticeship program to train printers, which led to the development of similar training programs in other industries and crafts. RR Donnelley was also the official printer of the Chicago’s world’s fair in 1933. In creating everything from tickets and postcards to brochures and magazines, RR Donnelley had to aptly represent the fair’s “century of progress” theme in order to lure faraway visitors to Chicago.