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CPL's Special Collections Offer Insight to Chicago's Past

By Betsy Mikel in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 19, 2010 9:30PM

Sarah Bernhardt in Camille at the McVicker’s Theatre, 1881.
Aside serving as cornerstone of the Chicago Public Library system, Harold Washington Library Center is also home to CPL's Special Collections and Preservation Division. Since 1975, the Division has collected, preserved and offered access to the library’s rare and unique materials. Within the Division’s four categories - Special Collections, Archives, Exhibits and Preservation - Harold Washington houses an interesting selection of historic materials. There’s stuff relating to the Civil War, Chicago theatre history, Chicago’s world’s fairs, neighborhood history, and rare books and manuscripts from Chicago authors and publishers and relics from Chicago’s past. The Division also houses the Harold Washington Archives & Collections, which document the Harold Washington’s political career with artifacts, published material and manuscripts, and more than 10,000 photographs, audio and video cassettes.

We checked in with CPL to find out some of the most popular and requested items in the Special Collections and Preservation Division.

  • Harold Washington memorabilia: Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African American Mayor, was inaugurated on April 29, 1983. His archives document the 1983 mayoral campaign from his candidacy speech to transition papers. Other parts of the archives record his achievements and battles as Mayor as well as his earlier service in the Illinois State Legislature and in the U.S. Congress. The Archives have been used by patrons from scholars to History Fair students.
  • Photographs of downtown: Photographs of the Loop and Chicago neighborhoods are the most popular items in Special Collections. The photos range across the city and across the decades.
  • Photographs from the World’s Columbia Exposition and Millennium Park: Special Collections has more than 5,000 photographs documenting the construction of Chicago's most visited park, Millennium Park, as well as over 1,000 photographs from the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Jackson Park. The Millennium Park images are on the Library’s website. The 1893 photographs include images of the construction and completion of the main Exposition buildings as well as attractions on the Midway Plaisance, such as the world’s first Ferris Wheel.
  • Theater memorabilia: The first play in Chicago was performed by a touring company of actors in 1837. The Library’s playbills pick up this story in the 1840s and continue up through today. The collection includes thousands of playbills and dozens of theater scrapbooks. The latter were so popular at the turn of the last century that theater-goers could purchase scrapbooks specially designed to record their theater experiences. More recent holdings include scripts, photographs, costume drawings