The Chicago Public Library: a Blogged Tour

"My alma mater is the Chicago Public Library." ~David Mamet

“My alma mater is the Chicago Public Library.”
~David Mamet

Last weekend I was in the epic city of Chicago watching my brother-in-law’s dogs while he was away and I figured I’d walk out for a little adventure on Saturday afternoon.  I decided to walk the couple of miles and explore the main branch of the Chicago Public Library, also known as the Harold Washington Library.  The vastness of this system goes beyond these walls to another 78 smaller branches, but if you want the big kahuna, look no further than South State Street.

As I laid my eyes on the physical building for the first time, I knew I would love the CPL.  First off, it’s big.  And by big, I mean HUGE!  If you include the lower level, the place consists of 11 floors, and it would not surprise me if there was a sub-basement below that.  A place that big can store a lot of information.  Secondly, the architecture is stunning.

A gargoyle from the corner of the roof.  Very intricate.

A gargoyle from the corner of the roof. Very intricate.

I was honestly worried at first when I walked in through the main doors into the atrium.  While it was lovely to the eyes, the entrance is a hall of marble.  This is what the New York Public Library is like and it honestly took me a while to find any books.  A real turn off.  However, this was before I discovered that materials from the NYPL have to be specially requested to retrieve them, but I digress.

Once getting beyond the marble, I found that each floor had it’s own subjects and specializations. Thank goodness for well placed directories. Otherwise finding your way or materials would be next to impossible!

The first floor featured popular materials and newly released literature.  Say you want to pick up Dan Brown’s latest, Inferno, and you know the CPL has it in house ready to be checked out.  You walk into this room (directly to the left of the main doors), snag the book from the stacks (alphabetical by author’s surname), and off to check out you go.  Fast and convenient for the Chicago reader who wants to keep up on the latest literature.  For any materials that aren’t considered new, this is also where the requested holds can be picked up by the patron’s surname.  Needless to say, the first level has been arranged to make for easy in, easy out access for anyone who is in a hurry. As someone who knows what they are looking for most of the time, I would use the heck out of these services.  Top notch!

The second level of the CPL is devoted to children’s literature.  I was surprised to find the kid lit materials cataloged using the Library of Congress system and not Dewey Decimal.  I’m not saying that kid lit has to be Dewey Decimal, but more often than not, this is how I find libraries classify this section.  I personally believe this is because Dewey Decimal is more or less set with the subjects it covers and won’t go beyond the topics a child (or parents for that matter) may find interesting (or in some cases appropriate).  Library of Congress has room in its system for a wide range of topics (with space for more), but  it may seem pointless when it comes to some that children may not have interest in (or the ability to understand).  For those not familiar with Library of Congress, here’s an example. The CPL posted the following classification chart to show where certain subjects may lay within their stacks…

The posted Library of Congress guide in the children's literature section on the second floor.

The posted Library of Congress guide in the children’s literature section on the second floor.

Not only does this chart read at a far advanced level for a child, but how many children’s books are published under U – Military Science? My point is simple.  Dewey Decimal seems far more useful with children’s literature than the broad spectrum of the Library of Congress.

By the time I reached the third floor of the CPL, I saw a sign that made my heart dance.  Reference books!  Tons of them!  I was home!  But before I went off to explore, I happened to notice a sign labeled “Innovation Lab” that piqued my interest.  When I stopped to read what this was about, I was astounded at the opportunities the library was offering.  In the room beyond, a class was in session explaining the basics and how to’s involved with such technologies as 3D printing, laser cutters, vinyl, and so much more!  Classes are running on a near daily basis and when I took a peek through the glass doors, I was not surprised to see that every seat in this session was full.  With such new and interesting technologies coming out on the market, I figured interest would be up on the subjects. But to see free classes to the public about them was just fantastic.  Making information about these things readily available is one of the main reasons I love public libraries!

The Innovation Lab at the CPL

The Innovation Lab at the CPL

When I made it up to the fifth floor of the CPL, I realized that I wasn’t just in a library anymore.  I was in a temple that worshiped periodicals and reference materials.  This library is an archivist’s dream. Nearly any bit of published information that anyone could possibly want to look up had to be available in these stacks.  If not, I’m guessing the information on how to find that information was available within these walls.  I began to wonder just why all of these volumes and prints were spread out over multiple floors.  Why not put them all in one area? Once I sat back and calculated the amount of information, however, I sheepishly realized that this is because there is not nearly enough room on any one floor to keep it all.  To give it some kind of organization, it had to be split up among it’s various topics.  While this means that a patron may be running back and forth between different floors for materials, as long as they know how to read the location information, getting a hold of it shouldn’t be too horrendous of a task.

On the sixth floor!

On the sixth floor!

Given the organization of the building as a whole, I was a bit shocked that it took until the sixth floor to find some regularly circulating materials.  Speaking from my own experience as a student, someone who comes to the library to use reference materials is there for the long run. So going up a couple of floors to get their hands on the things they need is not out of the question.  For this reason, I figure it would be more efficient to have the circulating materials on the lower floors, closer to the children’s literature and popular/new materials.

This thought stuck with me as I made my way to the seventh floor and found more circulating materials.  It was by sheer chance that I walked into one of the sections that started me on my way to a career of writing in the first place: the fantasy/science fiction section. I couldn’t help but be attracted to the first shelf in my line of vision and, sure enough, I found another book to add to my massive “ADRIANNE’S BOOKS TO READ” list.

Congratulations!  You are now number 13,6?? in line!

Congratulations! You are now number 13,6?? in line!

Figures, right?  I’m not even halfway through another three books as it is.  But anyways, when I do get to The Dragon Men by Steven Harper, this should mark my first steampunk novel on my GoodReads account.

As I was finishing my search of the seventh floor, I happened to head back towards the escalator and noticed this sign…

AKA Hidden Gems AKA Staff Recommendations

AKA Hidden Gems
AKA Staff Recommendations

Curious as to what these books were exactly, I struck up a conversation with the lovely librarian stationed at the desk that afternoon.  She explained to me that this was their way of giving books that might not normally see the light of day from the stacks a shot at getting noticed.  The library considered these books their little “hidden gems” mixed with a bit of “staff recommendations” and books that “have something to say.”  I was rather taken with this idea as we all have those books that make you go “AHA!” and you feel the world should know about them (this is how I believe the Twilight series got turned into five teeth grinding movies, but that’s a headache for another day).

The eighth level was devoted to audiovisuals, but I was surprised as to how in depth it went.  Upon reaching the top of the escalator, to the left is books upon folders of art and photography.  To the right was an astounding amount of sheet music.  Rows upon rows of operas, musicals…scores upon scores of beautiful sheet music.

Think they have any Spice Girls in there?

Think they have any Spice Girls in there?

I’d expect to see a collection like this in a specialized music library, but in the middle of the public library of downtown Chicago was a bit shocking considering next to everything can be downloaded one way or another nowadays.  But here it all was in print, readily available for a musician to pick up and head to one of the designated practice rooms.  Yes, there are even rehearsal spaces for musicians in this library!  How many non-specialized libraries offer services such as this?  Especially since most of them are considered quiet areas.  These areas were designed for a patron to make all the noise they want!

While I was prepared to visit both floors nine and ten, they were occupied by private event halls and administrative offices.  Ergo, no public access. Despite this, the sheer size of the CPL was astounding to me.  As a student reference librarian, I remember sorting books on a cart before re-shelving them and checking order in the stacks.  But mere small carts would do nothing but add time in the case of this library.  With the amount of material within this one library’s walls, each floor has it’s own network of sorting shelves.  And the shelves would not just be one row.  The shelves pictured below went back at least three rows and each shelf would at least have fives books on it.  A circulation librarian (or a volunteer for that matter) would have plenty to do on a daily basis when it comes to just keeping their materials in order.

Just one of the sorting shelves throughout the building.

Just one of the sorting shelves throughout the building.

To say that the Chicago Public Library has a lot to offer it’s patrons is a bit of an understatement. With a total of 79 branches throughout the metro area and access to interlibrary loan and internet search, nearly anything a patron could want or seek can be found for use.  The main branch itself has 11 levels of available material and man power for day to day operations.  With specialized collections at the ready for patrons (from sheet music to art to special recommendations) and services that are not exactly given by every public library around (classes on new technologies and rooms for musical rehearsals) the main branch of the Chicago Public Library is a dream to this masters student in the Library and Information Sciences.  Its almost enough to make me want to turn my specialization from academic to public libraries, but that’s a topic for another day I think.