Archival Research in Chicago

Have you ever been to the Harold Washington Public Library? It’s that giant building on the corner of State and Van Buren. Like most Chicagoans, I have been to this particular library to see an author or to read, and when I was young I checked out books there with my father. Beyond that, though, I haven’t ever lingered at the Harold Washington Library Center, the world’s largest public library. This visit I was coming to get my feet wet doing archival research in the library’s Special Collections room located on the 9th floor.

Where to Find the Special Collections

I entered the building through the Grand Lobby. At the eighth floor, the escalators stopped, and I asked a security guard where I could find the archives. “You mean the Special Collections?” he asked. I said yes, and he looked at his watch. “Yes, it is open now,” he said (the room holds very particular hours). Then he said, “Let me just take you up there because it can get kind of confusing if you’ve never been.” So I followed my guide to the north wall on the eighth floor past a wonderful little exhibit on Howlin’ Wolf, and up another escalator to the 9th floor.

While we rose, he asked me how I was doing. I said I was doing OK. Then he said “I used to be that way; now everyday I’m great. It makes life a lot easier.” We passed through an exhibit hall featuring Harold Washington’s life and legacy, the Winter Garden, then, through a small glass door with a sign hanging from it that said “OPEN.” I entered the archives with my zen tour guide.

The Wonderful Winter Garden
Winter Garden

The Chicago Special Collections Room is small, but the architecture impressive; one wall is flanked by windows, so the place needs little light other than bright gray Chicago sky. Against these windows, a series of busts look over the researchers. A sign on the wall says that the maximum capacity for this room is 44. In one little corner a designated “Laptop Table” offers access to one of the few plugs in the room.

The archives allow only the use of pencils and paper. This, a friendly staff-woman explained, is because ink easily smears and might damage materials in the collection. I think I might be the only adult who still uses pencils on a regular basis, so I was quite at home in this quiet, cordless atmosphere. There is a sense of timelessness here, as though the room would have looked exactly the same in the Chicago of the 50’s.

The room’s ceiling is very high, and dim, giant lamps hang up there like fruits. Next to a painting by e.e. cummings, there is a glass case that holds about 150 books. These books were donated to Chicago after the disastrous Great Chicago Fire of 1871. This collection, which we talk about on the Loop Interior Architecture Walking Tour symbolizes the new beginning of the Chicago public library, and are preserved with their original spines.

Conducting Archival Research

After putting my coat and bag in a locker, I started my research on Chicago’s fertile past in this intimate and historic setting. A couple other people were in the room, sitting at the wooden tables. The staff-woman returned from behind a mysterious door, and provided someone with a fragile book. She also placed a small, white pillow on the table. “What the heck is that for?” I wondered. Then I saw her gently karate chop the center of the pillow, creating a perfect resting place for the spine of the book. She placed the book on the pillow and instructed the reader, “Please don’t open the book more than it wants to go.”

The delicacy and care with which everyone was handling this book immediately made me want to stand up and look over the man’s shoulder at the title. It must be some precious artifact from centuries ago. But when I looked again, it just seemed like an old book. An old book of Carl Sandburg poems. I was comforted to know that even books in very good condition are treated delicately, since the plan is to keep them around forever.

Though I will go into more detail about the materials I handled in my next post, I want to clarify that the archives are open to the public. Anyone can visit during the designated hours. You simply have to know what to look for. Want to learn how to search for and acquire material to view? I will explain in the next post, and I can’t wait to tell you about a very peculiar postcard from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.


Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on linkedin

be a



Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

“Our guide Ellen was exceptional and gifted with a great personal touch.”


Tour Guide

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

“Jen was a perfect storyteller and kept us spellbound for hours.”


Tour Guide

With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.


Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

“Marie was a bubbling fountain of information and contagious enthusiasm.”


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
“Sonny was extremely knowledgeable about all things Chi-town.”
Wade K


Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

“Alex was fascinating to listen to. He clearly knows his history and it shows.”
Katie K

Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
“You can TELL Amanda is hyper-passionate about doing the research and getting the story that nobody’s heard before.”
Shelby F

Book a chicago event

Let’s Connect!