The Newberry 125 | What 125 years of research looks like
While Chicago’s Newberry Library houses a vast collection of research material—a million and a half books, half a million maps, 200,000 pieces of sheet music and 15,000 cubic feet of manuscripts, to be precise—they don’t often advertise what’s in it. But with their latest exhibit, "The Newberry 125," visitors who are more into browsing than researching can get an idea of what the Newberry is sitting on. Free and open to the public from now through December 31 [ed note: be sure to check holiday hours before planning a visit], the exhibit celebrates the library’s 125th anniversary by putting 125 items from its vast archive on display. Some of these pieces have fantastic historical value, like Shakespeare’s first folio, the first Bible printed in North America or a piece of sheet music signed by a nine-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart(!) Others, like a novelty paper cup from the 1912 presidential campaign of Eugene Debs, seem, well, less weighty.
That seeming discord is by design. The Newberry’s Director of Public Programs, Rachel Bohlmann, insists that "The Newberry 125" is not a “greatest hits” or a “treasure show.” The strengths of the library’s collection, like cartography, are well-represented, but their many ancient maps are scattered throughout the exhibit and placed next to other, less typical items.
“One of the things we were trying to do is make different kinds of pairings or different juxtapositions,” says Bohlmann. This is why you’ll find a diary from a Union officer in the Civil War next to a postcard from Jack Kerouac to his editor reading only “BOO!” (next to a later, more detailed letter), or a 1927 book of woodcuts by Czech artist and author Josef Vachal adjacent to a book of mistake prints from current Chicago poster artist Jay Ryan. The exhibit is less of a narrative on the Newberry collection and more like the front room of an antique store—albeit one with nearly two million other items stored in the back.
In choosing which items to exhibit, pains were taken to highlight different formats and different cultures. “There are maps, letters, photographs, watercolors, and then there are…what we call broadsides,” Bohlmann says. Those include a notice from the French police banning the sale of certain books or pamphlets dated the day before the Bastille fell, as well as a scrapbook made from the manuscripts of Graham Taylor, a settlement house worker in Chicago in the early 20th century. "The Newberry 125" also represents the eclectic curiosities of its trustees and collectors who have donated to the Chicago institution. A bamboo scroll inscribed with a family history represents the Newberry’s surprisingly wide Philippine collection, thanks to the focused interest of one trustee, Edward E. Ayer.
Typically, the library would offer an exhibition catalog to provide background on the items on display (and as a souvenir for patrons). This time, the Newberry made a more expansive choice: They’re selling a 219-page hardcover book with color photos of every item, accompanied by essays from the library staff and other authors. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about the exhibit is that, when not on display, these items are available for anyone to use. In keeping with the library’s mission to be free and open to the public since its founding in 1887, anyone over the age of 16 or a junior in high school can get a reader’s card granting access to the Newberry’s archives. Of course, whether it’s Shakespeare or a crushed Dixie cup, all items must remain within the Newberry’s walls.
To view more items featured in the exhibition, see the slideshow above.