On a trip to Chicago recently, I had a chance to visit The Newberry Library. The Newberry is an independent research library located north of the Loop, on West Walton Street. It is open to those researching topics related to the library’s collections, for instance, genealogy.
I had mentioned to some genealogy buddies on Facebook that I was thinking of visiting the Newberry, and a couple of people tried to discourage me. Harold Henderson, the well-known genealogist with the Midwestern Microhistory blog mentioned that it might not be a great destination for a one-day-only visit; that maybe the Newberry could not be “blitzed.” I thought that was probably a very good assessment. Despite my careful examination of the card catalog, visitors information, and genealogy page, I wasn’t finding many materials that jumped out at me. This is probably because my ancestors never really got farther west than Connecticut. All in all, probably no one has ever approached a repository with lower expectations.
Still, I was excited to go on this visit. I decided to take advantage of the Newberry’s strengths and focus on local history and bibliographic tools. I took the long train ride in from O’Hare Airport early in the morning, enjoying the commuters with their iphones, the young woman who gave up her seat to an elderly woman, and the rows of trim storefronts and shops showing their untidy backsides to the train, kitchen doors flung open to the spring sunshine. I was thrilled to walk up to the library; it certainly is an imposing site.
Inside, I was greeted cheerfully, stored my bag in a locker, and made my way upstairs to the third floor, where I applied for a reader card. I was surprised that people seemed to know I was a genealogist, until I realized I had my “FamilySearch” lanyard on as a camera strap. I took my reader card down to the second floor, which contains more genealogy materials, and was assigned a desk.
On the second floor I talked to the librarian about Barbara Poole’s great-great-grandfather, William Frederick Poole, founding librarian of the Newberry. As you can read in Barbara’s blog post on Life From the Roots, Mr. Poole was an enormously accomplished and ground breaking librarian who guided the library’s opening in 1887, and its early years of growth. They showed me his portrait, proudly hung in the center of the second floor wall, and his bust placed next to a set of “Poole’s Index to Periodical Literature.”
I perused the indices, bibliographies and reference books on the shelves of the second floor. I pulled out my list of books, and used the card catalog to find some more. Books are requested on slips, and they are pulled from the stacks and brought to you. After the first few I realized this would not work well for me. I’m the kind of person that has to look at everything, examine every possibility. I usually use libraries to find books that I might want to buy. Yes, it was hard to “blitz” at this deliberate pace.
I went through some bibliographies and took photos of pages (which is allowed for individual use only). I really enjoyed the huge collection of periodical indices. I found the famous Genealogical Index of the Newberry Library, v. 1 – 4. My link, here, is to the Hathitrust version, and if people can get that to work for any parts of volumes 1 – 4, this book provides a variety of older sources for beginning work on family names. I looked over my research notes in Evernote and tried those ideas on some online subscription sites.
Just doing all those things clarified my thinking about one or two problems. Some unsuccessful searches made me think more clearly about new research plans for certain questions. Plus I have some bibliographic leads to follow up on. It was pleasant at the library, but in the end I’m not sure I am right for a library where the books are stored away – I like to look at everything. I suspect those looking for materials relevant to Chicago or the midwest would have a more productive time. The extensive book, map, periodical and newspaper collections are extremely valuable, and the library itself is a tribute, and a shrine, to the book, language, humanities, and art. Some of my favorite things.
So, I enjoyed my visit with Mr. Poole, and only wished that Barbara could have been along and taken much better pictures.
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Photographs by Diane Boumenot.