The Chicago Public Library is known as the
Harold Washington Library Center. Lead architect of the city-block size neo-classical
building is Thomas H. Beeby (Hammond, Beeby and Babka), who won the design competition in June 1988. According to the Guinness
Book of Records, it’s the largest public library in the world.
It has everything you’d expect and more. The lower
levels house large auditoriums and venues for lectures and performing arts, a video theater, and meeting rooms.
On the 9th floor, which has exhibit halls
to showcase special collections, there is the Winter Garden, which rises 100 feet through the 10th floor to a skylight,
and is dressed by large planters of olive trees.
The original library was burned to the ground
in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Soon after the devastation, sympathizers
began to box up books to send to Chicago. Among the contributors: The Queen of England, The Duke
of Argyle, The British Museum, and the University of Cambridge.
Donations came from private libraries and societies
throughout the U.S. Authors, publishers, and booksellers were invited to help furnish the new collection.
Here is a letter from Benjamin Disraeli,
the British prime minister:
Hugheden Manor, November 10, 1871.
Dear Mr. Hughes,
Our friends at Chicago, so far as English authors are
concerned, have a free library which no conflagration can destroy. I fear they may smile when they receive our offerings in
this fashion, but mine, if you wish it, shall be made.
Faithfully yours, B. Disraeli
and from Thomas Carlyle,
November 12, 1871:
"if this project is to take fire and go on, it continues
certain that my poor contribution of a copy of my books shall not be any means be wanting. Believe me always yours, with many
The library society scrambled to find a proper replacement
site. With expediency and safety at a premium, they decided on a large metal water tank. It was quickly outfitted with a floor,
reading tables, shelved books, chairs, lamps, and carpets. The old spiral staircase served as the entry– and the place
was well used. (There was a huge 50th anniversary celebration of this in 1923.)
By 1882 the city had a grand new library building,
branch reading rooms and 50 delivery stations. It invented the "book-mobile"
to service surrounding communities, and by 1938 it had 54 permanent branches.
The library board’s report in 1910 read:
"A modern community can protect itself and progress
only through the intelligence of its citizens, and that intelligence requires the resource of books, books of easy access,
and well chosen."
The new library, opened in 1991, has dozens of quotes
in fine calligraphic inscriptions that decorate its walls. Here are a few:
"Knowledge is of two kinds: we know a subject ourselves,
or we know where we can find information upon it." - Samuel Johnson
"A library implies an act of faith which generation
still in darkness hid sign in their night in witness of the dawn."- Victor Hugo
" Let us welcome controversial books and controversial
authors." - John F. Kennedy
" He who enters a library is in the best society this
world affords." - Andrew Carnegie