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Chicago’s Newberry Library celebrates 125 years

The Newberry Library is celebrating 125 years with special exhibit. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

The Newberry Library is celebrating 125 years with a special exhibit. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Newberry 125’

♦ Sept. 6-Dec. 31

♦ The Newberry Library, 60 West Walton

♦ Free; open every day (except Sundays)

♦ Visit

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Before the 1.5 million books, the 500,000 maps, the 200,000 pieces of sheet music or the 50,000 pamphlets, before the stately building on West Walton Street, the Newberry Library was an idea in a rich man’s will.

Walter Loomis Newberry lost his book collection in the Chicago fire, but he didn’t lose his perspective, or his fortune. The $2.2 million he bequeathed resulted in a research library that has been free and open to the public for 125 years.

“Everything we have is available to readers,” said David Spadafora, the Newberry’s president. “We hold nothing back.”

And the library staff is holding nothing back in celebrating the library’s quasquicentennial — a very Newberry word for 125 years — with an exhibit of 125 items culled from the library’s collection.

“The Newberry 125” blends classical with quirk in a way that tells the stories of Chicago, the library and the humanities simultaneously.

“This is very much a staff-driven project,” Spadafora said, walking through the hall where the exhibit opens Sept. 6. “We wanted to highlight the staff’s knowledge of the collection.”

While he celebrates the library’s history, Spadafora couldn’t predict exactly what the Newberry experience might look like in another 125 years.

“This is a revolutionary period for libraries,” he said, noting that the library is in the process of digitizing its collection. “It’s hard to say we know what will happen 25 years from now, let alone 125 years from now.”

Some things at the heart of the Newberry will stay, he said. “I think we’ll continue to be a humanities-based institution for serious readers, people who want to go below the surface of things. Everybody gets the same great service. That’s a long-standing tradition.”

5 FOR 125

In the spirit of “The Newberry 125,” here are five items relating to leisure that show the broad mix in the collection.

1. Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox cigarette baseball cards from the American Tobacco Company

Baseball fan and writer James T. Farrell, author of “Studs Longren,” donated his card collection assembled from baseball cards found in cigarette boxes, said Martha Briggs, Newberry’s curator of modern manuscripts. Among his cards are three of the Cubs’ finest, Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance, who formed the famed double-play combo of “Tinker to Evers to Chance.” Farrell “grew up on the South Side as obsessed with baseball as he was with writing,” Briggs said.

2) Anna Pavlova’s toe shoes and program from 1915 Pavlova performance at Midway Gardens

The Newberry holds the Midwest’s largest collection of dance materials, thanks to a donation from Ann Barzel, a teacher and dance critic, Briggs said. The toe shoes were given to Barzel by famed Chicago dancer Ruth Page.

3) Many forms of “Moby Dick”

The Newberry Library holds one of the largest collection of Herman Melville’s works in the world, including first editions and foreign language translations. The show includes proofs from a “very famous edition” done in 1929 by Chicago’s R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co., said Paul Gehl, curator of the history of printing and book arts and co-curator of “The Newberry 125.” “They only made one set of proofs before they made the formal printing,” he said. “That set is at the Newberry.”

4) Book of Hours prayer book from Bruges, Belgium, late Middle Ages

The book, in a pouch, was designed to hang from a belt as an easy way to access daily prayers. There are fewer than 20 known examples of these books worldwide, and the Newberry has the only original one in North America, Gehl said. Not many of the books were printed — few people in the late Middle Ages were literate and fewer still had enough money for such a luxury.

“Most of what we know about how it was made and used comes from paintings of people with prayer books,” he said. “It was a 16th Century iPad.”

5) “Fondling the Dream. Mistakes, Misprints, and Other Debris from the Posters of Jay Ryan”

Jay Ryan’s silk screen posters for rock concerts dot Chicago, and every year he creates a book featuring “bits and pieces of his mistakes. Some are the actual finished posters and some are proofs or spoil sheets,” said Gehl. “These books are a way of bringing that lively, everyday vernacular culture into the library.”

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