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Harold Washington Library Displays Books Key To City’s First Library

John Cody. John Cody
John Cody is a veteran reporter for Newsradio 780.
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Books From Queen Victoria Helped Establish Chicago's First Public Library

queen victoria signature Harold Washington Library Displays Books Key To Citys First Library
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CHICAGO (CBS) – Pillows at the Harold Washington Library Center cushion the display of two books donated by Queen Victoria, who sparked British contributions to Chicago’s first free public library.

Senior Archivist Morag Walsh said researchers are allowed to read the valuable books on the special inert pillows, which both cushion the books and prevent pages from opening wide and possibly damaging the spine.

“We buy these from archival suppliers. The coating, we try to keep everything as inert and un-acidic, if you like, to try and keep it as clean as we can,” she said.

Special Collections librarian Glenn Humphreys said the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed 2 to 3 million books in Chicago. During rebuilding, citizen activists successfully petitioned the mayor to start work on the city’s first free public library.

The books are inscribed “Presented to the City of Chicago towards the formation of a free library after the Great Fire, as a mark of English sympathy by Her Majesty the Queen Victoria.”

At the same time, British citizens who provided books for disaster relief, decided to help Chicago rebuild by sending more than 8,000 books – two of which were donated and autographed by Queen Victoria herself.

Two books donated by Queen Victoria -- a biography of her husband Prince Albert, and an illustrated history of Buckingham Palace -- are displayed on pillows at the Chicago Public Library. The queen donated the books to Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871, to help establish the city's first public library. (Credit: John Cody)

Two books donated by Queen Victoria — a biography of her husband Prince Albert, and an illustrated history of Buckingham Palace — are displayed on pillows at the Chicago Public Library. The queen donated the books to Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871, to help establish the city’s first public library. (Credit: John Cody)

The first book was “An Early History of The Prince Consort,” the story of her late husband, Prince Albert. The second book was an illustrated history of Buckingham Palace.

Walsh said both books seem to be more historically significant than personally interesting, and suggested she had no plans to read either book in the near future.

“I would not be very interested in reading this book. However, I think the symbolism that this book holds is a real cornerstone to the Chicago Public Library and its history.”

Humphreys said all 8,000 carefully hand-tooled leather books, with gold stamped insignia, were designed for frequent public library use. Those that were most heavily used were worn out and fell apart.

Approximately 200 remain in nearly pristine condition, because they were of less general interest, so were not used as much.