Illinois Week on Atlas Obscura was created in partnership with Enjoy Illinois as part of the launch of the new Illinois Obscura Society. Sign up to find out more about the back room tours, unusual adventures, and incredible parties that Atlas Obscura will be putting on in Chicago and greater Illinois.

 Chicago’s vibrant network of public libraries opened its doors in the wake of 1871’s great fire. But long before that, private libraries were the norm. These days, Chicago’s small and private libraries still serve niche communities with specialized resources and knowledge. Try one of these little-known spots and immerse yourself in a unique, curated collection.

The International Museum of Surgical Sciences Library 

Photo by Michelle Enemark | Flickr | : Creative Commons Attribution

Alongside an incredible collection of medical artifacts ranging from heart valves to amputation saws, the International Museum of Surgical Science has a beautiful library of over 5,000 journals and books. Among the library’s most prized possessions are rare early medical texts dating back to the 16th century and manuscripts from notable figures in medical history such as Florence Nightingale and the pioneer of the smallpox vaccine, Edward Jenner.

Once you are done perusing the rare texts and illustrations, be sure to visit the Hall of Murals, which illustrates great moments in surgical history via 12 graphic oil paintings featuring such medical heavyweights as Semmelweis, Paré, and Vesalius.  


The Teri Rose Memorial Library in the Leather Archives and Museum

Leather Archives & MuseumThe Teri Rose Memorial Library in the Leather Archives and Museum (Photo used with permission by the Leather Archives & Museum)

Cataloguing the history of both BDSM and leather culture through artifacts, equipment, and a massive library of literature, Chicago’s Leather Archives & Museum is more than just a collection of handcuffs, whips, and chains, treating the history of fetish subculture as a serious movement worth preserving. The museum covers all manner of niche sexuality from straight fetishism to LGBT interests of all stripe. There are displays of bondage equipment, leather apparel, and the sort of underground artifacts one might expect from a leather museum. There are antique sexual devices as well as a dungeon in the basement complete with a spanking apparatus.

Central to the collection is the Teri Rose Memorial Library, an expansive collection of writing, art, and video materials related to the leather and BDSM movement. The library contains full runs of influential fetish magazines like Bound & Gagged, in addition to countless original writings from important figures in the culture. The museum houses the world’s largest collection of original work by famed homosexual painter Etienne, as well as a number of original works by possibly the most well known artist in the genre, Tom of Finland. While there is plenty in the library to titillate guests, perhaps the most shocking aspect may simply be the incredible devotion to the history of an important and often underrepresented subculture.


The Read/Write Library  

The Read/Write Library (Photo used with permission from Read/Write Tumblr)

This tiny mecca to Chicago-specific media is a worthy diversion from the beaten path. Originally the Chicago Underground Library, it migrated from location to location until settling into its current home near Humboldt Park. It also received a huge donation of Chicago-centric lit in recent years. These days it’s a boundary-crossing collection of zines, small press publications, and much more. Admission is free.


The Field Museum’s Library and Photo Archives Collection

Photo of the moon model at the Chicago Field Museum prepared by Johann Friedrich Julius Schmidt in Germany (1898) (Photo by Field Museum Library / Flickr)

Alongside the dinosaur skeletons, geological specimens, and taxidermy Komodo dragons, Chicago’s Field Museum has a less flashy, but no less incredible resource. The Field Museum Library is open Tuesday to Friday for researchers with confirmed appointments. With over 275,000 volumes on biology, evolution, geology, archaeology, and ethnology the library is a unique resource for natural history and history of science researchers. Some of the most valuable items in the collections can be found in the Mary W. Runnells Rare Book Room with 7,500 rare volumes and over 3,000 original works of art.

However most wonderful for general perusing is the Field Museum’s incredible photo archive. Dating back to the 1893 World’s Fair it contains over 300,000 images documenting the history of the museum, its staff, and the many field expeditions alongside other unique collections. Photos of Carl Akeley as he perfected his taxidermy techniques in the museum, hundreds of photos of the Philippine Islands and Indonesia between 1908 and 1910, and the photography of Malvina Hoffman who in 1930 travelled the world to document its peoples can all be found among the photo archives. These collections just scratch the surface of the huge and incredible collection of photos in the Field Museum’s Library and Photo Archives Collection. If you can’t make it in person they also have a wonderful Flickr page and a terrific Tumblr.


Pritzker Military Museum & Library

Pritzker Military Museum + Library (Photo used with permission of the Pritzker Military Museum + Library)

Just a stone’s throw from the busiest sections of the Loop, check out the stunning halls of the Pritzker Military Museum & Library. It’s dedicated to preserving military history through its rare books, rotating exhibits, digital collections, guest speakers, and more. Explore its iconic war posters, listen to a lecture on leadership, or just slip away from the downtown crowds to learn something new. Admission is $5.


The Ryerson and Burnham Libraries

Art Institute - Ryerson Library (Photo used with permission of the Art Institute of Chicago)

Back in the day, libraries were constructed to be print-filled cathedrals of knowledge. The Ryerson and Burnham libraries uphold this reverent old-school aesthetic, while still offering free wi-fi. As part of the Art Institute of Chicago, they hold the keys to the artistic kingdom, with more than 500,000 print titles and many more held digitally.


The Oriental Institute Research Archives and Elizabeth Morse Genius Reading Room

The Oriental Institute Research Archives and Elizabeth Morse Genius Reading Room. (Photo by Foy Scalf / Flickr)

“The most beautiful room in the building is the library reading-room in the west wing, where for the first time the entire specialized group of books representing the field of research with which the Institute is concerned is conveniently accessible.” - James Henry Breasted founder of the Oriental Institute

With more than 60,000 volumes, for students of the Ancient Near East, this library is a truly unique resource. Intended to collect the entire body of knowledge on the Ancient Near East in one place, the collection was overseen for 40 years by a singular librarian named Johanne Vindenas. From 1924 to 1964 she catalogued over 50,000 volumes in an immaculate system of 284,000 index cards. Her work was so renowned among librarians that in 1970, the Catalog of the Oriental Institute Library, a 16-volume set of her indexing work was published.

After a disastrous move of the collection into the central university library system, the research archives were founded in 1972 which brought back the collection and reestablished the vision of an entire field of knowledge under one beautiful roof.


The Poetry Foundation Library

Poetry Foundation (Photo used with permission of the Poetry Foundation)

With 30,000 volumes, the Poetry Foundation houses the Midwest’s only library devoted solely to poetry. Listen to audio or video recordings, research your favorite verses or write your own while surrounded by the greats. Plus it’s got free wi-fi and a beautiful location downtown. Open to the public on weekdays, as long as you’re using it for poetry-related purposes.


The Gerber/Hart Library and Archives 

Gerber/Hart Library (Photo used with permission of the Gerber/Hart Library)

In its recently renovated space, the Gerber/Hart Library features the Midwest’s largest collection of LGBT literature. Plus, it’s a busy community spot, with open hours and events attended by hundreds. Stop in to research or browse the extensive collection of more than 14,000 volumes. Admission is free.


Edgewater Reads - Little Free Libraries

Edgewater Reads Little Free Library (Photo used with permission of Edgewater Reads)

Little Free Libraries have popped up all over the country, and the Edgewater neighborhood is no exception. The area’s city branch library was among the highest in circulation when it was closed for renovations, and the community filled the gap with these boxes. Hunt for them in the Edgewater/Andersonville area and see what’s in stock. 

Illinois Week on Atlas Obscura was created in partnership with Enjoy Illinois as part of the launch of the new Illinois Obscura Society. Sign up to find out more about the back room tours, unusual adventures, and incredible parties that Atlas Obscura will be putting on in Chicago and greater Illinois.