Chicago Park District Records: Behind the Scenes

If you are anything like me, you spent much of the summer outside, soaking up what warmth you could before it was, well, now. My family was outdoors as much as possible, running, biking, walking the dog, sampling playgrounds and swimming. New to Chicago, I was thrilled by all the green space within walking distance of my Southside home. I became a huge fan of the Chicago Park District. Oddly, my work life was paralleling my personal life.

The Chicago Park District is in the midst of transferring its archives to CPL's Special Collections. As I was getting to know my neighborhood parks in my off time, I spent my days learning CPD history. Among the records are over 100,000 drawings spanning 150 years and representing over 500 parks, boulevards and beaches. They include property surveys of park sites; maps showing Lake Michigan's shoreline changes; plans showing utility lines; architectural plans for park buildings and structures; and planting plans for landscapes.

Learning the content has been fascinating, but physical logistics have also dominated our work. Imagine a drawing 4 feet long by 3 feet high, about the size of a flag or small table. Multiply by around 100,000. Throw in historic value, fragile conditions and alphabetical order to maintain. How would you move them? Where would you house them? How would you access them?

At the Park District, the drawings were stored upright in large cabinets. At CPL, they were to be stored flat on shelves. Over three days last winter, the folders were carefully removed from the cabinets, placed on pallets, loaded onto trucks, driven to the Harold Washington Library Center and, finally, unpacked from the pallets onto shelves.

This batch of drawings came with PDF versions that are available for research in our Reading Room. This is only the first phase of transfer. More CPD material will be open for research in the coming years. We're grateful to our partners at CPD, especially Julia Bachrach, whose dedication to the history of CPD can be admired in her work.

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