Reading Challenge: Evanston Public Library Hidden Treasure

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My colleague sent the email first thing in the morning. “TOTALLY OPTIONAL, but if you’d like to take part in the RAILS Collecting Challenge to show off some unusual items on social media, I’d be happy to make it easy for you.”

Say again? I scrolled down to find a post from RAILS (the Reaching Across Illinois library system that connects a large number of libraries in our state). The post read: “RAILS invites libraries to participate in a new social media challenge to share unique items in their collections.” What followed was a list of categories. Each month there would be two challenges, starting in May and continuing until at least March 2023.

I scrolled through the list without doing anything. “The largest item in your collection.” “The item in your collection that you are most proud of.” Hmmm. “The best kept secret in your collection.”

Oh. I was inside.

You see, one of the things I love about the Evanston Public Library is that, like most 149-year-old institutions (we’ll be 150 next year!!), we have a lot of . . . Good . . . old stuff. Statues. Documents. Signed books. That’s not to say other Illinois libraries don’t have their own engaging collections, but here at EPL we’re a bit unique. And what we have on hand is worth seeing.

Although I haven’t decided what exactly To do for all categories, here’s a quick look at some of the items you really won’t find anywhere else.

The Ghostwriter statue hangs in the library lobby. Built from a plethora of small statues, it is by Ralph Helmick and Stuart Schechter. Credit: Betsy Birdy

Largest item in your collection: That would be the Ghostwriter statue hanging in our lobby. You’ve probably seen it before. Built from a plethora of smaller statues, it was Ralph Helmick and Stuart Schechter who made a similar statue at Midway Airport. Look at it from the right angle (the third floor is particularly good for this) and you can make out an entire head.

Item in your collection that best represents your community: At the top of the library, facing Orrington Avenue, are two sculptures by Richard Hunt. Their name? “Bookends.” And if Mr. Hunt’s name sounds familiar, it might be because he was recently asked to provide a golden sculpture of the name “Book Bird” for the reading garden portion of the Obama Presidential Center.

Hunt, one of the Chicago area’s most prominent artists, was the first African-American sculptor to be honored with a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and he recently created the Ida B monument. Wells “Light of Truth” in Bronzeville, which you really should check out if you get the chance.

– Item in your collection that you are most proud of: I have on my desk a signed copy of Catch-22 that Joseph Heller signed at the Evanston Public Library. However, it was discovered completely by accident a few years ago at the Main Street branch. While scanning the shelves, a librarian ripped it out and discovered the following inscription on the front: “At the Evanston Public Library. Hopefully no one steals this copy and forces you to replace it with another one. Joseph Heller 02/18/80 Chicago.

The library created the Cozy Evanston Cookbook at the start of the pandemic. Credit: Betsy bird

If you could put one library item in your time capsule, what would it be?:Ah. It’s easy. Without a doubt, it would have to be the Cozy Evanston cookbook we created at the start of the pandemic. At a time when sourdough starters were flourishing, we solicited recipes from the community and created an e-cookbook that you can still check out to this day: https://inkie.pressbooks.pub/cozyevanstoncookbook/

Stay tuned for more fun collectible categories in the future!

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