Gerber Hart Library & Archives Tour

I was fortunate to recently visit the Gerber Hart Library and Archives here in Chicago, and the director Wil Brant led me on a tour. I am interested in archives with a strong community focus and in histories often underrepresented in typical repositories, and this is in part why I reached out to this library and archives. This institution reflects these ideas, and asserts its ability to be a “conduit for change” through its resources and programming (Gerber Hart, 2015). The library and archives believes “knowledge is the key to dispelling homophobia” (Gerber Hart, 2015).

Gerber Hart is a collecting institution “dedicated to meeting the information needs of its unique community in a safe atmosphere that promotes research, exploration, and discovery” (Gerber Hart, 2015). The holdings of the institution can be broken up into three broad categories: circulating library material, archival collections, and special collections. The focus of my tour were the roughly 150 archival collections, though we also discussed the 3D and material culture objects comprising the special collections. The collecting scope of the archival branch of the institution is the: “records, papers, and other realia of lesbian and gay life, focusing primarily in the Chicago metropolitan area and the Midwest” (Gerber Hart, 2015).

Main exhibition space and  Gay is Good: Homophile Activism before Stonewall  exhibit

Main exhibition space and Gay is Good: Homophile Activism before Stonewall exhibit

I started getting a better sense for the archival collections after taking in the temporary exhibition Gay is Good: Homophile Activism before Stonewall in the gallery space down the hallway from the library and archives. Featured were documents, photographs, pamphlets, magazines, books, buttons, and a typewriter. My tour officially began in the reading room and circulating stacks, where Wil discussed the historical context of the institution. We then walked through the two closed-stack storage areas, which housed rare library materials as well as archival and special collections. The collections seemed well organized, and they were housed in archival boxes; there was an emphasis on stewardship. It was clear throughout the tour that archival principles of intellectual and physical control were a primary focus for the management of their collections. Gerber Hart moved into the space shortly after it was renovated, and they were able to make requests of the building owners - including the installation of separate HVAC units for each of their storage spaces. Included too are two processing areas, one of which is large enough to fit several large tables.

Public reading room and circulating library collection

Public reading room and circulating library collection

Reading room with tables for researchers to look at archival collections, exhibition cases featuring archival and special collections, and circulating library collections

Reading room with tables for researchers to look at archival collections, exhibition cases featuring archival and special collections, and circulating library collections

In its nearly 40 year history, the archives has acquired the majority of its collections through donations. It is a well-known institution given its status as the “Midwest’s largest LGBTQ circulating library” and its drive to develop relevant services and programming. As such, strong ties exist between the LGBTQ community and the library and archives, which results in consistent archival donations. Additionally, the library and archive maintains its own institutional archives, which consists in part of previous presidents’ records. Some acquisitions are solicited, especially instances where organizations may be dissolving, but this requires considerable time and effort.

The content of the archival collections varies, and it includes documents, posters, photographs, and audio-video materials. The institution does not yet have the capacity - from a staffing or infrastructure perspective - to begin collecting born digital material. There is a particular strength in records from individuals and organizations, while fewer visual archival items are represented. Wil explained that this can likely be attributed to the fear of homophobic retribution and retaliation from those processing photographic and film material, and to unaccepting family members destroying or hiding what materials may exist. In short, absences in the archival collection can be attributed to restrictive societal norms and laws previously on the books.

Closed stacks, archival collections storage

Closed stacks, archival collections storage

Mixed collections

Mixed collections

This institution fills an important role as a repository of material of LGBTQ life in Chicago, the Midwest, and beyond. Wil helped me to understand that up until fairly recently, mainstream libraries and archives largely were not interested in acquiring material for or about this community. This is especially true with many public libraries. As such, Gerber Hart filled a gap, focusing specifically on circulating, archival, and special collections which were overlooked or rejected by other institutions.

More recently, with other repositories slowly starting to expand their scopes, and with the rise of information being made available on the internet, the focus of Gerber Hart’s users has shifted. Use of the circulating collections has decreased, and research requests for their archival and special collections has increased. As a result, more individuals outside of the LGBTQ community are using the materials, especially professionals developing book and film projects, college students doing research, and public school children working on Chicago Metro History Fair projects. The heart of the user base will likely remain in the community, especially as younger generations seek information about their shared history, but it is heartening to see interest spread and grow. I appreciate how inclusive the space is and how that is reflected in the wide range of users.

Some of the less common visual resources in the archival collections

Some of the less common visual resources in the archival collections

It is incredible to me how much the library and archives are able to accomplish, especially given its size and resources. There are currently two staff - both work part-time, and only one position is permanent. Wil indicated that there are approximately 30 volunteers and interns contributing to the daily operations. Much of his time is dedicated to managing and coordinating the activities of those donating their time. Graduate students in MLIS programs have interned at Gerber Hart, and a comprehensive collection list has recently been created. This is an important resource for users to discover what is available, especially since it is accessible to researchers remotely via the website. There are currently a few finding aids available, and work is underway to create more. Digitization largely happens on an ad hoc basis, and larger projects with special funding utilize contracted services.

The library and archives is a stand-alone institution, it is not a part of any other library, archive, or museum. It does have a symbiotic relationship with Howard Brown Health, which has one of its satellite offices in the same building as Gerber Hart. Howard Brown Health is a health and social service nonprofit organization focused on the wellbeing of the LGBTQ community in Chicago (Howard Brown Health, n.d.). The nonprofit encourages the development and display of archival and special collection exhibitions in their waiting and program areas.

Additional exhibition space in the lobby of Howard Brown Health,  Games We Play  exhibit

Additional exhibition space in the lobby of Howard Brown Health, Games We Play exhibit

I learned so much during my trip. Wil taking time out of his busy schedule was such a nice reminder how giving folks are in archives, libraries, and museums.

 

References:

Gerber Hart Library and Archives. (2015). About. Retrieved from http://www.gerberhart.org/about-gerberhart


Howard Brown Health. (n.d.). Mission and overview. Retrieved from https://howardbrown.org/mission-and-overview/

Chicago Architecture Foundation - Open House 2016

Another great year of visiting interesting sites! This year we covered locations from Back of the Yards, the Loop, and UIC. These are a few phone shots, proper photos will be posted on my site soon. 

 

Union Station

Union Station

Maybe less scenic part of the station

Maybe less scenic part of the station

Palmer Printing

Palmer Printing

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River City

River City

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Growing Power Iron Street Farm

Growing Power Iron Street Farm

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Testa Produce

Testa Produce

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UIC's brutalist campus

UIC's brutalist campus

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Fine Arts Building

Fine Arts Building

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Roosevelt University Auditorium Building

Roosevelt University Auditorium Building

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Art Institute of Chicago - Job Perks

There are some serious perks to working at as large and historic an institution as AIC. Working in a department that is granted access to much of the museum multiplies these perks considerably.

While training, I was taken into one of the modern and contemporary art storage rooms to color correct several digital files. I’ve spent some time in collections storage in previous positions and have toured many others, but I’ve not encountered anything like it. There is rack after rack filled with amazing oversized paintings. To be able to spend time, however brief it may be, up close to works I’ve admired seeing on the gallery walls is wonderful.


I’ve also been able to walk through the museum before it was open to the public. I needed to compare how some works were published in a catalog to the originals, and it was a treat to explore the galleries without anyone else around. It was so peaceful, and I found myself looking at works much more carefully than I’ve allowed myself to do in the past. I’m looking forward to more solo exploration in the future.

 

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Chicago Cultural Center - Theo Jansen's Strandbeests

The Chicago Cultural Center hosted an excellent exhibit of Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests this winter. I’ve long admired his mobile creatures, so it was wonderful to have the chance to see them up close. On display were black and white photographs of the beasts in action, a wide variety of the handcrafted pieces used in the sculptures, some hands-on demonstrations of engineering principles, and several retired Strandbeests. There were wranglers on standby for daily demonstrations, showing how the beasts harness and store wind power for self-mobilization.


I love the combination of engineering and aesthetics that go into Jansen’s work, and the exhibit showed off this pairing beautifully.

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National Public Housing Museum - Telling Stories Telling Belongings

The National Public Housing Museum recently organized Telling Stories Telling Belongings, an event that has successfully brought the community together for several years. This time around, they partnered with the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, and it took place in the newly refurbished Jane Addams Resource Center in ABLA. The focus was on the near west side of the city. In spite of the dreary spring weather, more than 70 people were in attendance, and many came with objects and stories to share.

The event was split between individual presentations by volunteers wanting to tell their stories and group story-telling sessions. It was a great way to bring people together, and I was heartened to see several people exchanging contact information at the end of the event.

One of my favorite objects and accompanying stories was one that Tammy brought to share. She was excited when she approached the table where representatives from the Hull-House Museum were having volunteers sign paperwork, and where I was photographing objects. From a ziploc bag, she pulled out her original birth certificate and a few black and white family photos. It turns out she was born in the Jane Addams Homes, formerly on Cabrini Street, as part of a midwife program being tried out in the 1950s. She explained how her mother much preferred this option to making regular treks to the hospital to see her doctor. She was able to stay home and rest, and received excellent care from a visiting professional. We were all equally excited about her story, and she was incredibly engaging when talking about this connection to public housing and her experience there to the audience.

Another wonderful story came from Ms. Ida. She brought in a painting her son Jeffries created when he was 7 years-old, she entitled “1383: a Front Yard.” The painting depicted a large tree surrounded by beautiful flowers, bees, and butterflies, and a smiling sun watching over the scene. She explained that her son injured himself, and they sought housing in one of the low-rise CHA buildings since the elevator in their high-rise was frequently broken. Once they settled into their new home, her son was adamant that they plant a huge garden in their collective front yard. His injuries prevented this from happening, so instead he created his wonderful painting.

I am so happy I was able to attend this event, and better yet, was afforded the opportunity to help document it. Seeing such a diverse crowd representing so many decades of history in the area coming together was really amazing.


Please head on over to the National Public Housing Museum’s blog to read more about the event.

 

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Chicago Architecture Biennial - SC Johnson Campus Visit

Sadly, the first Chicago Architecture Biennial has come to a close. I’m happy I was able to attend some of the programs and spend time exploring the extensive exhibits at the Cultural Center. I also had the chance to get out of the city for an interesting day trip thanks to one of the sponsors. S.C. Johnson offered free shuttles and tours of their campus in Racine, Wisconsin throughout the biennial. I took advantage of this opportunity, and neither the Frank Lloyd Wright designed buildings nor the locally-purchased Danish kringle disappointed.

 

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Chicago Architecture Biennial - Programs

In addition to the exhibits on display at the Cultural Center and at many other venues across the city, there have been lots of programs for the Architecture Biennial. There are lectures and site tours nearly every day, and I have had the chance to attend two different discussions over the last few weeks: Here Comes the Neighborhood - Placemaking and Transforming Neighborhoods; and Art, Architecture and Community: Catalysts for Social Change.

Here Comes the Neighborhood was a discussion moderated by the curator of the National Museum of Mexican Art. Juan Gabriel Moreno of JGMA and Katherine Darnstadt of Latent Designs “examined the transformation of urban landscapes and the influence of architecture and aesthetics on community and civic life.” I was particularly interested in their discussion of community buy-in for their projects, and fostering a sense of pride.

Art, Architecture and Community was a presentation by Catherine Baker of Landon Bone Baker Architects on her firm’s project of turning former public housing buildings in Greater Grand Crossing into mixed income housing and a community dance center. She talked about the process, from the additional bureaucratic challenges of working with the Chicago Housing Authority to the evolving understanding of the condition of the buildings themselves to the in-depth process of getting community input for the public space. As a part of the Rebuild Foundation’s complex, this project is an interesting example of taking unused property and reusing it for the good of the neighborhood.

These programs have proved that the Architecture Biennial is more than a presentation of beautiful buildings - it’s an evaluation of all the different forms architecture takes, and how the built environment should benefit those who use these spaces.

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Chicago Architecture Biennial - Exhibits at the Cultural Center

The inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial opened in October and will continue through January of next year. The expectations for this event were high, though there was a good deal of uncertainty as to what it would look like, and how it might appeal to a wider audience than architects and urban planners. I visited the hub of exhibits and lectures for the biennial, the Cultural Center, and was pleased to see it well attended by a diverse audience.

Every floor featured a number of exhibits dealing with different aspects of our constructed environment. There were models and renderings from international firms solving problems, some of which had been realized, and there were also more abstract representations of architecture. Sou Fujimoto Architects created an installation of dozens of small sculptures on pedestals that, paired with small figures, became found architecture. The playfulness and humor made the work fun to explore. Some of my favorite work was that of Professor Amanda Williams. Her photographs struck me; from the CAB website: “her work centers on color, race, and space… she uses vivid, culturally derived colors to paint abandoned houses on Chicago’s South Side, marking the pervasiveness of undervalued Black space.”

Even after wandering through the building for several hours, I feel like I barely scratched the surface of everything on display. Another trip will definitely be necessary.

 

Photography by Amanda Williams. 

Photography by Amanda Williams. 

Sou Fujimoto Architects. 

Sou Fujimoto Architects. 

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Mos Architects. 

Mos Architects. 

Rua Arquitetos. 

Rua Arquitetos. 

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Studio Gang. 

Studio Gang. 

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Chicago Architecture Foundation Open House

My favorite weekend every year is the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Open House. It’s a fantastic opportunity to see buildings that are often off-limits to the public, many of which have excellent tours. I’ve also used it as a way of seeing parts of the city I don’t often get to explore. This year, I ventured out with friends to see sites in Bridgeport, Back of the Yards, South and West Loop, and downtown. As always, I had a great time, and would highly recommend making sure you’re in Chicago next year for Open House!

Hidden Sullivan stairwell. 

Hidden Sullivan stairwell. 

McCormick rooftop garden. 

McCormick rooftop garden. 

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Bertrand Goldberg! 

Bertrand Goldberg! 

Cermak bridge, Chinatown. 

Cermak bridge, Chinatown. 

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Stockyards, Back of the Yards.

Stockyards, Back of the Yards.

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Architectural salvage yard. 

Architectural salvage yard. 

Former gear factory turned office space, West Loop. 

Former gear factory turned office space, West Loop. 

The Rookery, downtown. 

The Rookery, downtown. 

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Vault in the basement. 

Vault in the basement. 

Zap props, Back of the Yards.

Zap props, Back of the Yards.

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Bridgeport demolition. 

Bridgeport demolition.