I’m scared for the microfilm room at the Harold Washington Library.
It’s a vacant place, one avoided by even the street people who come to the library for the heat and the chairs. There’s one staffer there, maybe. Sometimes a security guard sits against the back wall, leans back and strikes up conversation, asks what era you’re looking for.
“1890s?” he said. “I like looking up the 1950s. I like looking at the old car prices. You could get a brand new car for…”
He names a price you don’t remember when it comes time to blog. He chuckles and the two of you walk about cars for a bit.
I’m scared for the room.
It’s the only place I know of to get Black Jack Yattaw’s 1893 obituaries from the Tribune, Daily News, Times, Evening Post, Daily Globe and Inter Ocean.
It’s the only place I can think of to see if Hinky Dink Kenna’s tavern got a telephone between 1917 and 1918.
It’s the only place I’m aware you can look up Chicago’s alt press from the ‘60s, the national black news from the 1800s, all these living documents of dead times whirled out on plastic rolls strung through rattling old lightboxes.
There are websites, some. But for every Chicago Tribune archive, there are a thousand old papers who didn’t make it to the days of internet. Who’ll foot the bill for digitizing the Chicago Daily Inter Ocean since the paper went bust in 1914? Who will pay for the server space for the Chicago Democrat issues from 1833?
Other papers are extant, but either outsource their archives, like the Defender and La Raza do, or just decided the damn thing wasn’t worth having, like the feckless, worthless Chicago Sun-Times.
That leaves this room. That leaves these cracking plastic coils and rattling old lightboxes, half decked with signs that the repairmen have been notified. Each crack and chip on decades-old plastic is an indelible scar. They are irreplaceable because the library can’t afford to replace them and no corporation sees a profit in doing so.
The security guard who likes old cars remembers a woman who came to Chicago solely for the vacant room, booked a nearby hotel, came every day for a week and stayed all day, deep in research and whirling plastic histories.
I don’t think people understand that when that’s gone, that’s gone. There will be no other collection of Chicago news history like that elsewhere or again. All these versions of the world, little tweaks and ticks you won’t find in the official, bigger, larger versions of history, are flecking away into nothingness like the little bits of plastic they are.