#907: Quiet Hunting

March 28th, 2018

It was an overload of children on the bottom two floors. Whining, wailing, amusing, amazing children, just too damn many of them. Free day at the museum will get you that. 

Field trip after field trip plowed through the revolving doors on Clark Street into a room of signs, cars, photographs and interactive displays for children to chatter to each other near. The Chicago History Museum on a free-to-Illinois-residents Tuesday was simply hopping with wide-eyed kiddos and teachers growling those angry teacher stage whispers to let the students know what will happen if the they ever do what they just did ever again.

The third floor, by comparison, was as silent as a pope’s tomb.

Above the noise of free Tuesday field trips and the eye-catching lights and relics of the museum’s main floors, the third floor research center is a bone-silent hunting ground for facts, figures, dates, context and whatever else people want to find out about the city’s past.

It’s a bit chattier than the Newberry Library’s collection, less of a homeless shelter than the Harold Washington’s main floors, but it’s free with ID, a cozy refuge from the field trips and by god for three-and-a-half hours a day Tuesday through Friday (and 10-4:30 on Saturdays) it’s sheer heaven.

Happy-faced librarians shuttle about a clean, well-lighted place with tables for reading, original source documents at the asking and that glorious quiet I keep coming back to when recalling this.

I was the first one there when the doors opened Tuesday, followed within seconds by a gray-haired white man who, like me, had been puttering about the museum waiting for the center’s 1 p.m. starting gates. A staffer smiled at the man and directed him to a table where the large, flat files he had requested were waiting.

As he flipped through document after document of what looked from my perch like deeds, he made inadvertent little yummy sounds. “Mmm” over a particularly interesting land transaction. “Hmmmmmmm” over juicier bits of municipal property record.

I can’t explain what a good research run means to me any more than others can explain why watching sports at a wing bar is a good use of financial and emotional resources. In the end, neither’s superior to the other (camaraderie and celebration of physical prowess versus sitting by yourself making yummy noises at land transactions) but there’s not much in the middle of that Venn diagram.

But research is glorious. It’s soul-swelling and occasionally transcendent. There are these little quiet corners of the city tucked away from others’ eyes. People don’t press the elevator button for the history museum’s third floor. They meander the park near the Newberry but don’t hit the inside. They walk past the Stony Island Arts Bank as if these places are invisible, not knowing they’re just a door away from worlds opening up.

I realize I’m making research sound like some nerdy combination of Diagon Alley and Cap’n O.G. Readmore, but that’s sort of the situation we’re dealing with. The research project that brought me to the research center on Tuesday afternoon (and the Newberry that morning) is eyes-only for now, but I spent hours lost in my world of shady land deals and Native disenfranchisement.

The room never quite filled, but once there were a whopping six researchers in there, it did seem a bit crowded. Three loud white ladies wanted to know more about the Columbian Exhibition of 1893. A younger woman inquired about some matter in such a soft tone a librarian had to lean over the desk to hear her. I was flittering about trying to find a book that wasn’t there.

And the gray-haired white man sat at a desk flipping through yellowed sheets of paper making yummy noises to himself, too entranced by what he found to care how the matter looked to outsiders.

A visit to the Newberry

And the Stony Island Arts Bank

A young guy who binds books the ancient way

This story is featured in the CHM’s “Chicago Authored” exhibit

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