There are a lot of great museums in Chicago. You can find Monet at the Art Institute, Sue the T Rex at the Field Museum and Spot the Robot Dog at the Museum of Science and Industry. Those museums offer a great deal of fulfillment for the art lover, nature lover or science lover. But what about the book lover? Don’t worry book nerds, I’ve got your back. Check out this list of four great libraries and museums in Chicago which will satiate the booklust of any literary traveler.
After visiting these museums, check out this neighborhood tour of Chicago’s street art. If you are going to be visiting a lot of museums and popular tourist sites, check out this Chicago CityPASS review to see if it’s worth buying.
4 Libraries and Literary Museums in Chicago
International Museum of Surgical Science
In 1935, the International College of Surgeons was founded with the goal of promoting the “exchange of surgical knowledge”. The museum in Chicago was opened in 1954 and is a repository for its collection of historically significant surgical instrumentation, artworks, books and manuscripts. One of the more charming displays in the museum is a replica of a 19th century apothecary. But the museum also houses displays of surgical instruments, statuary of significant people from the medical field, Ben Franklin’s bi-focal glasses and other curiosities. And, my dear book nerds, the 1917 mansion housing the collection also boasts a beautiful library.
The library has over 500 feet of shelves and contains 1,000 rare texts. The collected works cover all body parts. For example, they have the hands covered with: “Saunders Medical Hand Atlas”, “Infections of the Hand” and “Woods Medical Hand Atlas.” Riveting reading. There were also some very beautifully illustrated anatomy books. My friend Steph lives in Chicago and was dragged to the museum by her mother, a nurse. Steph found the museum creepy. But I found it earnest and charming. And if you are like creepy museums in Chicago, you can always sign up for their candlelight tour of the mansion.
Nuts & Bolts
- Location: North Lake Shore Drive, just south of Lincoln Park
- Hours: Tuesday-Friday 10-4, Saturday-Sunday 10-5
- Admission: $15.00
The Newberry Library
The Newberry was established as an independent research library in 1887 with a behest from businessman Walter L. Newberry. In the intervening 129 years, the library has come to specialize in American history, Chicago history, genealogy, early modern studies, religion and music/dance. AND, my beloved book-lovers, they also specialize in the history of the book and maps/travel/exploration. The collection is housed in a building designed specifically for the purpose. And it has generous space for the collections and reading rooms.
They are a serious research library, so they don’t take kindly to visitors (and travel bloggers) wandering around at will. In order to visit, you’ll need to take one of their public tours. Or if you have a legit research project related to one of their areas of interest, you just need to state your business, join the library (for free) and head up to the appropriate floor. I talked my way in by stating an interest in the history of the library itself and a librarian was kind enough to help me find several books on the topic.
The Newberry Library is not a Chicago museum per se, but they do have exhibitions on the ground floor that are free and open to the public. Past exhibitions have included topics on calligraphy, Shakespeare and daily life during the civil war.
Nuts & Bolts
- Location: Washington Square Park. Easily walkable from the Michigan Avenue shopping district
- Hours: Reading rooms- Tuesday-Saturday 9-5, exhibition galleries Monday-Saturday 8:15-7:30, public tours: Thursday 3pm, Saturday 10:30am
- Admission: Free
Read more: If you like “free”, then check out this list of free stuff to do in Chicago. You can also easily incorporate the Harold Washington and the Pritzker into a tour of the loop on this four day Chicago itinerary.
Harold Washington Public Library
The flagship branch of the Chicago Public Library system occupies a full square block smack dab in the middle of the Loop. The library was built in 1988 and is named after Chicago’s first African-American mayor. This is a working public library so most of the floors are occupied by the lending library, after school programs and a maker lab. Frankly the interior of the building is difficult to navigate but it’s worth finding your way to the east stairway. Overhanging the stairway is a riveting art installation of military dog tags. The exhibit was conceived with the assistance of the Pritzker Military Museum (below) and it honors the 58,000 US soldiers killed in the Vietnam conflict. It is both touching and mesmerizing.
Find your way up to the 9th floor atrium. It’s a beautiful, light-filled space perfect for taking a little break and resting the feet. Off the north end of the atrium you’ll find a small museumwhich houses exhibits on Chicago history.
When you are finished there, perhaps you can join me in performing a literary misdemeanor. I commit this little crime every time I visit a library or bookstore. I sneak around the shelves and then create my own displays of recommended books. It allows me to be a bookseller even though I don’t work in a bookstore. While at the Harold Washington, I created displays for Florence Gordon (a cranky elderly feminist takes on New York…and her family) and The Intern’s Handbook (a cheeky assassin thriller). Steph, my partner in crime, displayed The Sweet Hereafter (a small town morality play) and Hey Cowgirl, Need a Ride? (a rodeo themed mystery).
Nuts & Bolts
- Location: Jackson @ State Street, the Loop
- Hours: the special collections are open Monday/Tuesday 12-6 and Friday/Saturday 12-4
- Admission: Free
Just south of the Library and the Pritzker is the South Loop street art corridor. Street art is busting out all over Chicago and you can see all of it with this self-guided mural tour.
Pritzker Military Museum
The Pritzker may be one of the smaller museums in Chicago but it is a real gem. Their mission is to acquire and maintain an accessible collection focused on the Citizen Soldier. Pritzker himself assembled a major collection of books and materials relating to military history. His original collection has been expanded to include exhibits such as letters, military propaganda posters, notebooks and photography. They have designed their well-curated exhibits to a very human scale. In the museum you’ll see photos of soldiers in the field, hear them talk and be able to read their letters home. The US military as a whole is a huge industrial machine and it was very humbling to see this more human side of war and soldiers.
The library itself functions like any other public library. You become a member, get a card and you can check out a book. The staff at the museum is beyond friendly and I can’t recommend this little museum more highly.
Nuts & Bolts
- Location: Michigan Ave @ Monroe, right across from the Art Institute
- Hours: Monday, Friday, Saturday 10-4, Tuesday-Thursday 10-6, Sunday 12-4
- Admission: a steal at $5.00
READ MORE BOOKS: Spark your wanderlust with this list of 51 travel books and discover touching moments of kindness, travel mishaps and wacky adventures.
Books Set in Chicago
I’m both a reader and a traveler and I’ve written previously on how books inspire and inform my travel. So if you are going to visit museums in Chicago, you may want to get Chicago into your brain before you get there. Goodreads has a great list of 354 books set in Chicago and I’ve also curated a short list for you below.
- The Time Traveller’s Wife– Not only a beautiful love story, but a literary one as well. The main characters meet and hang out at the Newberry Library. This one will make you cry…but in a good way.
- Devil in the White City– A serial killer plagues Chicago in this true story set during the 1893 World Fair.
- The Warmth of Other Suns– The story of the Black diaspora out the the Jim Crowe south and into places like Chicago, LA and New York City.
- VI Warshawski PI mystery series– Hard driving female private investigator takes on Chicago crime and corruption. There never seems to be a shortage of either.
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