The 10 Best Libraries in Chicago

Richard J. Klarchek Information Commons
Richard J. Klarchek Information Commons | © Amerique / WikiCommons

Alongside the Chicago Public Library (CPL) system, made up of 80 locations and named as not only the best in the U.S. but also the third best in the world by a study from a German university in 2013, Chicago has some of country’s best independent collections, research libraries, and college libraries. Add to that the fact that many are housed in stunning buildings, and you’ve got no excuse not to visit.

1. Harold Washington Library Center

Library, Building

Harold Washington Library Center
© Ken Lund/Flickr
After Chicago’s former central library had become the Chicago Cultural Center, Mayor Harold Washington funded the building of a new main library on State Street in South Loop, and it was named in honor of him after he died in office before its completion. As well as a distinctive postmodern design featuring red bricks and an ornamental roof, it has over 1.2 million holdings, an indoor Winter Garden on the 9th floor, the award-winning Maker Lab, and Chicago’s only free music practice rooms available to the public.

2. Chinatown Branch Library

Building, Library

Chinatown Branch Library
© Steven Kevil/WikiCommons
Named among “10 of the Most Beautiful Libraries on Earth” by Wired, the Chinatown branch of CPL opened in 2015 in a stunning building designed by architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP. Its rounded triangle shape and glass and steel exterior ensure lots of natural light for reading and other sustainable benefits, such as thermal storage tanks and a green roof. Areas include a children’s zone, exhibition space, central circulation hall, and a community meeting place.

3. Sulzer Regional Library

Building, Library

Conrad Sulzer Regional Library
© Daniel X. O'Neil / Flickr
Named for a pioneer settler of the Ravenswood area of Chicago, Sulzer Regional Library is one of two regional libraries in the CPL system, serving the North Side. Architectural firm Hammond Beeby and Babka, who went on to design the Harold Washington Library Center, designed the building in 1985. Along with its books and a large multimedia collection, Sulzer’s archive collections include the North Side Neighborhood History Collection, which features historical and contemporary materials about the neighborhoods of the North Side.

4. Richard J. Klarchek Information Commons


Richard J. Klarchek Information Commons
© Amerique / WikiCommons
While libraries are obviously for working, working with a view is undeniably better. Loyola University’s Information Commons has pride of place among its lakeside campus, with a lot of glass for stunning views. It came in ninth on the list of the “50 Most Amazing College Libraries.” Guest access is based on the needs of Loyola University Chicago students, faculty and staff, so be mindful of the academic calendar before visiting.

5. Evanston Public Library

Building, Library

Evanston Public Library
© jojolae / Flickr
Evanston Public Library has nearly 150 years of history, dating back to 1863. The current main building (there are also two other branches) was completed in 1994 and has a room designed for children and a loft area for teens. It also hosts technology classes, business events, book discussions, and career services. Since 2004, peregrine falcons have nested at the library and are visible on a designated webcam.

6. Joe and Rika Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago

Library, University

Joe and Rika Mansueto Library
© Teresa Grau Ros / Flickr
Also featuring on the “50 Most Amazing College Libraries,” the University of Chicago Library is the 10th largest research library in North America. The highlight in its network of libraries is the Grand Reading Room in the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library, an 180-seat reading area under a large glass dome, which has been recognized by the American Institute of Architects’ Chicago chapter and the Chicago Architecture Foundation. The library recommends getting in touch before visiting to determine what collections and services are available to you.

7. Stony Island Arts Bank

Museum, Library, School

Frankie Knuckless vinyl collection at Stony Island Arts Bank
© Steven Vance/Flickr
As part of his Stony Island Arts Bank project, artist Theaster Gates and his Rebuild Foundation have built a considerable library. Inside a partially renovated bank designed by William Gibbons Uffendell and constructed in 1923, the library brings together the 16,000-volume Johnson Publishing Library; the publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines; the record collection of Chicago house legend Frankie Knuckles; and a collection of rare books on black culture and history, donated by the DuSable High School library. Some collections are available by appointment only, or during weekly tours.

8. T. B. Blackstone Memorial Library

Building, Library, Memorial, Park

T. B. Blackstone Memorial Library
© Daniel X. O'Neil / Flickr
Located in the Kenwood neighborhood on the South Side, the T. B. Blackstone Memorial Library was the first branch of the CPL system. Designed by Chicago architect Solon S. Beman and inspired by the Erechtheion, an ancient Greek temple, it opened in 1904. Named for Timothy Beach Blackstone, president of the Chicago and Alton Railroad from 1864 to 1899, the building features a Tiffany-style dome, a marble foyer, and four rotunda murals on the themes of literature, science, labor, and art.

9. Poetry Foundation Library

Building, Library

Poetry Foundation Library
© Steven Vance / Flickr
Containing over 30,000 volumes, the Poetry Foundation Library is the Midwest’s only library dedicated to poetry and one of Chicago’s best specialist libraries. Located on Superior Street in River North, the origins of the library are in the working collection of Poetry magazine, published in Chicago since 1912, including rare and limited editions, criticism, and audio archives. Alongside the library, the Poetry Foundation building contains a public garden and an exhibition gallery.

10. The Newberry

Bookstore, Library

The Newberry
© James Diedrick/Flickr
Housed in the Cobb Building, a grand Spanish Romanesque structure, this world-class research library was established in 1887 after Walter Loomis Newberry, an early Chicago resident and business leader, left in his will some funds for the creation of a “free public library.” Among the many areas, its collection specializes in American Indian and Indigenous studies, music from the Renaissance to the early 20th century, and genealogy and local history. Free tours, lectures, and a bookstore are open for casual visitors.

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