By: Michele Knapp
As I travel to Chicago for the annual LIPA Board Retreat, I’m thinking about my last visit to the city. In September 2022, I arrived as a prepared researcher. I’d done some digging in advance and discovered the University of Chicago held resources I wanted to dive into. I used the finding aids to peruse materials available in the Hyde Park Historical Society Collection. I scheduled an appointment and requested the boxes of documents I wanted to examine. Once in the city, I trekked from the South Loop to campus and found my way to The Joseph Regenstein Library.
I arrived on time and settled in at my assigned seat among other inquisitive types, each of us at individual tables. An archival box stood at attention in front of each researcher. One box at a time, mind you, to avoid commingling of materials between boxes. What are they exploring? I wondered. All of us going back in time. Together in one room while off in our own little worlds, each of us imagining what it must have been like to have experienced that event or to have lived during that time.
I turned to my first box. Several folders inside held newspaper clippings on the state of the Chicago River, a program from Hyde Park’s 100th anniversary celebration, an ancient call to donors to save the Fountain of Time from crumbling into oblivion. Even now, it surprises me this was my first personal visit to a library for archival research. Sure, I’d requested documents from archives of other libraries for the benefit of legal scholars at my university. I’d pulled on the white gloves to handle fragile books and art objects on occasional museum and library tours, and I’d taught students how to handle and clean microfiche. But, until that point, I’d never sought out archival material for research and writing of my own.
Now I’m heading to the LIPA Board meetings, where we’ll discuss where we’ve been, where we are today, and where we expect to go next. The Regenstein Library made possible my research into Chicago’s past. Understanding the importance of being able to access what I wanted and needed for my own purposes changed my perspective on preservation.
What gets preserved and why? The value judgments we make today may have a more significant impact on our future than we realize. What does preservation look like in Chicago? What does preservation mean to Chicagoans? I intend to find out.