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Curious library: partnering with NPR and Chicago Collections to uncover local history

Chicago radio station WBEZ regularly airs the Curious City series, an ongoing exploration of Chicago history and customs. This week’s installment about the founding of Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood relied on reporting from Chicago Collections, a partnership of local institutions dedicated to preserving the books, letters, photos and other collections that document regional culture. As a member of Chicago Collections, Northwestern Libraries loaned its own Jason Nargis to the reporting effort. (This is Nargis’ second round as radio reporter for Curious City, contributing to last year’s segment about the city’s one-time airship aspirations.)

Give us a little bit of background information. What do you do at Northwestern?
I am the Special Collections Librarian in the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections where I am tasked with a lot of different things. I do outreach and instruction, I help students, professors, and visitors with research, I purchase items for the collection, I curate exhibits, and more. Basically, I get to be an intermediary between patrons and the rich and diverse collection materials we hold.

How did the collaboration with Curious City begin?
The Curious City team are huge fans of Chicago Collections. They were contacting member institutions so often as they investigated stories and were using the EXPLORE Chicago Collections website regularly, so they decided to do a pilot partnership. They have a similar collaboration with the Chicago Architecture Foundation, as so many of the questions in Chicago relate to architecture. I have worked on two challenging and exciting stories so far and look forward to working on some more.

As a librarian, what is your role in contributing to the podcast?
I have essentially just been acting as a reporter when working on the pieces, albeit one who has some specialized knowledge about the research process, the content of local collections, and other library and archives folks with subject expertise. I’ve learned that there are a lot of similarities between journalism and librarianship: in many ways, they are both about engaging with historical resources in creative ways to build evidence-based interpretations of the world. One of my favorite parts of this work has been learning how to build an audio-based narrative, which is very different from print-based forms of storytelling. It’s a strangely visual process, perhaps because humans are used to creating mental pictures based on language and sound.

Tell us about your most recent project:
Back in January, the Curious City production team and I worked together to select a project on the history of Boystown.  The Curious City database has over five thousand user-submitted questions in the queue, and we filter for submissions that have good potential for the Chicago Collections partnership. The Boystown story was a great fit because it’s an important and interesting story that we thought would translate well to radio, and one for which there is a ton of related archival material, both here in the McCormick Library and at other Chicago Collections member institutions.

My main collaborator was Steven Jackson, who is a producer for the podcast “Love + Radio” and also does freelance work for WBEZ. We searched through archives and photo collections, read articles and books, went out to a gay club, and interviewed activists, scholars, business owners, and performers connected to Boystown and the history of queer Chicago.

How has Chicago Collections or the EXPLORE wesbite enabled the work of Curious City?
All the WBEZ producers and reporters I have worked with are big fans of Chicago Collections. The EXPLORE website is a great place to do an initial search to find images and archives and to learn which institutions might be the best bet for deeper research and consultation. The “Ask Us” button on the website connects questioners with the Collaborative Reference Network, which means that a bunch of local librarians and archivists cooperate to point researchers to relevant collection material and subject expertise.

What’s next?
I don’t know! Reading through the questions is fascinating and I’m sure there will be more projects that would benefit from my knowledge and the resources of Chicago Collections. I need to focus on some of my other work responsibilities for a while. These Curious City stories are really fun, but they can also be a lot of work, especially when we do an involved web feature like we did for Boystown.


Cover image is a flyer from NU Gay Liberation, a student-run gay rights organization active in the 1970s at Northwestern University. Image courtesy of the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections.