Signed copy of Catch-22 that Joseph Heller signed to the Evanston Public Library. Credit: Betsy Bird

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My colleague sent the email first thing in the morning. “TOTALLY OPTIONAL, but if you’d like to participate in RAILS’ collection challenge to show off unusual items on social media, I’m happy to facilitate.” 

Come again? I scrolled down to discover a message sent from RAILS, the Reaching Across Illinois Library System that connects a vast number of libraries in our state. The message read, “RAILS is inviting libraries to participate in a new social media challenge to share unique items in their collections.” What followed was a list of categories. Each month there would be two challenges, starting in May and going until at least March 2023.

I scrolled idly through the list. “Largest item in your collection.” “Item in your collection that you are most proud of.” Hmmm. “Best kept secret in your collection.”

Oh. I was in. 

You see, one of the things that I love about Evanston Public Library is that, like most 149-year-old institutions (we turn 150 next year!), we have a lot of . . . well . . . old stuff. Statues. Documents. Signed books. This is not to say that other libraries in Illinois don’t have their own enticing collections, but here at EPL we’re a bit unique. And what we have on hand is worth seeing.

While I haven’t decided on what precisely to do for all the categories yet, here’s a brief rundown of some of the items that you really won’t find anywhere else. 

The Ghostwriter statue by Ralph Helmick and Stuart Schechter. Seen from this angle, can you see the head? Credit: Betsy Birdy

Largest item in your collection: That would be the Ghostwriter statue that hangs in our lobby. No doubt you’ve seen it before. Constructed out of a plethora of smaller statues, it’s by Ralph Helmick and Stuart Schechter who did a similar statue at Midway Airport in Chicago’s South Side. Look at it from just the right angle (the third floor is particularly good for this) and you’ll be able to make out an entire head.

Object in your collection that best represents your community: High on the library, facing Orrington Avenue, sit two Richard Hunt sculptures. Their name? “Bookends.” And if Mr. Hunt’s name sounds familiar, that may be because he was recently tapped to provide a golden sculpture by the name of “Book Bird” for the reading garden portion of the Obama Presidential Center. 

Hunt, one of the Chicago area’s foremost artists, was the first African American sculptor to be honored with a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and he recently created the Ida B. Wells monument “Light of Truth” in Bronzeville, which you should really check out if you get a chance.

Item in your collection that you are most proud of: I have on my desk a copy of Catch-22 that Joseph Heller signed and donated to the Evanston Public Library. However, it was discovered completely by accident a couple of years ago at the branch on Main Street. While going through the shelves, a librarian plucked it out and discovered the following inscription in the front: “To the Evanston Public Library. Let’s hope nobody steals this copy and forces you to replace it with another. Joseph Heller 2/18/80 Chicago.” 

The library created the Cozy Evanston Cookbook at the beginning of the pandemic. Credit: Betsy Bird

If you could put one library item in your time capsule what would it be?: That’s an easy one. No doubt it would be the Cozy Evanston Cookbook we created at the beginning of the pandemic. During a time when sourdough starters flourished, we solicited recipes from the community and created an e-cookbook that you can still check out.

Stay tuned for more fun collection categories in the future!

Betsy Bird

Betsy Bird is the Collection Development Manager of Evanston Public Library.

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  1. Betsy, this is so cool and I may just have to make a special trip to Evanston to see all these items!
    I hope you also post these to FB and IG with the #CollectionChallenge so everyone can enjoy.

  2. And to demonstrate the library’s priorities, the home of the Heller book, South Branch, was closed.