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Meet Julie Lynch, Sulzer Library’s Historical Search Engine

By Patty Wetli | Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Librarian Julie Lynch pores over a historical map. Credit: Patty Wetli

Julie Lynch turns the elevator key and presses the button for “M.” I’ve just been granted an all-access pass to the mezzanine level of Sulzer Regional Library, 4455 N. Lincoln Ave., the history buff’s equivalent of being invited inside the velvet-roped VIP section of a trendy night club.

This secluded floor of Sulzer houses the Northside Neighborhood History Collection and Lynch is its “Loaner Ranger,” the librarian who oversees the archive of manuscripts, maps and photographs donated by residents of Chicago’s neighborhoods north of North Avenue. (Harold Washington Library and Woodson Regional Library maintain similar collections for the city’s central and south neighborhoods, respectively.)

“I’ve always loved history and connecting people to a sense of history; I like the idea of preserving history,” says Lynch, who’s held the job at Sulzer since 2005. “I also like to make history come alive, so it’s not just dates, to make it relevant and connect people to a sense of place.”

In today’s digital environment, where so much information is available at the tap of a touchscreen, there’s something to be said for holding a journal that dates back to 1914 and deciphering the hand-written scribblings of the young woman who penned them. “In Times New Roman, there’s no style,” says Lynch, who holds degrees in both history and library science.

Similarly, actual photographs, as opposed to computer images, continue to fascinate visitors of the collection. “There’s just something so tangible about an old photograph,” she says. Children, in particular, are spellbound by things like pictures of their counterparts from the 1880s attending school in Ravenswood. “Or even the 1980s,” laughs Lynch.

A young woman's journal. Credit: Patty Wetli

Not that Lynch is anti-technology. In fact, much of her job consists of digitizing items from the collection in order to make the images and information accessible online. “As an archivist, you try to preserve and protect,” she says. Documents and photos are tucked away in acid-free folders and the temperature and humidity of storage areas are maintained at frigid levels that require Lynch to keep a hoodie in her office even during the summer months. At the same time, as a librarian, Lynch’s inclination is to connect and share. “That’s where digitization comes in.”

More than just a keeper of the archive, Lynch also provides reference assistance, helping individuals make use of the collection’s resources. “Mostly it’s students coming in to do research on local businesses, ethnic groups or how neighborhoods formed,” she says. “The nice thing about it is there’s no typical week or question.”

Genealogy searches are one frequent request. “You can do a lot with census information,” says Lynch, who adds that online access to ancestry.com is free when searching the site via a Chicago Public Library computer.

Homeowners are equally interested in tracing the roots of their house. “For awhile, when the real estate market was hot, every few months, people would call and ask if Charlie Chaplin lived in their house,” she says. Apparently realtors were using that tidbit as a selling point. “I can’t disprove it,” she says, but given the number of queries she received on the subject, Chaplin would have had to switch dwellings every few months.

Other people are convinced their house is haunted. “Sometimes they believe something happened in the house,” she says. “Northwestern University has a website with homicides you can search by street address.”

While some requests are as specific as “Was my house ever a funeral home,” others are far broader in scope. “Some years back, a guy was researching parks and public places,” Lynch recalls. She was able to unearth information about the area’s German immigrants, whose emphasis on physical fitness resulted in the establishment of a number of gymnasiums and parks.

“The stuff here is piecemeal, we kind of pull stuff together,” she says. “If you come in, what do we have that could possibly answer the question. You’re looking for something as you’re helping one patron and you find something for another.”

Cycling clubs were quite popular in Ravenswood. Credit: Patty Wetli

The human equivalent of a search engine, Lynch’s brain retains a freakish amount of minutiae related to Lincoln Square. “Abe Saperstein — he founded the Globetrotters — he grew up here. I don’t know why I need to know that, but I do.”

Unlike Google, Lynch delivers more than search results, she provides context. That sepia-tinged photograph of the woman in funny-looking clothes on a funny-looking bicycle actually offers a window into the impact bicycles had on women’s independence. An advertisement touting “can build frame houses” demonstrates construction restrictions following the Great Chicago Fire. Surprisingly, high school yearbooks — the collection features past editions from Lane Tech, Amundsen and Lake View High Schools — serve as more than a cautionary tale in the evolution of hairstyles.

“Somebody was using yearbooks to look at girls sports at the turn of the [20th] century,” says Lynch. Others have used the books to investigate the changing social habits of teenagers based on extracurricular clubs and activities.

Real estate ad announcing land for sale in Ravenswood. Credit: Patty Wetli

Fifty years from now, future Chicagoans will wonder what it was like to live in the city in 2012; the challenge for Lynch and her fellow preservation librarians is to identify current materials and resources that will provide a snapshot similar to the history collection’s existing holdings.

“People aren’t keeping those journals to donate, most people don’t keep photographs anymore,” says Lynch. So archivists have to think more creatively. Penn State is capturing Facebook pages, she notes, and the Wisconsin State Historical Society rescued banners from last year’s labor protests.

For Lynch, who lives in Lincoln Square, her job has her perpetually straddling the line between past and present. “When I walk down the street, I try to notice things–how it used to be and how it is,” she says. Spend an afternoon with Lynch and you too will envision clay pits at Irving Park and Ravenswood.

The perspective that knowledge of history provides is invaluable, according to Lynch. “I think it’s helpful to understand how we got here,” she says, with Sulzer’s collection providing a trail to the past and Lynch serving as its trusty guide.

To view the Northside Neighborhood History Collection:
The collection is open to visitors on Tuesdays, 2-5 p.m., no appointment necessary; the elevator is set to take guests up to the Mezzanine. During the rest of the week, the collection is available to view by appointment only. To arrange a visit, Lynch can be reached via email or telephone at 312.742.4455.

Sulzer also maintains a Chicago history reference collection (the John and Mary Jane Hoellen Chicago History Collection), located behind the second floor reference desk and accessible during regular library hours. It contains books and newspaper clippings that cover the whole city, not just the North Side.

What’s in the Collection:
The Northside Neighborhood History Collection encompasses more than 30 collections that document the history of schools, religious institutions, neighborhoods, homeowners’ associations, local businesses, community leaders, parks, the Chicago River, and the streets and transportation in communities located north of North Avenue to the city limits on the east, west and north sides of Chicago. Much of the collection owes its existence to former librarian Helen Zatterberg, who was assigned the task of chronicling daily life in Ravenswood.

The Northside Neighborhood Historical Collections houses shelves of documents. Credit: Patty Wetli

These collections comprise 1470 linear feet: There are 760 books on Chicago history; 71 maps covering the City of Chicago, North Side neighborhoods, Lake View Township and real estate plats; and 5,500 photographs.

The bulk of the photos are black and white, were taken between 1890 and 1920, and depict life in Ravenswood. There are a handful of tintypes from the 1860s, color slides from the 1960s and ’70s, and color photographs from the 1970s and ’80s. Last year, the collection accessioned the photographs from a local newspaper no longer in operation. There are more than 1,000 images in this recent acquisition.

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