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Curious City CPL

Maggie Sivit

Public libraries are city treasures

Public libraries are a minor miracle. They’re places where you can borrow books and movies, get homework help, attend talks and workshops, and access a variety of online databases — all free of charge.

Over the years, Curious City has gotten a number of questions about the Chicago Public Library (including one about the historical “treasures” housed in its locations).

This week on the podcast, we joined forces with the Nerdette team to answer a question about how CPL curates its science-fiction collection. In the process, we learned that last year, CPL added about 250,000 books to its print book holdings.

That got us wondering about other library-related facts and figures.

So we reached out to Stephen Sposato, manager of content curation; Abigail Sullivan, chief operations analyst; and Laura Hanes, circulation coordinator at CPL to help us break down the library system by the numbers.

149 years old

The city’s public library system was founded in the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire, which destroyed an estimated two to three million books scattered in private collections and bookshops throughout the city, according to the Chicago Tribune. In response, a group of prominent political and literary figures from England donated several thousand books that became the foundation for Chicago’s first free, public library. The first CPL location opened its doors in 1873.

80 locations

The number of Chicago Public Library locations includes the central library (the Harold Washington Library Center), three regional libraries (Sulzer, Woodson and Legler) and 76 neighborhood branches. And if you count the website as a “virtual” branch, as some library staff members do, that makes 81!

9,794 daily visitors

The daily average of visitors across all Chicago Public Library locations was down in 2021 to 9,794 due to the ongoing pandemic. In 2019, the daily average was more than double that — 22,026 people per day across all locations, which works out to 8,039,580 systemwide visitors over the course of the year.

1,090,627 library cards

There are currently over a million registered CPL library cards. That means over a third of Chicagoans are registered library users. Need a library card? Here’s how to get signed up.

Harold Washington Library Center

The central library downtown is CPL’s most visited location, and is home to the 9th floor winter garden and iconic 12-foot-high rooftop barn owls. Of the three regional libraries, Sulzer is the most popular location. Of the neighborhood branches, the busiest North Side branch is Edgewater, the busiest South Side branch is Chinatown and the busiest West Side branch is Logan Square.

5,066,622 book holdings

Chicago Public Library has over five million physical books in its holdings, split across its various locations. Each year, it adds roughly 250,000 books to that number, and takes roughly the same amount of books out of circulation. That makes CPL the second-largest public library by book holdings in the Midwest (after the Detroit Public Library), and the second-largest library of any kind in Chicago (after the University of Chicago library).

Bedrock Faith by Eric Charles May

The most popular circulating title so far in 2022, Bedrock Faith, tells the story of a man who returns to live with his mom on Chicago’s South Side after 14 years in prison. The second-most popular title of the year so far is Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, followed by The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles and Dog Man by Dav Pilkey.

$10 million

Chicago Public Library’s budget for 2022 covers purchase of print books, ebooks, audio, DVDs, music, databases and magazines. About $3 million of that budget goes towards print books alone.

Greta Johnsen is the host of Nerdette. Follow her @gretamjohnsen

Anna Bauman is Nerdette's audio producer. Follow her @anna_s_bauman

Maggie Sivit is the digital and engagement producer for Curious City. Follow her @magisiv

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