Explore Chicago Collections

It’s definitely normal for people living in the Midwest to be interested in Chicago: the night life, restaurants, architecture, shopping, culture, sports, the list could go on and on. At the very least, living in Illinois necessitates the occasional (sometimes aggravating) trip to the windy city’s airports. Surely, even the most anti-big-city-living amongst us can appreciate the majestic views of Chicago facilitated by the airplane window. And surely no one could deny Chicago’s storied history: Fort Dearborn, Al Capone, the Chicago Fire, the 1893 World’s Fair, “Merkle’s Boner,” the Haymarket Riot, to name but a few examples, are not simply compelling for their local historical importance, they are significant to the history of the nation as a whole.

If you happen to be interested in this history (or if you’re interested in digital collections, libraries and archives, because the interface is as user-friendly as they come), then you definitely need to check out Explore Chicago Collections, a single, digital portal for exploring the myriad archives scattered across the Windy City. Readers of this blog will be particularly interested in the digital image results that accompany each search.

A clear interface is *definitely* a thing of beauty

A clear interface is definitely a thing of beauty

As you can see from the above image, you can search for archives across a number of topics relating to significant events and daily life in Chicago throughout history. You can also browse the archival collections by names, cities, and neighborhoods, depending on your interests. Or take advantage of that gigantic search bar and type in whatever keyword you wish. If you’re looking up something specific, this could be the better approach; check out the difference when I type “Al Capone” into the search bar versus when I select “Al Capone, 1899-1947” from the list of provided names.

I’ll bet you didn’t know investigators reenacted the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre *this* thoroughly

As an aside, did you know about this? Dramatic stuff.

Another piece of history with some serious currency is the 1893 World’s Fair, aka the World’s Columbian Exposition. Many people have read (or at least heard of) The New York Times Bestseller The Devil in the White City by Erik Larsen, a nonfiction crime novel set against the backdrop of the Fair and centered around its architect, Daniel H. Burnham and noted serial killer H.H. Holmes. And if you haven’t, you will; Leonardo DiCaprio bought the film rights in 2010, and Martin Scorsese is confirmed to direct.

But I digress. The World’s Fair appears among the events one can browse (not to be confused with the 1933 World’s Fair, which also appears), and there are an impressive number of digital images and archival sources related to it. The filter in the side bar can delimit your search by a number of parameters like type, location of the material, topics, and neighborhood.

Of course, if you’re only interested in images, they conveniently appear at the top of the results, and one can browse all of them by clicking the “See All” button on the right side of the “Digital Images” subheader.


The digital images represent a variety of media, including photos, drawings, and correspondence, and you can click on the image for (often) extensive metadata, most importantly, the library or archive where they are located.

This is definitely a very cool website, especially when you take a look at the long list of institutions that are Explore Chicago Collections member organizations. For any Chicago-related research, this portal is the ideal starting point, especially if you’re not sure which archives might have relevant information to your search. Many of the images are fragile and can only be used by researchers in their digital format, making it easier to track down a wealth of visual information through a single site.

I’ll leave you with a final recommendation: if you’re interested in learning about less well-known dramatic moments in Chicago history, check out the “Disasters” gallery. It runs the gamut from the macabre to tales of heroism, and some very interesting photographs.

Or if that’s not your thing, have a look through the Lincoln Park Zoo gallery.

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