NEAR NORTH — After almost four decades, the Newberry Library is shelving its annual book fair for good.
The nonprofit research library at 60 W. Walton St. has been free and open to the public since 1887. For 38 of those years, the library has hosted the annual Newberry Book Fair, a mostly volunteer-run event where tens of thousands of books, divided into dozens of categories, are laid out for hungry readers to pick up and devour, many priced at $3 or less.
According to the Chicago Tribune, administrators revealed in a pair of recent meetings that the library would no longer be hosting the event.
Representatives of the Newberry Library told Block Club the decision came from “a number of deliberate conversations” about the future of the book fair for some time, particularly after adopting their new strategic plan in 2022.
“A major component of that plan is to engage the public more meaningfully with our collection, exhibitions and free programs — activities that are core to the Newberry’s mission,” a library representative said.
The final decision came courtesy of Newberry interim president Gail Kern Paster, who took the position in April 2023 after serving on the library’s board of trustees since 2013. (She will hold the position until the end of November, when newly-appointed president Astrida Orle Tantillo will take the reins.)
“This was not an easy decision for the Newberry, nor one lightly taken,” Paster told Block Club.
Paster said she understands how disappointing the decision is for the book fair’s many loyal fans. However, she said the benefits of the event were outweighed by the enormous resources required to produce it each year.
Paster said the library will “continue accepting donations of used books, which many of our volunteers continue to sort and price, and will make them available year-round in our bookshop and at Newberry programs.”
Fans have been sharing their disappointment on social media since the news broke.
“I’m so saddened & upset with this,” wrote one person on Facebook. “I’ve attended for over 20 years.”
“Oh no! I lived very close in 2018 and made it a point to go to the fair,” wrote another.
“We’re grateful for all of the volunteers, customers and book donors who have participated in the event through the years,” the library said. “Our goal is to continue offering these materials to our community, but on a smaller scale that is more in line with our capacity.”
What will the library do with the resources it will save from dropping the book fair? According to Newberry representatives, the library’s new strategic plan centers on increasing access to the “world-class collection of some 1.6 million books, 600,000 maps, 1,300 archival collections and more than 1 million digital images.”
The library will also place further emphasis on Chicago Storytelling Events, as well as upcoming exhibitions and the new Pattis Family Foundation Chicago Book Award, which recognizes books that increase the public’s understanding of Chicago.
Still, these initiatives may serve as cold comfort for those who made the Newberry Book Fair an annual tradition every summer.
“My thanks to all the staff and volunteers who worked so hard every year to make it my favorite Chicago event,” said another local on Facebook about the closing of the sale. “My shelves sink with the bounty of the books I found there.”
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