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U. of I. library blog offers free access to complete works of history

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor

Released 8/2/2007

Archival image of a Ferris Wheel
Click image to enlarge
Among the books featured on the library's new blog, Digitized Book of the Week, is "Glimpses of the World's Fair." The above image is of the Ferris wheel at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The wheel was just one of many new inventions introduced at the fair, but it became the fair's signature attraction.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Blogged your way through the history of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair lately? How about the history of the Spanish American War in Cuba as seen through the eyes of an African-American physician from Illinois?

Now, thanks to the University of Illinois Library, any and all students of history who have Web access can blog into some of the past’s most vivid chapters, page by page.

The library has launched a new free public blog that features news of and highlights from its large-scale digitization efforts. Collectively, these efforts electronically scan and upload large amounts of texts and photographs, primarily in the field of history. All the reader has to do is subscribe to the RSS feeds to receive the blog and link to any flipbook or PDF version of the book that is offered. The subscription link is on the new blog page.

The new blog, “Digitized Book of the Week,” delivers far more than it promises. The inaugural edition offers 18 complete works of history, all viewable in PDF and flipbook versions – from a Chicago detective’s memoir published in 1906 to an insider’s view of Illinois’ Jacksonville Insane Asylum published in 1868.

The blog began last March as a weekly e-mail to library staff members, “but it generated so much interest in our digitization projects that we decided to turn it into a blog with an RSS feed that anyone could subscribe to,” said Betsy Kruger, the head of digital content creation at the U. of I. Library.

Kruger simply converted the earlier e-mail versions to blog entries, “so even though the archives go back to March, the blog itself just debuted.” She features books that are representative of the collections being digitized, plus books that are “visually interesting, kind of quirky or recently ‘rediscovered.’”

Her team also features collaborative projects, such as one with the Chicago Field Museum to digitize the Fieldiana series.

The latest blogged items, which also can be accessed from the library’s online catalog, include:

• “Hands Up! In the World of Crime,” by Clifton Wooldridge. Wooldridge (1854-1933) was a Chicago detective for 12 years. “Hands Up” is his popular account of some of the 17,000 arrests he made and of a few of the 75 young girls he “rescued from lives of shame,” the book cover says. A PBS television series described Wooldridge as “the incorruptible Sherlock Holmes of America.”

Wooldridge considered Chicago the wickedest city in the world, so his self-appointed mission was to save the city from itself. To do so, he associated with both the down and out and the richest of the rich, and even elaborately disguised himself. He would battle quack doctors, prostitution, gambling, investment and bank scams and clairvoyants. Readers can link to a page showing Wooldridge sporting some of his wacky disguises.

• “Glimpses of the World’s Fair: A Selection of Gems of the White City Seen Though a Camera (1893).” A No. 4 Kodak Camera took all of the nearly 200 photographs.

The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago was one of many world fairs that were held around the turn of the century to showcase technological and industrial advancements. The Ferris wheel was just one of many amazing new inventions introduced at the fair, but as Chicago’s response to the Eiffel Tower, which was built for the International Exhibition of Paris in 1889, the wheel became the fair’s signature attraction.

The book includes a photo of the wheel, which, at 64 feet high, towered over all other exhibits. It had 36 cars, each capable of carrying 60 passengers. A round-trip: 20 minutes; cost to build the Ferris wheel: $300,000.

The site for the fair was Jackson Park on Chicago’s South Side. The fairgrounds came to be known as “the white city” because of the beautiful white marble used in the construction of the buildings, of which only the Fine Arts Building, now the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, still stands.

Other World’s Fair attractions pictured in the book are the Krupp Gun Building, which contained a 124-ton cannon, the largest cast to that point; Yucatan ruins; a Japanese village; a World’s Congress of Beauty, advertising “40 ladies from 40 nations”; and Machinery Hall, the floor area covering 17 1/2 acres; cost: $1,200,000.

• “A History of the Eighth Illinois U.S. Volunteers” published in 1899. This “hidden gem found deep in the bowels of the book stacks” documents the history of the all African-American Eighth Illinois Volunteer Infantry.

“While there were other infantries of African-American soldiers in the late 1800s, the Eighth Illinois was the first to be led entirely by African-American officers. The Eighth was called by President McKinley to fight in Cuba during the Spanish American War. This volume is filled with photographs, biographical information, the names of all the men in the unit and a historical account of their service.”

The blog features Lieut. J.W. Curtis. Born in 1856 in Marion, Ala., Curtis taught school, held a professorship, clerked in the federal pension office, studied medicine and graduated from Howard University in 1888; in October 1891, he went to Chicago to begin his medical practice. After he volunteered for the war, Curtis served as the medical officer in charge of his regiment in Cuba and only lost one soldier.

Since February, the large-scale digitization team has scanned some 1,500 books. For more information about the library’s new blog, contact Kruger at

With more than 10 million volumes, the U. of I. library is renowned for its collections, the expertise of its staff, and its innovative and cutting-edge services.