“open to the public” != public library – a day (almost) at the Newberry

I had a free day in Chicago today and was planning some library visits. Usually when I’m in Chicago I just go to the downtown library and then complain. This time I wanted to go someplace different, and out of the CPL system. I decided to go to the Newberry Library, whose website says “free and open to the public.” I took a picture of the exterior and walked inside to the lobby. There was a guard there.

me: “Do I have to check my bag?”
guard: “Well you’re not allowed inside unless you’re here for research.”
me: “Oh, sorry, I had just heard that reading room was lovely, can I just walk upstairs and look inside?”
guard: “You have to be doing RESEARCH to go upstairs, on something in the library’s collection.”
me: “Can I just use the third floor reference collection, maybe talk to one of the librarians?”
guard: “No. You’ll have to wait for a tour, tours are on Thursdays. The only places you can go are the gift shop and here in the lobby.”

At this point I walk over to the brochure stand to see if maybe there is some library interest area I can claim a research interest in. While I’m there, the guard turns two more people away. I decide I’m sick of the stupid secret-handshake routine — it seems fairly obvious that I just have to make up some sort of research objective and they’ll let me go up — and decide to leave.

guard: “Do you have some RESEARCH you’d like to do?” (clearly the emphais on the word, to me, implies “hey dumbass, it’s the most obvious password in the book. Here, I’m giving it to you”)
me: “No, I just wanted to look at the reading room, but I think I’ll go home instead.”

I really try to not use this space to complain about customer service incidents unless I think they can somehow be useful teaching tools, but I just was floored here. I had done my homework and read the website where it said “The Library asks that they have research interest in areas supported by the collections but will give one-day passes to people are who are uncertain and just want to explore.” but at the point at which I was not given that option, I quit.

It’s been a long August and I’m a little overtired perhaps so I didn’t have the strength for either the “Please let me talk to your boss” or the “This is what it says on your website” routines. I was spending the day alone in an only-sort-of familiar city and I just wanted to look at a pretty library for a bit, just like I did in Baltimore where the nice lady in the cardigan showed me around before leaving me to wander around on my own.