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Brookfield Zoo Chicago Zoological Society Library
by Carla Owens


Beautiful Italianate design can be seen throughout Brookfield Zoo. Edwin H. Clark, Architect. View of South Gate Entrance.

Chicago Zoological Society Brookfield Zoo is the largest zoo in the Chicagoland area. It is one of Illinois’ largest cultural institutions and the 5th largest zoo in the country, located 14 miles west of Chicago in Brookfield, IL with an annual attendance over 2 million. In 1919, Edith Rockefeller McCormick donated 83 acres of land to the Forest Preserve District of Cook County for the express purpose of building the most modern new zoo. The new design would incorporate barless enclosures in naturalistic settings. The Society was chartered on February 21, 1921. The architect Edwin H. Clark and the Society had many architectural and financial challenges to resolve before the zoo was completed. The zoo opened in 1934 to many accolades. One of the Society’s most important missions has been, and continues to be, “to inspire conservation leadership by connecting people with wildlife and nature.”


The library building is opposite the Formal Pool. The building was built in the 1930s and used to house an Insectorium. 22 peacocks roam the zoo grounds but today it has graced us with a visit.

Library Services and Archives
The Brookfield Zoo Library & Archives functions as a zoological research library with a large archives collection spanning from 1919 to present day. I found a memo from 1932 mentioning that a research collection was in the Director’s office for anyone’s use. This current library was established in 1962. It is one of the largest zoo libraries in the country with 10,000 volumes. The library provides information and resources to the Society’s employees, visitors, members, visiting scholars, volunteers, teachers, school children, and the CZS Advanced Inquiry Program graduate students. The Archives house a variety of materials and objects from its early history including an extensive photograph and slide collection, scientific photographic representation of the animal collections, correspondence, internal publications, annual reports, official memorand, etc. The intriguing items of the collection include paintings, buttons, banners, uniforms, WPA posters, WPA maps, postcards, souvenirs, marketing materials & unusual ephemera in general.


The 268 archival boxes are housed in the Library.

This wonderful Art Deco merchandise display was used to sell postcards in the 1930s when the zoo first opened.


Not a week goes by that there isn’t some interesting donation for the Archives. This week we added a horse collar used by our Clydesdales, oxen yokes, a bell and a butter churn. The Children’s Zoo closed after 60 years of operation in 2013.

Our book collection is unusual as it contains many rare first editions. A typical library may have 5 books on primates where we have over 200. The Society library is part of the RAILS (Reaching Across Illinois Library Systems) consortium serving approximately 1300 academic, public, school, and special library agencies in northern and west-central Illinois. We are very busy providing interlibrary loan requests and our materials are delivered through RAILS. We migrated over to SirsiDynix last year. Our online catalog is managed through SWAN.


This image is the beginning of my zoo museum. It is a display of live animal casts that are a unique identification of an animal. The cast in the forefront is from Bana’s foot, a Western Lowland gorilla residing in Lincoln Park Zoo. The back row is a cast from Ramar’s right hand. He is our emeritus silverback, Western lowland gorilla who resides in Tropic World. We have a collection of over 90 species cast.

The Mold-A-Rama Company just celebrated their 50th anniversary at the Society. I had a great time conducting photo research for an exhibit honoring the occasion.


Our large photo collection brings us a glimpse of the past. Image of the inlaid formica tables located in the Refectory. They were designed by WPA artist, John Winters and the fountain sculpture by Louise Pflasterer Ross. Guests can view the 20 tabletops at the Discovery Center.

Chicago Zoological Society History
The Society Library Services joined the Chicago Collections Consortium. It is a new non-profit organization of 20 libraries and institutions that is bringing together Chicagoland history under one roof. The excellent, fully searchable, web platform has thousands of images and location of history collections for scholars, teachers, students and historyphiles. We are now scanning, cataloging and uploading our images into the platform.


Pandamonium ensued at the Brookfield Zoo when Su-Lin arrived in 1937 with immense crowds lining up to see him. This is a postcard in our collection of the Giant panda. He was the first panda to be exhibited in North America.


My favorite cover of the Chicago Zoological Society’s 1952 guidebook featuring Cookie, our Major Mitchell Cockatoo, painted by Karl Plath, our first bird curator. He was a fine artist and ornithologist. We have 483 hand painted metal id tags that Mr. Plath painted that were displayed in Perching Bird and Aquatic Bird Houses.

A Day in the Life of a Zoo Librarian
As a solo librarian, my work revolves around the usual tasks of running a special collection. I wear many hats. I manage a team of dedicated volunteers and usually have 2-3 interns that assist in running the day to day library operations. I conduct a lot of research and instead of looking at the history of the Dow Jones Index, I put together aardvark bibliographies, find information on pangolin reproduction and figure out what kind of sheep were exhibited on Ibex Mountain. What is interesting, is that the library is like an academic, public and business library all rolled into one. The Library falls under Conservation, Education and Community affairs but we serve the entire zoo. I conduct a lot of research for our teachers, animal behaviorists, animal welfare experts, keepers, curators, public relations, and the veterinary staff. The Chicago Zoological Society has a graduate program in zoology in conjunction with Miami University. I conduct bibliographic orientation, assist with research strategies and work with the graduate students one on one for their Master Plans. I also give narrated history tram tours for Special Events and lecture on Art Deco art and architecture at the zoo. All in all, every day is different and the best part is a walk over to the giraffes to see them enjoying spring weather.

Copyright 2017 by Carla Owens.
About the author:
Carla Owens will be celebrating 10 years at the Chicago Zoological Society. She enjoys researching zoo history from primary documents.
Deuchler, D., & Owens, C. W. (2009). Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Zoological Society. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing.
Owens, C. (2011). Lions and Tigers and Bears—and Deco Art Deco Flourishes at the Brookfield Zoo. Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine, Spring.