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CHM Staff Spotlight: Lesley Martin

Posted under Collections by Lesley Martin

After nearly three decades with the Chicago History Museum, CHM reference librarian Lesley Martin is retiring this October. In this special staff spotlight, she reflects on her time as an editor and librarian at CHM.

CHM reference librarian Lesley Martin (right) with patrons in the Abakanowicz Research Center, 2015. All photographs by CHM staff.  

How did your career path lead you to the Chicago History Museum?

I came to CHM as a librarian who had left public libraries and was freelancing as a researcher, fact-checker, and indexer. I did several projects in the former Publications Department. (Most unusual assignment—labels for a show on Jockey underwear! [Ed. note: A Brief History: The Jockey Underwear Story, October 2, 1993–January 15, 1994]) In 1995, I was hired as one of the full-time editors. Along with editorial colleagues, I edited exhibition labels and Chicago History magazine articles, proofread invitations, produced CHM’s events calendar, annual reports, etc. It was a great job, but after about five years, a position opened in the Research Center (Ed. Note: Now the Abakanowicz Research Center [ARC]), and I was unable to resist the chance to work directly with the research collections. I had used the 2D collections to do fact-checking and photo research as an editor, but as a reference librarian, I could walk right into the storage areas and explore more fully. Assisting researchers has given me many opportunities to dig into the Museum’s collections.

What’s your favorite part about your job?

The ARC gives individuals the chance to explore their own particular interests in CHM’s collections, and my favorite part of the job is connecting them with what they need. Some researchers may be attempting to verify a family legend; graduate students come looking for materials to support a dissertation topic; moviemakers and set designers want photographs with visual details for a particular era; novelists seek out the circumstances of everyday life in a different time; architects check our collections for blueprints of a commercial building that’s being restored or perhaps converted to condominiums; guides hunt for telling details to include in tours of the city. (This year, the Education Department’s partnership with My Block, My Hood, My City brought in youth guides working on tours of their home neighborhood, North Lawndale.) It’s never dull!

A Chicago Rapid Transit Lines map with a fish-eye style design, 1946.

What’s your favorite artifact?

This changes all the time, depending on what I’m working on. Last month, I was pulling out some transit maps. I am a big fan of public transportation (I haven’t owned a car since my first and only automobile died around 1990.) I love looking at the ways Chicago’s transit has changed over the decades, and also the ways it has stayed the same. And I love looking at how graphic designers have conveyed the information. (Spoiler alert—thanks to a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, many of our pre-1940 maps will be available to view online in fall 2024 through a partnership led by the University of Chicago and including the Newberry Library.)

A Chicago Rapid Transit Lines station guide, 1936.

What will you miss about CHM?

I’ll miss working with colleagues throughout the building, but especially my coworkers in the ARC. I’ll miss the community of researchers who made my job so interesting (and were so helpful—often, as one researcher was asking a question, another might pipe up with a useful contact or suggestion). I guess this is my opportunity to switch sides again—I look forward to coming in and doing research from the other side of the reference desk!

Comments (19)

  1. Lesley,

    I wish you well in your retirement. It has been well earned. I will miss you. I appreciate all the help you have given me over the years.


    P.S. I too am a fan of public transit, though I take it less than I use to.

  2. Lesley, over the years I’ve used the CHS/CHM research center for a number of novels — I never write anything set in the present — and I always appreciated the help I received from you personally and your staff. I hope you enjoy retirement and doing your own research.


    Michael Raleigh

  3. Lesley Martin has provided such valuable help to me during many visits to the Research Center. She always seems to know of just “one more place to look” in the archives and has creative ways of getting around apparent dead ends. That diligence often pays off with an unexpected treasure for researchers. She really is a CHM treasure, too. Offering my best wishes in retirement!

  4. After 30 years, I appreciate that it is time, but so sorry the Abakanowicz Research Center will be losing this irreplaceable resource. Lesley’s dedication and knowledge have contributed so much to people who are also supporting Chicago, in their own ways, Many thanks for her service!

  5. Lesley’s spirit for “finding”, learning and sharing makes her an exceptional researcher and leader.
    On to the next challenge, Lesley, with much love from one of the many ARC patrons

  6. I know Lesley will be greatly missed. Knowledge of the collections is built up over time and is often the key to connecting researchers with the materials they are searching for. Also, thanks for highlighting these two transit maps, they are both stunning artifacts.

  7. Lesley will be deeply missed by the community of Chicago historians! I can’t imagine the ARC without her, but wish her the very best!!

  8. Happy for you, Lesley, sad for me and other patrons. A person who loves her job elevates everyone with whom she comes in contact. Merci beaucoup and godspeed.

  9. I so appreciate how Leslie was always willing to help…with a big smile! Best wishes to you in your retirement. If you ever want to visit MSI please contact me!

  10. As a *very* novice Chicago history buff, Lesley was always helpful when I asked those novice questions on my visits to the ARC. Thank you Lesley and enjoy your retirement.

  11. Thank you, Lesley, for all your help over the years. A standout: for the Chicago Jewish Historical Society journal you found the name, ward, and years in office of every Jewish alderman in the history of the City. Best wishes!

  12. Lesley! You were always so friendly and helpful. There’s no way my projects got off the ground without your help and support, especially for those researchers, like myself, who come to Chicago from afar. All the best in your retirement! – Ian Rocksborough-Smith

  13. Thanks to all for your generous comments–this certainly demonstrates what a wonderful community of researchers exists in and around the ARC, and why I have loved working here!

  14. Dear Lesley —

    I can’t thank you enough for all of your help and insight into Chicago history and the archives at the Museum over the past 20+ years! No matter what the question, you always seemed to figure it out and provide encouragement to keep digging.

    I/we will miss seeing you at the CHM. Congratulations on your retirement.

    With utmost appreciation,
    Erik Gellman, (formerly Northwestern, Roosevelt; now UNC)

  15. Congratulations, Lesley!
    You and I shared many meaningful moments in our time as colleagues at CHM. The relationship between the Visitor Services staff and the ARC staff was a labor of professional commitment over the years. I always appreciated how those shared, core values on behalf of our patrons and the collection helped us solve a range of issues. It was wonderful working with you.
    I know you feel very good about passing the baton to the next set of staff – as you should!
    Best wishes to you on your next chapter.

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