Preserving the past, enriching the present: How the Joliet library brings you local history

Anneta Drilling Sowa stands in the Local History section of the Joliet Library Ottawa Street Branch, where she serves as local history librarian.

Western Avenue. Towering mansions. Steeples from the jeweled windowed churches as far as the eye can see. The Rialto Square Theatre.

The Daniel Burnham built location of the Joliet Public Library. All pieces of the town many of us call home. All part of the tapestry of our history.

I’ve heard the question many times before, maybe you have too.

What are your ties to Joliet? Why do you care about your family history? How does that affect who you are today? I think there are a lot of great things about Joliet, and I will write about it every month until I convince you if you feel otherwise. Our history is one of those things.

My family has been here for decades. I still drive by the original homesteads on Cora and Center Streets. I have memories of visiting the Rialto for the first time and of getting lost in the tall stacks at the downtown library.

I remember staring in awe (or fear) at the bridges going up as a child, and hearing echoes of early Joliet, told from those who lived it. I have my grandmother’s picture ID from working at the steel factory during the war. Our history, it’s a piece of the people who are gone. It is a guide for us as we look toward the future.

Local history librarian at the Joliet Public Library Anneta Drilling Sowa doesn’t need convincing about the value of remembering. She has worked at the Joliet Public Library for almost 36 years.

She possesses a wealth of information about the Library itself, knows all the stories about rumored (friendly) ghosts hanging around in the stairwells and corners.

She has been here through remodels and renovations, worked at the branch at the Joliet mall in the 90′s, and witnessed the building the Black Road Branch in 2002. She has helped countless people find information and reads, but where she really thrives is local history.

“I love my job and I love the patrons, but I also enjoy history,” said Sowa. “Specifically, the history of Joliet. We have so much history here. Each day I can find information on something I never knew. From the people to the schools and neighborhoods, to the architecture and houses and streets — it’s all Joliet. It’s about memories and mysteries.”

The fireplace in the Local History section of the Joliet Public Library Ottawa Street Branch, with Hiawatha tiles and Joliet art displayed on the mantle.

I have known Anneta for eight years now, and she is an integral part of our Joliet Public Library. She specializes in the history of our area and genealogy and she is also an experienced librarian who works in the general adult department when she is needed.

There is no one I would rather go to for help tracking down family history or information about our town before her.

“When a patron comes in, calls, or writes with a question about genealogy or local history and I can help them find the answer, they always respond with a huge grin and a thank you. It’s like you have handed them gold,” said Sowa.

She has remarkable skill for locating information using something as simple as a last name and a date. She is old school librarian, and once she has a question, she won’t stop until she can find the answer.

“Even if we don’t find the answer exactly as it was thought, or find out something completely different, people always seem happy that another person took their personal history question seriously. I absolutely love it when people come back later with another question. That means I have earned their trust with something as valuable as their stories,” said Sowa.

She is helping plan the Illinois State Genealogical Society Conference (ISGS) at/in collaboration with the Joliet Area Historical Museum on Oct. 26, 2024. The conference will include exhibits, displays and speaker presentations. Her dedication to preserving our history and retelling stories is an inspiration, because if people like Anneta won’t do it, who will?

“It’s great to talk to patrons who love Joliet as much as I do,” said Sowa.

For more information about the Joliet Public Library, visit jolietlibray.org or call 815-740-2660. To find out more about the ISGS, or to contact Anneta directly, call at 815-846-3130 or email adrilling@jolietlibrary.org.