Archives and Research

Overcoming “the Politics of Old Paper”: The Illinois Regional Archives Depository, Chicago

Jane Jurgens, February 1993

Due to the complexity and independence of its local government bodies as well as the vagaries of Chicago politics in general, the city of Chicago has never had a municipal archives, a central facility housing the city's unpublished public records. As a result, the task of locating, retrieving, and accessing relevant documents for the researcher of Chicago history is overwhelming. The difficulty of accessing public records in Chicago remains an obstacle to the researcher. Vital public records of historical merit are still largely scattered in various departments, agencies, libraries, and warehouses in the city and across the county. While it is unrealistic to believe that the Illinois Regional Archives Depository–Chicago Branch (IRAD) will eventually be a central depository for "all" historic public records in Cook County, IRAD–Chicago is a unique step in the slow and often tedious process of centralizing local government records and in turn solving the problem of the "politics of old paper."1

IRAD–Chicago, the seventh and newest facility in the Illinois Regional Archives Depository System, houses significant collections of primary source documents pertaining to the history of Chicago and Cook County. It is currently housed in the lower level of the Ronald Williams Library on the campus of Northeastern Illinois University on the northwest side of Chicago. IRAD–Chicago is part of the Illinois Regional Archives Depository System, a statewide depository system established by the Illinois State Archives in 1976.

The implementation of the IRAD System was in response to the "paper crunch" that many local government agencies in Illinois were experiencing. The passage of the Illinois Records Act in 1961 placed the responsibility for managing and providing access to government records with the Illinois Secretary of State serving as the State Archivist.2 The Act "regulates the destruction and preservation of public records of courts, counties, municipal corporations and any political subdivisions in the State of Illinois . . . . The Act defines record material, explains the right of public access of information and sets standards for record keeping and microfilming."3 It required the State Archivist to draw up orderly retention and disposal schedules for public records in the various public agencies and local governments across Illinois. These schedules were to be approved by two six-member Local Records Commissions, one for Chicago/Cook County and one for the rest of Illinois.

The law requires that public agencies in Illinois turn over a substantial number of records to the Illinois State Archives in Springfield for permanent housing. The IRAD System was ultimately created to receive the overflow of valuable documents from the State Archives in Springfield and to provide public services. In 1976, six IRAD facilities were established on six university campuses in Illinois. 4

The Cook County Local Records Commission remained largely inactive until 1983. As a result the county of Cook, which includes Chicago, did not fully participate in the provisions and requirements mandated by the Act. Between December 1983 and March 1986, retention and disposal schedules were finally drawn up for the city of Chicago for 200 public agencies in Chicago and Cook County resulting in 475 schedules (514,559 cubic feet of records) approved by the Cook County Local Records Commission. 5 The seventh IRAD facility was created at Northeastern Illinois University in 1987. The City of Chicago Council Proceedings, 1844–1944, constituted the first major accession of the new IRAD–Chicago.6

The records in IRAD–Chicago, accessioned from public agencies in the city of Chicago and from various local governments, currently total over 1,180 linear feet of loose records together with 997 reels of microfilm.

By far the City of Chicago Council Proceedings Files, 1833–1944 constitute the largest group of loose records on Chicago proper. These are the working papers of the Chicago City Council and include committee reports, orders, assessment roles, appointments, official oaths and bonds, ordinances and resolutions, poll books, tally sheet licenses, petitions, and remonstrances. The bulk of the post-fire materials has not been indexed. The pre-fire material (1833–1871) has been indexed in the Chicago City Council Proceedings, 1833–1871: An Inventory with accompanying subject index on microfiche entitled Chicago City Council Proceedings Files, 1833–1871: An Index. The Chicago City Council Minutes, the summaries of the Proceedings Files, although scattered from 1853–1907, are available on microfiche.

The depository also houses the Chicago City Civil Service Commission Original Minutes, 1895–1943; 1954–1962; 1965–1973, the Indexes to the Minutes from around 1900–1950, and the Chicago City Civil Service Commission Eligibility & Promotional Registers, 1895–1970, which include the Departments of Police, Fire, Streets, Engineering, Clerical, Labor, and Inspections. These ledgers contain the name of the individual, position, and often street address. For those engaged in genealogical research, the Record and Index of Persons Registered and Poll List of Voters (1888, 1888–1890, 1892) is available on microfilm. These lists have served as an invaluable "substitute" census in lieu of the Federal Census of 1890, which was destroyed. The 1892 list shows the names of women who were allowed to vote for school board elections, the first time women were allowed to vote in Illinois in any election.

The Film Board Censorship Files is a unique collection in the depository consisting of petitions, permits, and related correspondence of the Motion Picture Appeals Board of Chicago. The board itself was originally established in 1906 under the authority of the Department of Police with a mandate to preview all motion picture films in order to judge their suitability for viewing in Chicago movie houses. The holdings are scattered from 1912 to 1983.

Additional Chicago materials include the Chancery Records or Burned Record Files (1873–1904) and Liquor Licenses for the year 1934. The depository houses the Sanborn Fire Insurance Atlases for the city of Chicago, 1906–1950 with updates to 1972, Tract Atlases for the City of Chicago, 1872–1910, and the Chicago City Ward Election Precinct Maps, 1912.

Also included in the collections of the depository are the proceedings and minutes of the local governments of selected towns and villages prior to their incorporation into the city of Chicago. The earliest records begin in 1850 for the town of Jefferson while the largest number of records are for the town of Lake. Other towns included are Lake View, Hyde Park, West Roseland, Washington Heights, Fernwood, Rogers Park, West Ridge, Norwood Park, Edison Park, Morgan Park, Clearing, Beverly, Mount Greenwood, and the township of Northfield.

Besides original records, IRAD–Chicago contains a selection of microfilmed records that have proved especially useful for genealogists researching family history in Chicago. The depository contains naturalization records, petition records, and declarations of intentions on microfilm for the Circuit Court, Superior Court, and Criminal Court as well as probate records, foreign and domestic wills, and grants of guardianship. The record holdings in IRAD are scattered, but many records begin in 1871. Two of the most recent supplemental acquisitions on microfiche are the Illinois Vital Records–Death Index, 1916–1939 and the Marriage Record Index, 1830–1900, neither of which includes Cook County.

Many of the original files in the IRAD collection remain unindexed: consequently, researching a specific topic in these files can often be tedious and time consuming. To locate information in the City of Chicago Council Proceedings (post-1872), for example, the patron must rely on container listings compiled by state interns hired by the Illinois State Archives and the "NEBO" listing, a computer-generated printout of record titles held by each depository in Illinois, including IRAD–Chicago.7

The demands on the IRAD facility have steadily increased since its opening in October 1990. Since that time, the facility has accommodated a varied clientele which includes genealogists, professional historians, archivists, and students all working on a variety of research projects. About 80 percent of the inquiries are from patrons researching their personal family histories. The "Chicago genealogists" have shown a special interest in the microfilmed Poll List of Voters and in the Naturalization Records (both sets of records are provided with indexes). Other research interests of patrons have included a history of the Chicago freight tunnels, the early history of public education in Chicago, early patterns of employment among married and unmarried women in Chicago, history of antismoking ordinances in Chicago in the early 1920s, and the old City Cemetery of Chicago, to name a few. To the researchers of these topics and others, IRAD–Chicago has proved an invaluable centralized resource.

The staff of IRAD–Chicago welcomes questions and inquiries by phone, by mail, or in person. The hours of the depository are Monday–Friday, 9:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. The telephone number in Chicago is (312) 794-6279. Address all mail inquiries to:

IRAD–Chicago
Northeastern Illinois University
Ronald Williams Library
5500 North Saint Louis Ave.
Chicago, IL 60625

Notes

1. A phrase suggested by Leon Pasko, a student assistant in the Reference Department, Ronald Williams Library, Northeastern Illinois University.

2. Refer to the Illinois Local Records Management Handbook published by the Illinois State Archives, April 1985.

3. Ibid., p. 1.

4. Western Illinois University, Southern Illinois University, Eastern Illinois University, Sangamon State University, Illinois State University, Northern Illinois University, Northeastern Illinois University.

5. For a complete history of the "Chicago problem," see article by John Daly, director of the Illinois State Archives, entitled "State Archives and Metropolitan Records: The Case for Chicago," The American Archivist 51 (Fall 1988). In 1983, a new records commissioner was appointed for the city of Chicago.

6. IRAD–Chicago at Northeastern Illinois University officially opened its doors to the public in October 1990.

7. The "NEBO" system consists of a database and six programs. The most current program/printout is supplied by the Illinois State Archives and is sent to all the depositories in Illinois. The record titles are arranged by county, together with the beginning and ending dates of the record as well as the respective depository in which the record is located. This list is not an item-by-item listing. The term "NEBO" is not an acronym. The database was named in honor of the programmer's hometown, Nebo, Illinois.

—Jane Jurgens is the coordinator of the Illinois Regional Archives Depository–Chicago Branch.