Protecting the past

Just across Monroe Street from the Capitol building, the ashes of the Illinois State Armory were still smoldering as state officials worked to determine just how bad the loss was. The 1934 fire had wrecked the building; that much was obvious. But more than just a structure had been lost, and the state had learned an important lesson about protecting irreplaceable artifacts.

As the fire burned, firefighters had wisely decided to direct their hoses toward the tons of ammunition and gunpowder stored in the building (now kept at Camp Lincoln on the outskirts of Springfield, rather than in the middle of downtown). Unfortunately, materials stored in other parts of the building had not been saved, and these included innumerable paper records of Illinois soldiers dating back to the Civil War.

Though the fire drove home the realization that the state needed to have a better plan for preserving its past, it did not mark the beginning of the state’s efforts to save its history for future generations. Secretary of State George H. Harlow had been especially dedicated to preserving and classifying state records during his term from 1873 to 1881, but successors had not been as vigilant. In 1921, the State Archives Division of the Secretary of State’s office had been created. The new office had the responsibility for keeping the state’s paper records in files in the brand new Centennial (now Howlett) Building on the grounds of the Capitol complex.

But the Archives faced challenges, some of them very serious. An archivist had not yet been appointed when the division was created, and so it was assigned office space which was not up to the task of the unique challenges of document preservation. Protecting the state’s history was going to take a lot more than piling documents in the storeroom of a government building. Luckily, the state found a superb archivist to take on the challenge.

“Fire is not the only peril to which precious records are subjected,” wrote Margaret Cross Norton, Illinois’ first state archivist. “Dampness, mildew, rats, roaches and other insects, and the mere disintegration of flimsy paper and poor inks can cause irreparable damage.”

Born and raised in Rockford, Norton understood both the extent of the problem and the depth of the challenge the state faced. Gaps existed in state records, gaps which presented problems if a law passed during that time became the subject of a court challenge, for example. Records had been stuffed into basements and attics, left unattended for decades, accidentally destroyed or simply lost. She cited the example of the records of state Senate proceedings from 1869 which had rotted away to almost nothing. She also pointed out the loss of countless records of Abraham Lincoln’s court proceedings and legislative actions, many of them written in Lincoln’s own hand.

Fortunately, many more records survived and were now in the hands of someone who had a grasp on how to protect them.

In 1935 Norton and Secretary of State Edward J. Hughes successfully lobbied the 59th General Assembly for a $500,000 appropriation for a new Archives building on the Capitol grounds. Another $320,000 came from Uncle Sam as part of the New Deal.

Norton made the case for the new building’s necessity quite simply.

“When a man’s store catches fire, his first thought is for the safety of his records,” she wrote. “What the loss of a businessman’s records would mean to him is obvious. The same is true of the state’s records. They are preserved for business, not sentimental reasons.”

She applauded the foresight of the state official who preserved the 1818 Census records, “not because he thought his grandchildren would like to see his name there, but because that census recorded the proof that Illinois had the number of inhabitants required for statehood.”

“Likewise the enrolled laws were preserved, not because they were quaint, but because some court might demand a certified copy as evidence,” she continued.

Margaret Cross Norton Building in Springfield, Illinois
The new building to preserve and protect the state’s documents was designed by architects in the Department of Public Works and Buildings, led by supervising architect C. Herrick Hammond, but with much input from Norton. Ground was broken in 1936. It was designed to conform to the architectural style of the nearby Centennial Building, but also to be expandable as the state grew and more records were created. Norton was heavily involved in every step of the process, making sure that the building which resulted from these efforts would be sufficient to preserve the state’s records for generations.

To protect paper files from deterioration due to sunlight, the top floors have no windows. They were designed to have 15 miles of cabinets, made of steel. The building was also air conditioned; still a rarity in the mid-1930s; in order to control the temperature and prevent damage to documents. Steel fire doors separated sections of the building so that a fire could be quickly contained should one break out.

The building was also designed with a receiving room to clean and repair documents, a photostatic reproduction room, an exhibit room for displaying publicly-viewable artifacts, a reference room and research library. In all, it had more than 80,000 cubic feet of storage space.

When the Illinois State Archives building opened, there were only two buildings in the nation which were dedicated solely to preserving archives: the National Archives in Washington and a state archives building in Maryland which had also opened around the same time as the new building in Springfield. The Illinois State Archives building was such a state-of-the-art structure that World War II contingency plans for an evacuation of Washington DC called for portions of the National Archives to be transferred to Springfield for safe keeping. Thankfully, those plans were never put into action.

State records soon found a home in the new building, which was completed in 1938. So did many records from the state’s 102 counties. The list of treasures to be found in the building is truly spectacular, dating back to Illinois’ earliest days: “territorial records going back to 1790, including correspondence and miscellaneous files of the early Governors and Secretaries of State,” Norton wrote. “The original state Constitutions of 1818 and 1848 and the proposed Constitutions of 1862 and 1922 are here, together with the journals of the various Constitutional Conventions.”

The files in the archives also include census records, documentation of land ownership and transactions, the tally sheet from the House of Representatives on the question of moving the capital to Springfield, proclamations creating counties in the Illinois territory, a copy of the first State Seal, and Abraham Lincoln’s handwritten first bill, introduced on December 9, 1834.

To this day, the Illinois State Archives remains the primary repository of official records from throughout the state. In addition to the main facility in Springfield, the archives have seven regional depositories at state university campuses. It is a priceless resource for researching every detail of the history of the state’s government.

Margaret Norton shows Springfield students
the original of Illinois' first Constitution
in the Archives Building Museum. 
Margaret Cross Norton continued her work as State Archivist until she retired in 1957. She is recognized as a pioneer in the field of archiving. Respected for her competence and hard work, Norton became a leader in the nationwide drive to preserve irreplaceable records. She founded the Society of American Archivists and was its first vice president and later president. Her expertise was called upon by other states seeking to better preserve their archival records.

Illinois’ first state archivist, Margaret Cross Norton, died on May 21, 1984. She was 92 years old. In 1995, the state honored her service in the most fitting way possible: naming the State Archives Building which she had worked so hard to design, build and maintain as the Margaret Cross Norton Building.