“Romancing the Archives” by Pamm Collebrusco

A trip to the Illinois State Archives and Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Archives, March 9, 2015.Hosted by CARLI.

What is more fascinating to a librarian, especially one interested in history, than spending a day snooping around the state archives? I had the opportunity to do this and learned how Illinois preserves state documents and memorabilia.

Our group began its adventures with airport-like security checks and a warm welcome by David Joens, director of the Illinois State Archives, which is located in the Margaret Cross Norton Building next to the Capitol. Tour guide Lori Roberts gave high praise to the building’s namesake for her foresight as to what an archives building should look like. Margaret Norton, the first director, had a chance to make her vision a reality because the previous structure (the State Arsenal which was a wood, castle-like building) had burned down in 1934 (set on fire by a ten year old) and with it all the bonus records of WWI soldiers. “Our soldiers deserve better,” she insisted. As a result of her lobbying the state legislature appropriated $500,000 for a building, which was supplemented by $350,000 in WPA federal funds. Truly a bargain!

Finished in 1938, the building is a structural mammoth. It is constructed with Indiana limestone on the outside to protect against weather, vermin, and fire; Illinois granite on the inside with marble floors and very few windows; controlled temperatures, such as 50 degrees in stacks. When you work there you are in a cavern-like atmosphere—not good for those with claustrophobia! Books and documents need support and each floor has a cement foundation of some 36 inches (or 4 feet?) of concrete. The upper levels feature locked vaults where state agencies store semi-permanent files—no one wanted another department snooping around in their files!

Lori stopped at various locations to open up books in storage. One was a draft registration list of men, including a relative of hers, who had participated in the Civil War. The register contained beautifully handwritten names, including heights, weights, hair and eye color, age, and where soldiers were from. Another find was the federal township plats. Lori pointed out a plat which showed land Lincoln had purchased on the Sangamon River in Menard County. As far as organization of the archives is concerned, it is somewhat haphazard. When collections come in, a place is found for them.

After the tour Dottie Hopkins, an archives veteran of about 30 years, took over with a demonstration of some of her preservation techniques. Her workroom is a mixture of antique and new equipment, old and new processes. Her current project is adding moisture to papers (lawyer oaths from the 1980s) so that they could be unfolded and preserved in files. A plastic bucket with a small amount of water and lye (to retard mold growth) held a basket in it with folded oaths. After a certain exposure time these papers would eventually be moist enough to unfold, after which time they are dried and flattened. Experience is her guide as to how long it takes for certain papers to achieve this. She has to judge at what point each batch will be done because once the saturation point is achieved it cannot be increased without harming the paper. No leaving for the weekend if papers will be damaged in the meantime!

Dottie also explained how to clean paper (with a dry chemical and a pink eraser); the difference between laminating and encapsulating; the effect of various chemicals on paper; the steamer used to moisten paper; the nature of mold and how it can be suppressed by not completely eradicated; the use of silk. Why no gloves, we wondered. She explained that she has a better feel for the papers without them; gloves don’t fit her correctly, and she makes up for it with constantly washing her hands.

Dottie works by herself. No one is in training to do what she does after she retires. Because of the amount of material to be worked on, she tackles projects with the highest priority. Hats off to Dottie for her valuable work saving state documents!

After lunch at the Illinois State Library the next stop on our tour was the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, established in 1889 as the Illinois State Historical Library. Kathryn Harris, the library services director, gave us a rousing welcome, greeting everyone personally. She was excited about these being her last 22 days serving as director and her upcoming retirement party.

Historical preservation is done by another 30+ year-veteran archivist, Bonnie Parr, assisted by an intern. Similar to the State Archives workroom, this area on the 4th floor is a combination of old and new. Bonnie began with an explanation for her blue rubber gloves. She finds them easier to use than cotton ones which collect dirt and need constant washing, transfer dirt, and can be rough on handling delicate papers. She then showed us book wrappers and corrugated clamshell boxes made individually for rare and hard to handle books. (You can buy these boxes already made but she is partial to making them.) Two books needing boxes were the Firearms Directory and Ward Schori’s miniature book collection. Other books brought out had had covers fixed, inserts made, and spines repaired.

The next items Bonnie held up were what make archival items so exciting. Documents that existed in another era! Real life items! Most touching to me was the Western Union Telegram that R.T. Lincoln sent on April 15, 1865, to Associate Judge Davis in Bloomington: “Please come at once to Washington to handle my father’s affairs.” There was a swan feather from Queen Victoria; the actual photograph of Lincoln in his casket that a young boy had found and is the only one in existence; black mourning silk; an authenticated piece of towel with Lincoln’s blood. And most recently in the news, the family Bible that was found wet in the basement of the Dana Thomas House. It was given a second life when newly elected Gov. Rauner selected it for his inauguration. Dried out and tied up with ribbon, this heavy volume was held by his wife as he took the oath of office.

After show-and-tell in the workroom, the group toured the stacks. Again, this level is held to constant temperatures (50 degrees?) and humidity (30%?), measured by a hygrothermagraph. (An interesting side note: the material used to detect moisture in the air is blond hair.) This particular device is dated, but Bonnie believes it to be the best. Digital monitoring is in the archives future though! Shelving measures a total of 6 ½ miles for documents; we passed archival boxes labelled Horner and Kerner. Our tour ended with viewing the “attic” (figuratively speaking). This area held miscellaneous artwork, Lincoln portraits (including a forgery), busts, a small scale Lincoln’s home, maps, and even some items on loan from Benedictine University.

So much history, so many stories!

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