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The Illinois State Historical Library: keeper of our cultural tradition

When workmen started building the Illinois State Capitol at Springfield in 1837, they could not have guessed that it would one day enshrine the memory of a certain poor, lanky son of the frontier who had just come to town. But that was its final destiny. The buff-colored limestone building, with its graceful columns and wide porticos, its enormous cupola and 33-star flag, is the most imposing Lincoln monument in the Midwest.

Inside the massive oak doors are a vaulted central hallway, an elegant staircase and 15 special rooms that once hummed with governmental activity. Here Lincoln served as state legislator, addressed political meetings, used the law library and argued 200 cases before the Illinois Supreme Court. Here he received the Republican nomination for U.S. senator and warned the assembled crowd that "a house divided against itself cannot stand." Here, in 1860, he organized his administration prior to leaving for Washington, and here, in 1865, he lay in state, mourned by the people who knew him best.

Stephen Douglas was a legislator here, and Ulysses S. Grant worked here. The building swarmed with notable Illinoisans until 1876, when the present State Capitol was occupied. No wonder the old Statehouse symbolizes the world of Lincoln and the fascinating heritage of Illinois.

It also marks the location of the Illinois State Historical Library, one of the few buildings in the world constructed entirely beneath another one. When the Old State Capitol was reconstructed and restored in 1966-1969, the Library and a two-level parking lot were built underneath it. After the collections were transferred from the Centennial Building, the new structure was dedicated by Gov. Richard Ogilvie in 1970.

The main reading room of the Library is not the exclusive preserve of intellectuals. A grim-looking bust of Jane Addams stares across a dozen oak tables that are commonly occupied by a mixture of scholars, history buffs and genealogists. This is a library of the people, devoted to great and obscure men and women, immense and insignificant matters, and all sorts of people use it.

Like the old Statehouse above, the Library is a monument to Lincoln. More than that, it is a place to search for him, among books and manuscripts, photographs and memorabilia. The enormous Lincoln Collection gives the Illinois State Historical Library national significance and makes it a kind of presidential library for the Great Emancipator.

The display cases in the Lincoln Room are currently filled with artifacts once owned by Mary Todd Lincoln: a music box, a fancy dress, miscellaneous china. Recently they held a superb collection of presidential campaign memorabilia: buttons, ribbons and broadsides. The exhibits change, but a dozen or so Lincoln sculptures always remain — multiple images of an elusive man.

The collection of Lincoln documents is second only to the combined holdings of the Library of Congress and the National Archives. Among the nearly 1,500 manuscripts written by the great president is a priceless copy of the Gettysburg Address. Here too is a signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation — and an unsigned, undated scrap of paper on which Lincoln wrote, "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this. . . is no democracy." Most of the other documents are letters which record his activities and reflect his enigmatic character.

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The Illinois State Historical Library is located beneath the Old State Capitol (above). In order to restore the structure to its mid-19th century appearance, the capitol was reconstructed during the 1960s.

The oak tables of the Illinois State Historical Library's main reading room (below) are usually occupied by a wide array of individuals. History buffs can learn about the state's settlement and its evolution, Lincoln scholars can sift through his writings, and genealogists can explore their ancestral roots.

The Library is open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. For more information, phone (217) 782-4836.       Photos provided by the Illinois State Historical Library

The collection of printed Lincoln materials is the finest in the world. Along with some 10,000 books and pamphlets, there are more than 1,000 broadsides. One that hangs in the office of curator Thomas Schwartz announces a "GRAND RALLY OF THE LINCOLN MEN OF OLD TAZEWELL" and reflects the colorful language of early Illinois politics: "The opponents of those twin cherries on a split stem, BUCHANAN and DOUGLAS. . . are requested to assemble in GRAND COUNCIL at Pekin, on Tuesday, October 5th, 1858."

The Lincoln Collection has a historical tradition of its own. The chief benefactor was Gov. Henry Homer, an avid Lincoln collector for many years. Shortly before his death in 1940, he donated to the state his 5,500 Lincoln books, pamphlets and broadsides. Overnight the Historical Library had a collection of national significance.

The most noted figure in the history of the Library arranged for that donation. Paul Angle came to Springfield in 1925 as director of the Abraham Lincoln Association, and seven years later Homer appointed him to head the Library and run the Illinois State Historical Society. From 1932 to 1945 he doubled the manuscript collection and increased the book holdings by 50 percent. In the process, he developed close relationships with Lincoln scholars like Carl Sandburg, Lloyd Lewis and Benjamin P. Thomas, and collectors like Oliver R. Barrett, Alfred W. Stern and Henry Horner. He also professionalized the Library by hiring Margaret Flint to handle the day-to-day operations — a role she filled superbly for 33 years. And he became a nationally known historian. Among his four dozen books are Lincoln 1854-1861 (1933), The Lincoln Reader (1947) and Bloody Williamson (1952).

Angle established a tradition of scholar-administrators that later included Jay Monaghan, Harry E. Pratt and Clyde Walton, who also published books and articles on Illinois history. The current heir to that tradition is Roger D. Bridges, an affable man with thinning red hair and a constant smile, whose talk is always punctuated with laughter. He headed the Library from 1976 to 1987 and is now assistant state historian. He developed the annual Illinois History Symposium, now in its ninth year, and he directs the Lincoln Legals Project, aimed at producing a documentary history of Lincoln's law practice.

The Lincoln Collection has not only shaped the interests of some administrators, it has influenced the development of other holdings. The Civil War Collection, for example, includes over 10,000 volumes, ranging from contemporaneous histories and biographies, produced while the war was being fought, to modern studies. Most of these titles were donated in 1943 by Chicago book collector Alfred W. Stern. Of special interest are the hundreds of personal narratives and regimental histories, including such fine works as U.S. Grant's Personal Memoirs (1885-1886) and Bob Burdette's The Drums of the 47th (1914). As the huge collection suggests, no other northern state has felt so deeply connected to the prolonged national convulsion that redirected America toward the fulfillment of its ideals. And the main reason, of course, is that no other state possesses Lincoln quite like Illinois does. An extensive Slavery Collection also supports the Lincoln holdings.

Despite the overwhelming national importance of the 16th president, he is only one facet of Illinois history, and the Library's mission is to preserve that history — all of it. The General Assembly made that clear in 1889 when it passed "An Act to Establish the Illinois State Historical Library," directing the newly appointed trustees "to procure . . . all books, pamphlets, manuscripts, monographs, writings, and other materials of historical interest and useful to the historian, bearing upon the political, physical, religious, or social history of the State of Illinois from the earliest known period of time."

When the Illinois State Historical Society was founded 10 years later, there was controversy about the relation of the Library to the Society. A 1913 amendment to the act of 1889 finally settled the matter: The Society was made a department of the Library. The two agencies have pursued mutual objectives ever since, and the head of the Library (later the state historian) has traditionally served as executive director of the Society.

The earliest librarians were not professionals. Josephine P. Cleveland was appointed to the position in 1889, and she worked to expand the collection of 442 titles that were transferred from the State Library to form the nucleus of the Historical Library, located in the State Capitol. Her only qualifications: residence

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The Library uses the Lincoln Room to display artifacts and manuscripts from its various collections. While the displays change periodically, the Lincoln sculptures are always present.

in Illinois since 1860 and an interest in history and genealogy. She died in 1897.

Jessie Palmer Weber succeeded her. The daughter of Illinois Gov. and U.S. Sen. John M. Palmer, she was a remarkable woman who promoted historical studies as she developed the Library. A co-founder of the Illinois State Historical Society, she built it into the largest organization of its kind in the country. She also founded and edited the Society's journal, now in its 80th year, and she helped to launch the "Collections of the Illinois State Historical Library," a book series devoted to bibliographies and documents. During her 20 years as librarian, Weber repeatedly appealed for "Everything Related to Illinois," and donations flowed in. When she died in 1926, the Library was well established and strongly supported.

The mandate of the General Assembly has been vigorously pursued since Weber's time. The Library's holdings now exceed nine million manuscripts (or 4,600 collections), 200,000 photographs and lithographs, 160,000 books, 65,000 reels of newspapers on microfilm, 6,000 maps and broadsides and 60 file drawers of miscellaneous information.

The Manuscripts Department has collections devoted to many famous Illinoisans. Open a file and Stephen Douglas reacts to the threat of civil war: "I know not that the Union can be saved. I am prepared to make any sacrifice. . ." (1860). Or Robert Ingersoll speaks out for the rights of black Americans: "The colored people do not ask for revenge — they simply ask for justice" (1883). Or Adlai E. Stevenson II summons the nation to defend its ideals: "The struggle with evil, error, and tyranny is everlasting but never
This inkwell and pen are artifacts in the Library's Abraham Lincoln Collection. Lincoln used the wooden inkwell in writing his first inaugural address. He used the gold-tipped wooden pen to sign the Emancipation Proclamation.
vain. . ." (1954). The Black Hawk War and Civil War collections are especially extensive, but all major episodes in Illinois history (after statehood in 1818) are reflected in the Library's manuscript holdings.

So are the lives of everyday people: settlers and soldiers, farmers and teachers, builders and business owners. Their diaries and letters record the social and economic development of Illinois — and remind us that history was once real life, the day-to-day experience of people much like ourselves. In his long poem The People, Yes (1936), Carl Sandburg repeatedly asks. "Who shall speak for the people?" The answer, of course, is the people themselves. The Library's acquisitions policy reflects that view: No Illinois manuscripts are unimportant.

The same approach is reflected in the Prints and Photographs Section. Along with images of Peter Cartwright and Ulysses S. Grant, the Nauvoo Temple and Hull House, Kaskaskia and Chicago, there are thousands of others depicting little-known people, places and activities. The catalog maintained by iconographer Mary Michals lists 2,900 different subjects — including towns, businesses, organizations and professions. "I can't think of any photograph or print we wouldn't be glad to have," she says, "as long as it relates to Illinois."

With regard to the printed materials, one might say that the Library is devoted not to great books but to popular ones. The most noted authors represented here, Lincoln and Sandburg, were successful interpreters of the national experience who addressed themselves to all the people. Their writings were intended for the most minds, not merely the best minds. Likewise, the Library has numerous atlases, law volumes, school reports, state histories and other works intended for the general public.

This emphasis on the popular is also apparent in the superb collection of travel and description literature: 2,600 books that brought Illinois and the Mississippi Valley to a broad readership from the late 17th century to the late 19th. Included among them are Father Louis Hennepin's Description de la Louisiane (1683), the first book to reflect the Illinois Country, and John Mason Peck's Gazetteer of Illinois (1834), the first thorough account of the Prairie State.

The Library's holdings in local history reveal the development of the state and remind us that the people of Illinois have been engaged in a quest for community, on the state and local levels, since Peck's time. All 102 counties are represented by published histories, and the Community History Collection contains 5,500 titles. Here Chicago is depicted in hundreds of publications, including Nelson Algren's prose poem, Chicago: City on the Make (1951), and Studs Terkel's memoir collection, Division Street: America (1967). An amazing array of books chronicles our other communities — from Abingdon to Zion —including such fine achievements as Benjamin P. Thomas's Lincoln's New Salem (1934) and Samuel W. Taylor's Nightfall at Nauvoo (1971).

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Perhaps nothing in the Library is so useful to so many people as the Newspaper Collection. Currently, some 3,800 Illinois newspapers and several hundred from other states are preserved on microfilm. Included is the only known issue of the Kaskaskia Illinois Herald, a four-page weekly which started the state's great newspaper tradition in 1814. In contrast, the Chicago Tribune, launched in 1847, now occupies 3,400 rolls of microfilm. The Library is currently spearheading the Illinois Newspaper Project, which is striving to locate and microfilm all of the state's newspapers that

. . . the Library is the
custodian of our common
experience, the keeper
of our cultural tradition

have not yet been preserved. Hundreds of them have already been located.

It would be hard to overstate the historical value of newspapers. Where else can we find so much fresh information on frontier settlement or Chicago politics? Where else can we view the Civil War as a problem yet to be solved, a struggle to be completed, a social drama unsimplified by retrospective interpretation? In no other resource is it so apparent that life flows into history.

And the state's newspapers are not only the most extensive record of the Illinois story; they are also a part of it. For example, before the Mormon Conflict was a shooting affair, it was a war of words, waged in local newspapers. One of them, the Nauvoo Expositor, was destroyed by Joseph Smith in 1844 after just one issue had appeared — criticizing him. The Library has a copy of that issue. And it has a complete file of the Alton Observer, which provoked the murder of its editor, antislavery advocate Elijah Lovejoy, in 1837.

The newspapers are essential for genealogy too. They not only provide obituaries and other information about millions of people, they reveal the world in which those people lived — and the values they lived by. Most of the 1,900 researchers who used microfilmed newspapers in the Library last year were genealogists. Fortunately, the microfilms can also be borrowed — unlike almost everything else in the Library — so more than 6,000 reels were made available through interlibrary loan during the same period.

The Library has many other resources for genealogists, including journals and newsletters published by genealogical groups across the country, indexes to federal census records, basic genealogical reference works, Illinois cemetery records, printed family histories and the like. The broadly focused American genealogical holdings (some 60,000 volumes) remind us that 19th-century Illinois was an immigrant state, receiving vast numbers of people from New York, Ohio, Kentucky and other places. And many Illinois families moved farther west.

The current director of the Library is Janice Petterchak, a slim, quiet, brown-haired woman whose duties extend well beyond the supervision of an 18-member staff. She is also involved in the Historical Society's "Second Century Campaign," raising money for the Library — which will celebrate its centennial next year. Petterchak is concerned about the future of the past: "We need to increase our acquisition resources — particularly in the area of Lincolniana, where prices have become so high that we can't afford most documents with our state appropriation. And we need a modern conservation laboratory to preserve the historical materials we already have for use by future generations.'' She also worries about running out of space in a building which is almost filled but cannot expand — up, down or out.

So does State Historian Michael J. Devine, a tall man with a mustache and glasses who is fascinated with his work. He directs the 200-member staff of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, created by Gov. James R. Thompson in 1985, which includes the Library, the Office of Preservation Services and 50 historic sites and memorials around the state. Devine views the Library's relationship to state government as a mixed blessing: "Governors have always been our major benefactors, but that commitment changes with every administration. Some, like Henry Homer, have taken their responsibility to the state's heritage very seriously; some haven't. And raising funds from private sources is problematic. People say, 'Why should we give money to a state agency?' But without their support we can't sustain a top-notch historical library."

Surely part of the fundraising problem is a lack of visibility. The Library is not only buried underground, it is buried within the Historic Preservation Agency. And it has insufficient space for public events: meetings, programs and exhibits. Despite its 99-year history, most Illinoisans have never heard of the State Historical Library.

But ironically, all of us are connected to it, for as Lincoln once said, "We cannot escape history." We are the current chapter of the Illinois story, and the Library is the custodian of our common experience, the keeper of our cultural tradition. Our self-conscious participation in that tradition, our sense of history, shapes our identity as the people of Illinois.□

John E. Hallwas is director of Regional Collections at Western Illinois University Library. A professor of English, he has written several books related to Illinois, and he edits a journal, Western Illinois Regional Studies.

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