A New Building for the Archives

As the 1930s progressed, the State Archives also underwent a great expansion, thanks in part to events elsewhere in Springfield. Since the move to the Centennial Building, Norton had called for a more suitable location for archival storage, citing the severely cramped quarters of the State Library and the lack of proper storage for valuable documents. As the shortage of space restricted substantial growth for archival deposits, and since there was a lack of understanding of the role of an archives in state government, some records continued to be scattered across various locations, adding to the threat of loss.277

The Illinois State Arsenal, located just north of the Capitol, was one of these locales, but the arsenal was destroyed by fire on the evening of Feb. 19, 1934. The cause of the fire was arson, set at the hands of a disturbed 10-year-old boy. The inferno resulted in the loss of all the bonus and war records of the Military and Naval Department of Illinois. The destruction of the records alarmed many, including patriotic and veterans groups, who began to voice concerns that such records should be kept in safer quarters. Many in Illinois government also were disturbed by the loss of such valuable records, and finally began to recognize the need for protective storage of archival materials.278

With that in mind, Secretary of State Edward Hughes sponsored a bill in 1935 calling for the appropriation of $500,000 to construct a new State Archives building. With Hughes’ efforts, coupled with the loss of the arsenal and the public concern fresh in everyone’s minds, the General Assembly passed the measure with only a single dissenting vote. The sum was supplemented by $320,000 from the Public Works Administration, another of the Roosevelt Depression programs. Ground was broken for the new facility on March 20, 1936, and the cornerstone was laid on October 16 of the same year.279

At the time, there were only two archives buildings in the nation – the State Archives of Maryland and the National Archives in Washington (the latter of which had only been established in 1934). Both were much smaller than the proposed building for Illinois, which was to stand on the southwest corner of the State Capitol grounds. When the Centennial Building was constructed, little thought had been given to archival needs. Now Norton played a major role in the design of the new building. The structure, which complemented the Centennial Building in both interior and exterior appearance, was completed on Jan. 17, 1938, but installation of furniture and equipment was delayed for several months. Formal dedication was held on Oct. 26, 1938, in conjunction with the second annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists.280

The erection of the new archives is a testament to the tremendous respect for Margaret Cross Norton, who also wielded considerable political influence. At the dedication ceremonies, Norton spied Governor Henry Horner in the outer lobby smoking a cigarette. Norton calmly informed Horner that smoking was not allowed in the building. The Governor quickly extinguished his cigarette.281

The building was of fireproof construction and designed to support great amounts of weight – unlike the buckling floors in the Centennial Building. It quickly became a model for how state archives should be housed. Equally influential were cataloging and filing methods that Norton implemented, and she introduced several concepts in archives still studied in the field today. Among these was the “departmental vault,” a space assigned to various state departments to keep valuable materials too recent to be permanently assigned to the archives. This system also replaced conventional vaults in state agency offices and created a sort of “dual control.” Agencies retained access to their records and held control of major parts of the archives, while the archives gained direction over the records.282

Norton also took great pains to devise the best and most efficient methods of daily operation. In selecting proper steel filing cabinets, the successful bidder was required, under Norton’s supervision, to open and close a loaded drawer 10 times a minute for a total of 100,000 times. The cabinets were also custom designed to meet requirements of the Illinois State Archives. Other elements of the building were equally detailed. Time switches were installed on lights in the vaults to conserve energy and reduce any fire hazard. Fire extinguishers contained carbon tetrachloride, a chemical that would not damage paper or ink.283

Soon, Margaret Cross Norton and the state of Illinois became recognized as leaders in the field of archival preservation. Dozens of Norton’s articles were published nationwide, and she was a regular contributor to Illinois Libraries. Many other states – including New York, the established leader in state librarianship – requested assistance from Illinois both in the planning of archival agencies and the building of their new archives. A number of foreign countries sought similar assistance. The stature of the Illinois State Archives was so great that the National Archives in Washington, D.C., in the event of wartime evacuation, determined to send its most valued artifacts to Springfield for safekeeping.284