Treasure Hunting at the National Archives

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By Helen Kossler

Reading Between the Lines

There is a treasure trove for history enthusiasts, genealogy buffs and others who love the past and although it’s not in Oak Park, it has tons (literally) of information about the area. It’s the National Archives at 73rd and Pulaski in Chicago.

I went for a tour with the Chicago Chapter of Sisters in Crime on Saturday, July 9, 2011 and was embarrassed that I didn’t know anything about it. I vaguely knew that there was such a thing as the National Archives, but if I thought about it at all, I guessed it was in D.C.

The archivist who conducted the tour said, “It’s the best kept secret in town. Nobody knows we’re here.” But Archives have locations in 14 cities across the nation and are charged with the protecting and providing public access to records of Federal agencies. The presidential libraries are part of this agency.

They are definitely worth knowing about. Each archive is specialized. The local Archive facility houses federal records from the Great Lakes region and encompasses Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin. They have the original records of the Military and Naval agencies.  For example, there are draft cards for Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin.  The archivists had prepared a table of artifacts that included the draft cards of some famous men before they were famous.  We saw the cards of James Dean, Paul Newman and Studs Terkel among others. Seeing the original document, written by the person beats a digital copy any day. It is a connection that makes history real.

We also saw some original documents written by Abraham Lincoln.  One participant asked why these were not at the Lincoln Library in Springfield and the answer was that these concerned Federal cases, and so were stored with Federal papers. It was thrilling to be able to touch (they were in Mylar sleeves) something that Lincoln actually wrote himself.

Some of the archives are available on Microfilm and digitally such as Records of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Internal Revenue Assessment Lists for Illinois 1862-1866, Records of the Imperial Russian Consulates in the U.S., 1862-1922 and Letters of Application and Recommendation During the Administration of Thomas Jefferson, 1801-1809 among other random things.

Most of the records are not available digitally however, and when we went through the warehouse to look at stored records, you understand why. The shelves are about thirteen feet high, are stored back to back for hundreds of feet.  The archivists talk about materials in terms of cubic feet. The Records of the District Courts of the U.S. is 50241 cubic feet, for example. The task to scan all this information is impossible for the Archives staff of nine.

The Archives also provides educational workshops. During the past year they conducted three on Genealogy. They are among the sponsors for a Civil War Symposium to be held at Cantigny on October 1, 2011.  Contact their Education Specialist, Kris Maldre, at kristina.maldre@nara.gov to find out about other upcoming workshops.

Access to the Archives is free.  If you use the computers at the Archives, you can access Ancestry, Heritage Quest or Footnote, which normally have a fee, for free. There is a charge for photocopies of documents but you can use your own scanner. It is necessary to make appointments to use the Microfilm machines and they ask that you call ahead (773-948-9001) before visiting to make sure that the records you want are available. The staff is available to help you and believe me, you will need help.

The National Archives at Chicago is located at 7358 S. Pulaski Road. Telephone: 773-948-9001. Website: www.archives.gov/great-lakes.

Reader Comments

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janice patterson from oak park   

Posted: July 13th, 2011 3:53 PM

Good to know. It's worth it just to use Ancestry. You're right...it is quite a well kept secret.

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