Margaret Cross Norton: A Biographical Sketch Illinois State Archives

Margaret Cross Norton Margaret Cross Norton (1891–1984) served as the first superintendent of the Illinois State Archives, then a division of the Illinois State Library, from April 1, 1922 through April 15, 1957. During her thirty-five year tenure she developed a model state archives program; oversaw the construction of an archives building which was one of the first in the United States designed specifically for archival purposes; successfully advanced the utilitarian values of archival records to their parent institutions; wrote extensively on the theoretical as well as the practical aspects of archival work; worked simultaneously with historians and librarians to establish and define the emerging American archival profession; helped to found the Society of American Archivists; and then served it as its first vice-president (1936–1937), council member (1937–1942), president (1943–1945), and editor of The American Archivist (1946–1949). Norton's leadership in a relatively new and male-dominated field was most unusual. That she was so well accepted was due to her superior professional competence, her congenial personality, and her ability and willingness to do hard work.

Born in Rockford, Illinois on July 7, 1891, Norton grew up in a household of professional records keepers.1 At the time of their marriage her mother was the deputy county treasurer for Winnebago County and her father was deputy county clerk. Although her mother quit work when Margaret was a child, her father remained a county official. He routinely issued marriage licenses from their parlor, brought work home, and actively discussed his duties with his wife. He kept a copy of the latest Illinois Revised Statutes at the house where he pored over it for hours to determine how the latest legislation affected his records keeping responsibilities. Margaret's mother was an expert bookkeeper and she helped her husband by balancing the large tax assessment books which Norton's father shuttled back and forth from the office. When her mother was occupied during the day young Margaret often was left with her father at the county courthouse. There she played in the vaults among the official county records and the attorneys who examined them. Thus very early on Margaret Norton recognized the practical and legal values of local governmental records.2

After graduating from high school in Rockford, Norton attended the University of Chicago where she obtained the bachelor's degree in 1913 and the master's in 1914, both in history. The next year she earned the B.L.S. from the New York Library School in Albany.3 Her first professional position was as a cataloger at the Vassar College Library in Poughkeepsie, 1915-1918. During this time she had her summers off and she returned regularly to the University of Chicago's history department for graduate study. In 1918 she was employed as a manuscripts assistant at the Indiana State Library but left for the academic year 1919-1920 to take a fellowship, again at the University of Chicago. For part of 1920 and all of 1921 she was employed as a cataloger at the Missouri State Historical Society in Columbia.4 And from there she was recruited to head the Illinois State Archives. Hired in January of 1922, Norton deferred appointment until April. She spent those three months traveling the country visiting most of the few archival agencies which existed in the United States at that time. This experience offered her little insight because all of the institutions she visited were passive in nature in that they did little more than accept what records were offered to them. Shortly after establishing herself in Springfield Norton traveled to Des Moines for a meeting of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association. There she visited the Iowa State Archives and met with Cassius Stiles, the agency's head. Stiles's prior experience had been as an administrative clerk. Most of his records were comparatively recent and by an intuitive sense of order he had arranged his archives by provenance. To assist him in this work he had prepared administrative histories of Iowa state departments.5 This practical example combined with Norton's childhood experience with county records jelled her regard for the legal and administrative values of the records of government and the importance of their arrangement by source. Upon her return to Springfield she began a "History of State Departments, Illinois Government, Including Bibliographies of Laws on Subjects Impinging Upon Governmental Functions of Present State Departments" which eventually became a 2,839 page compilation covering the period 1787–1943. Late in 1922 the first edition of Hilary Jenkinson's Manual of Archive Administration, the standard work on its subject in its time, became available. This volume served to confirm her emphasis on the utility of governmental records and the importance of provenance.6

When Norton first established the Illinois State Archives the Illinois State Library was composed of three divisions: General, Extension Services, and Archives. Each division head reported to the Secretary of State directly. With no additional professional staff and little clerical assistance, Norton combed the basements and attics of the Capitol Building. There she found cache after cache of state records casually stored or dumped in dirty and rodent infested spaces. An early find gained her the respect of her superior. A governor's letterbook of 1823 provided evidence that the state had forwarded the Post and Paul survey map of the Illinois and Michigan Canal route to the federal government. This volume possibly saved the state over a million dollars in a pending law suit regarding a land claim. Also found were such items as the 1818 census under which Illinois came into the union as a state and the General Assembly's papers for the period when Lincoln and Douglas were members.7 These discoveries as well as many significant but less spectacular ones entrenched the Archives Division in the Office of the Secretary of State. The State Library was reorganized in 1937 when Helene H. Rogers was hired as assistant state librarian to oversee its three divisions. Norton and Rogers enjoyed a mutually supportive relationship until the latter suffered a stroke in 1954 and was forced to retire.8 Norton came to appreciate her subordinate role because Rogers respected Norton's authority in the Archives Division, shielded her department from the worst abuses of the patronage system, helped her to develop a professional staff, and secured operating appropriations for the Archives.9

As soon as Norton had assembled a substantial volume of records, storage became a problem. Archives are heavier than library materials and floor load capacities in the Centennial Building where the State Library was housed often were inadequate. The State Arsenal Building was destroyed by a fire in 1934 and with it many of the Adjutant General's records were lost. Norton used this disaster effectively to lobby the legislature for a secure Archives Building. The General Assembly appropriated $500,000 in 1935 and to this was added $320,000 by the federal Public Works Administration. Ground was broken in 1936 and the building was dedicated in 1938 on the occasion of the second annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists which was held in Springfield that year. The new Archives Building had been constructed by and large to Margaret Norton's specifications. Besides public, administrative and technical use areas the building has twelve stack levels with a total storage capacity for 80,280 cubic feet of records. Originally much of the stack space was devoted to departmental vaults. By this system individual state agencies were provided secure storage for their more valuable semi-current records without having to relinquish legal custody to them. Agencies were issued keys for authorized access to their own individual vaults. This arrangement facilitated the transfer to the Archives Building of those records which by law were required to be maintained. With some pleasure Norton was able to announce that at the time of America's entry into World War II the Archives Building securely stored virtually all state governmental records which were legislated to have permanent value.10

The fact that the Illinois State Archives Building was considered exceptional in terms of security and fire safety was made evident by the National Archives' contingency plans during the war years. If the nation's capital had to be evacuated, the National Archives planned to send its most valuable treasures to the Illinois State Archives.11 Norton's program of accessions, arrangement and description, conservation and reference are detailed in her monthly reports. The State Archives Building, the records it contained, and the archival program therein administered were considered models and as a consequence visitors from across the country as well as the world came to Springfield to study them.

Norton had decided that she wanted to become an archivist in late 1915 while attending her first annual meeting of the American Historical Association. There Waldo G. Leland gave a powerful speech on the need for a national archives. At that point Norton had been educated both as an historian and as a librarian but she found historical study too confining and library work too tedious.12 But in 1915 there was no national archives and no real archival profession as such in the United States so she bided her time in library employment. Even at her appointment as the head of the Illinois State Archives in 1922 the American archival field was small and not well defined. As both librarian and historian Norton borrowed from each field to help bring meaning to the new American profession of archivist. She was active in the American Historical Association (AHA) as well as the American Library Association (ALA) and its kindred National Association of State Libraries (NASL) in promoting archival interests. Through AHA's Public Archives Commission, ALA's Archives and Libraries Committee and NASL's Archives Committee, Norton helped to educate allied professionals concerning the uniqueness of archival techniques and what was for her the core purpose of archives. She formally advanced her emphasis on the legal and administrative values of archives to their parent institutions in late 1929 at the annual AHA meeting. The historians in attendance did not warm to her address as their emphasis was on the scholarly values of records. But only six months later at a meeting of the NASL Norton delivered an almost identical paper which was welcomed enthusiastically.13 Privately Norton admitted that she deliberately overemphasized the administrative role of archivists rather than their role as historians because too many so-called archivists shirked service to their institutions while writing or studying history for their own self-edification.14 Although her participation in history and library organizations waned somewhat after the archivists formed their own separate organization in 1936, Norton remained current in AHA and ALA affairs until her retirement.

Besides being a highly competent practitioner and administrator, Norton was a prolific editor and writer. She edited the Illinois census returns for 1810, 1818, and 1820 for publication by the Illinois Historical Library; the National Association of State Libraries Proceedings, 1933–1938; and The American Archivist, 1946–194915 From 1939 until the end of 1947 she contributed regularly to Illinois Libraries, the official organ of the Illinois State Library. This journal was issued ten times a year. Norton's articles appeared too in various other library journals as well as The American Archivist. Thornton Mitchell collected and edited many of her more important publications and in 1975 the Southern Illinois University Press released Norton on Archives, The Writings of Margaret Cross Norton on Archival and Records Management.

Although Norton was frequently asked to advise colleagues on sundry archival matters, three consulting projects stand out in her career. During the Historical Records Survey, 1936–1941, she advised Illinois officials on technical points and national officials on the overall program. Along with Archivist of the United States Solon J. Buck and Librarian of Congress Luther H. Evans she served on a commission of three in 1947 to advise New York State on the proper organizational location of its archival department. And in 1950 she was a consultant to the Tennessee State Library and Archives regarding the construction of a new facility.

Norton taught one of the first formal courses on archives offered in this country. She took sabbatical leave in the summer of 1940 to teach American Archival Technique at the library school at Columbia University. Most of her students were librarians who took instruction in the special requirements of archives.16 Norton also designed internships at the State Archives for students in the history and library science departments at the University of Illinois and the University of Chicago. But there were no qualified applicants largely due to the lack of lucrative archival employment opportunities and the fact that there was no clear standard as to what should constitute proper archival training.17

Norton was able to implement several of her long held objectives shortly before her retirement in April of 1957. William J. Barrow delivered his laminating machine to the Archives in November 1955. This conservation technology had been on Norton's wish list since 1939.18 The Auditor of Public Accounts in late 1956 transferred to the Archives' custody the early public domain land records from the ten original United States land offices in Illinois. Norton had long sought this elusive record group.19

The new field of records management had arisen just prior to the war years. The federal government in particular was generating an alarming amount of paperwork and means had to be found to dispose of useless records. In Illinois the State Records Commission was first authorized by legislation passed in 1943. Its purpose was to advise the legislature on proposed records disposals but it could not independently approve of destructions.20 At Norton's urging it received this authority from an act passed in 1951. She served as the commission's chair and other members included the state historian, the state librarian, the attorney general, and the director of the Department of Finance. Together they approved schedules for the destruction of executive department records. Still they had no staff and consequently they merely reacted to those schedules that the various departments chose to submit to them. This changed in 1955 when a contract was entered into with the National Records Management Council, a private corporation in the field of inventorying records and scheduling their disposition.21 Thornton Mitchell eventually became the on-site supervisor for this project. It was decided in 1956 that records management should be made a permanent State Archives staff function and Maynard Brichford and John Caton were hired for that purpose. Therefore when Norton retired in 1957, she had instituted a fully integrated archival program which included a viable records management component.

Once retired Norton returned only by special invitation. She was determined not to be a meddlesome old lady. When Margaret Norton died on May 21, 1984 at the age of ninety-two, she left her entire estate to the SAA. At the request of the SAA's executive director, State Archives staff examined the contents of her home. On her night stand was a small framed photograph of the Illinois State Archives Building.

Excerpt from the introduction to The Margaret Cross Norton Working Papers, 1924–1958 (1993), 8 – 35mm microfilm rolls with An Inventory and Index (1993), 7 microfiche (1,055 pages). This publication may be purchased from the Illinois State Archives for $60.00.

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1 Margaret Cross Norton Working Papers, 3/1157.
2 Ibid., 3/1234, 3/1235.
3 Ibid., 4/0365.
4 Ibid., 3/1138, 3/1158, 4/0365.
5 Ibid., 3/1206, 3/1239.
6 Ibid., 3/1235, 3/1239.
7 Ibid., 3/1166.
8 Ibid., 2/1150.
9 Ibid., 3/1213.
10 Ibid., 6/0028.
11 Ibid., 1/1326.
12 Ibid., 3/1205.
13 Ibid., 3/1206.
14 Ibid.
15 Illinois Census Returns 1810, 1818 (Illinois Historical Library Collections, vol. 24, 1935) and Illinois Census Returns, 1820 (Illinois Historical Library Collections, vol. 26, 1934).
16 Margaret Cross Norton Working Papers, 1/0327.
17 Ibid., 3/1215.
18 Ibid., 1/0272, 2/1400.
19 Ibid., 3/0161.
20 Ibid., 1/0978.
21 Ibid., 2/1384.