Separation of the Archives

The Library Services Act marked a fresh start for the State Library. But the late 1950s also witnessed the end of a significant chapter in the library’s history. Since 1921, the Archives Division had been an integral part of the library and was recognized as a leader in its field. Much of the credit was due to its outstanding superintendent, Margaret Cross Norton, who had attracted worldwide interest with her revolutionary methods.

In 1955, the General Assembly appropriated $200,000 for a Records Management Survey, another measure designed to identify records statewide and ensure proper deposit into the Illinois State Archives. Norton participated but did not oversee the project, which consumed much of the Archives’ staff time for 1956. The survey led to the establishment of a State Records Center to “house and service semicurrent records which are under retention schedules.” The center, located on Monroe Street in Springfield, opened on Aug. 23, 1956, under the jurisdiction of the Archives.490

Around that time, discussions on possible reorganization of the State Library structure ensued. In the 1956 Biennial Report, the State Library offered its proposal that there be two divisions of the library, “one for all Library services and one for Archives and Records Management.” This plan sought to make the most productive use of library facilities to ensure the best use of the Library Services Act and the Archives and Records Management programs.491

Although still internationally renowned, the Archives Building was falling victim to the same space shortages that plagued other state departments. During the World War II era, three floors of Archives workrooms and a floor and a half of Department Vaults were assigned to the Operators License and Safety Responsibility Divisions of the Automobile Department of the Secretary of State. Those offices moved out in the spring of 1954, only to be replaced by the Division of Vital Statistics and Local Health Services of the State Department of Health. In the 1954 Biennial Report, Norton expressed her disapproval at this arrangement, which strained the capacity and facilities of the Archives Building. She also reported that, because she had no authority over the employees of other departments, she “found it difficult if not impossible to enforce the necessary security regulations required for an archival repository.”492

It was unfortunate that Norton and her beloved Archives Building were subjected to such treatment. But the Illinois Legislature was about to make a decision that would affect the Archives even more deeply. On July 6, 1957, the State Records Act was passed to create and define a State Records Commission to “provide for a continuing records and paperwork management program.” On Aug. 18, 1961, a Local Records Act further strengthened the effort to preserve records statewide. But the 1957 act also called for the creation of both a State Archives Division and Records Management Division under the direction of the Secretary of State, with the Secretary as State Archivist. The Archives was now clearly a separate body with different goals than the library. Those goals – and the budget concerns that accompanied them – are credited as the reasons for the legislative split. The Archives and Records Management Divisions were still officially a part of the State Library, and the archivist would continue to report to the Assistant State Librarian. After 36 years under the same umbrella, the relationship was now more distant by design. That relationship remained ill-defined, and sometimes confusing, until 1966, when all formal links between the State Library and the Archives were finally removed.493

The move to separate the Archives in 1957 did not include Margaret Cross Norton. Midway through 1956, the longtime superintendent had announced her retirement. Norton was honored at a party during the Society of American Archivists Meeting in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 10-12, 1956. The party was called “an outstanding event of the meeting.” The gala celebrated Norton’s long membership in the society. April 15, 1957, marked the last day for Norton as head of the Illinois Archives.494

In a 1972 interview, Norton indicated that displeasure with the operations of the State Library in these years might have contributed to her retirement. “No one no matter how wonderful who has been in a place 35 years can fail to get in a rut,” mused Norton, “and I was going to be terribly disappointed if the Illinois State Library were not turned topsy-turvy.” Norton’s cryptic comment infers that she simply had enough. She went on to state, “I closed the door on the Archives and I don’t think I’ve been in the building more than three or four times since.” However, those who worked with Norton do not believe that any discontent led to her departure; they believe she merely wanted to retire. In 1994, a decade after her death, the Illinois Archives Building was named in her honor.495

Norton’s departure left a huge void not only in Illinois government, but also in the Illinois State Library. With her retirement and separation of the Archives, the State Library was again facing a time of redefinition. The 1950s were a time of transition, and the decade closed with a generally optimistic library staff as they contemplated the future. With stable management, federal funding, and a greatly improved professional image, the library was beginning to position itself as a national leader in librarianship. In the coming years, the State Library would elevate itself nationally through a plethora of new projects that would touch the lives of millions of Illinoisans.