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Chicago Journalists Desperate To Please Chicago History Buffs

October 17, 2007

This past weekend the Chicago Tribune Magazine, a Sunday Tribune paper insert, ran a story titled, “Buried Treasure: Long-Forgotten Records Shed New Light On The City’s First Years.”

My wife saw this and her jaw dropped. She told me about it, but since she had the magazine in hand I asked her for a preliminary summary. We always do this with the Sunday paper.

Here’s how the piece, authored by Tara McClellan Andrew (of Springfield, IL), began:

Little did the pigeons at the dilapidated warehouse on Chicago’s South Side know they were roosting near historical treasures.

Sadly, no one else knew either.

These long-lost riches included virtually every letter, ordinance, election return, permit and scrap of paper that the Chicago City Council received or generated between 1833 and 1940. Here were the original 1833 town incorporation vote (12-1), city physician reports from cholera epidemics, building blueprints and requests from citizens that ran from the silly to the poignant–like the man begging the city to cover his wife’s medical costs after a fire truck ran her over in 1854. The papers form a diary of Chicago’s birth and formative years and are crucial to understanding the city’s history.

But since they lay under wraps for decades, historians had come to believe they no longer existed, that some were destroyed by the Great Fire and the rest were otherwise lost. So they crafted the life story of one of the Midwest’s oldest cities without them.

It is a little-known story outside the history community, but it wasn’t until 1983 that state officials finally found the City Council records stuffed in the warehouse at 3150 S. Sacramento Ave. “I think no one had looked at them since the 1890s,” says historian Robin Einhorn, of the University of California-Berkeley, who was first to research the papers after they were found.

The carefully folded, handwritten papers are now stored at Chicago’s Northeastern Illinois University. They tell of problems Chicagoans faced, great and small.

And the story goes on to recount the numerous records found in the Sacramento Ave. Warehouse stash.

But at this point my wife basically stopped reading. The air had been let out of our balloon.

Why? It’s neither news nor even remotely recent. The article is precisely 24 years late: it’s a quarter century out of date. And, furthermore, its deceptive, hyped-up lead-in is a kind of lie.

This kind of journalism strikes me as irresponsible. And for a leisurely publication like the Chicago Tribune Magazine, it is unnecessary.

It is not the fault of Robin Einhorn, John Daly, Ann Durking Keating, Perry Duis, Shemoney Evans, Dottie Hopkins-Rehan, Mark Sorensen, Ellen McMinn Larrimore, Pamela Bannos, Robert Loerzel, or any other respectable historian, archivist, or researcher mentioned in the piece.

I’m not sure if it is Ms. McAndrew’s fault. Ultimately it is probably the fault of the Chicago Tribune Magazine‘s editorial staff.

It is not the case that the article has no merit. In fact, the story gives one a nice feel for how rare documents are found, preserved, and used. While the piece does not provide insight into an archivist’s daily duties, it does give one a glimpse of how precarious the historical record is. And pre-Fire materials in Chicago are rare.

In the end, the poor lead-in makes the magazine seem desperate for a Chicago history story. It’s just a story, however, that’s barely a story. I don’t think we need to bait and switch folks into reading about finding, preserving, and telling Chicago history. – TL

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BTW: From the article – “The City Council Proceedings are stored at the Illinois Regional Archives Depository at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago and are viewable by the public. Pre-1872 files can be searched online here.

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