SPRINGFIELD (AP) — A long-ago fire at the State Arsenal that destroyed many military records sparked plans to provide a permanent home for documents important to the Land of Lincoln.
The late Margaret Cross Norton, superintendent of the State Archives from 1922 to 1957, was instrumental in planning the design and construction of the Illinois State Archives building. Since 1995, it's been known as the Margaret Cross Norton Building, located in the Capitol Complex on the west side of Springfield's downtown.
The Norton Building, which is noting the 75th anniversary of its opening, houses more than 75,000 cubic feet of state records. Those records include the state's first constitution, Abraham Lincoln documents and every public act dating to pre-statehood and territorial records.
The central location for such documents may not have occurred save for a 10-year-old boy who in 1934 set fire to the State Arsenal, located at the site of the present State Armory.
"A bunch of World War I records were burned up," said David Joens, director of the Illinois State Archives. "The archivist at the time, Margaret Cross Norton, who was the first director of the State Archives and a real leader in the archives field, had been lobbying to get our own archives building and that certainly served as the impetus to get it."
The building was constructed for $820,000, with help of $500,000 the state legislature appointed and $320,000 the federal Public Works Administration provided.
"At the time, there were only two other buildings in the country that had been built specifically to be archives: National Archives on the mall in Washington and the Maryland Hall of Records," Joens said. "This became the third. She was involved in every phase of it."
Building for all time
The Margaret Cross Norton Building is largely the same as when it opened in 1938 after being constructed to Norton's standards.
Durability and space were important to her. Foremost was that the 12-story building be fireproofed.
"You've got roughly . four vaults on every floor, so each vault is self-encased," Joens said. "So if a fire did break out in one vault, it's not going to spread to the next vault, and it's not going to spread floor to floor.
"The floors are concrete. They've got tile walls and then the next level up is concrete."
Norton realized the building was being built specifically for archives and not for office space.
"(Archives are) very heavy, which is why you have, in addition to being fireproof or mostly fireproof, the concrete floors just to hold the weight load of the filing cabinets and the shelving," said Elaine Shemoney Evans, senior records archivist.
The filing cabinets had to be easy to pull, Evans said.
"(Norton) went to the factory to see exactly how easy they pulled," Evans said. "Her specifications called for the drawers to be pulled 100,000 times to see how long they would last because when she built the building, it wasn't to be a temporary building. She wanted to make sure those filing cabinets lasted a long time."
With durability in mind, Norton also realized that space may be an issue, Joens said.
"She's building a building that is going to be empty," Joens said. "She realizes space is always at a premium. She realizes people are going to look at this empty building and say, 'Hey. Why don't we get some space in this building? It's empty. We should take some space in it.'
"Her logic was you don't build an archives and immediately fill it because then you'd have to build another archives. You build the building in terms of long-term storage, that you're going to fill it."
With that in mind, Norton had sections built — archive vaults for the Illinois State Archives and then departmental vaults for record keeping.
The State Archives building was built with expansion in mind. The building has a stone front on three sides but the back is made of brick, where it can be expanded out when needed.
"We're not quite at that point, but we're getting a little crowded around the gills," Joens said.
Records for all time
People have suggested that the State Archives, which has a legal mandate to preserve governmental records of historic or archival value, electronically scan everything to save space.
"Well, scanning everything is a lot to scan," Joens said. "There are millions and millions and millions of pieces of paper here. It is mostly paper at this point. We have a floor of microfilm. We have some photographs, some miscellaneous reel-to-reel tapes, but for the most part, it's paper in the building."
Internet users can access online State Archives indexes and more at www.cyberdriveillinois.com (click "Departments" and "Archives"). The website receives from 16 to 17 million hits yearly from people looking for information.
Patrons who find out the State Archives holds a record can view it by going to the Norton Building. The records are open to the public through a closed-stack system. Patrons can view materials inside the building, but no one is allowed in the stacks but staff. And materials don't leave the building.
"It's all official state documents that we have here, for the most part," Joens said. "Sometimes people offer us private things, Civil War diaries, for example, things that are interesting, but those kinds of things go over to (Illinois Historic Preservation Agency). They don't come here. The reason it's here is because it's an official state document."
The challenge before the State Archives is how to keep electronic documents preserved and accessible, Joens said.
"When I started, they were talking about DVDs that could last 500 years. That's fine, but what are you going to put them on 500 years from now?" Joens said.
"With microfilm, it's easy. All you need is a source of light, which can be the sun and a magnifying glass, and you can read microfilm. Of course, paper, we've got the Dead Sea Scrolls that have lasted thousands of years."
Currently, the documents stored at the Norton Building are protected from deterioration and destruction in a number of ways. To keep the documents protected from light, there are no windows past the first and second floors. Waxed concrete floors help keep out bugs. Temperatures in the stacks are kept around 62 degrees and humidity about 40 percent. No water or chemical suppression system will be used in case of fire because "water is just as bad for documents as fire," Joens said.
Even though many of the World War I documents were destroyed in the 1934 fire, Evans likes to show bonus records that were salvaged and now kept at the Norton Building. They include the bonus records of Arthur J. Darche and Thomas M. Darlington. The edges of the bonus records are charred, but the documents still exist.
"I like to show these records because I like to think of them as the reason the building was built," Evans said.