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Institutional Amnesia

How the state forgets what doesn't work

Illinois Issues

November 2006

This lament owed to my frustration as a sort-of historian. On assignment, I frequently often found myself with questions of the sort that would have been addressed by institutional histories of  State of Illinois departments and agencies. Such histories are rare, which leaves curious journalists and citizens having to make  tedious trips to the archives.


Nothing will be done about writing such histories, at least not by the State of Illinois, of course; at the time of writing the state couldn’t even fully staff its own historical library, much less add historians to every major department and state-run institution.

I here observe about state department directors that "few write anything at all about their time under the lash. Perhaps we should demand that retiring agency heads submit a memoir to the state library as a condition of their pensions." I should have mentioned among those that did write memoirs of value the late Milton D. Thompson, whose The Illinois State Museum: Historical Sketch and Memoirs were published by the Illinois State Museum Society in 1988.

The original has here been very lighted edited to enhance readability.


“The history of the state’s parens patriae role toward children is strikingly circular,” wrote historian Joan Gittens. She offers several examples. The earliest solution to raising state-dependent children, for instance, was to settle them promptly into families, with little or no further intervention from the state; after a century of trying other approaches, the federal Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 again favored simple familial care over state intervention. “And in the education of handicapped children,” she reminds us in a 1994 volume, “the pre-Civil War special schools’ goal of returning mentally and physically handicapped children to their communities as soon as possible finds an echo in the modem day commitment to deinstitutionalization and mainstreaming of handicapped children.”


Education, correc­tions, utility regulation, energy policy—each is a realm in which old policies that failed are forever being mistaken for new ones with promise. One can come to a couple of conclusions while meditating on this recurring trip back to the future.

One is that there are only two basic state government solutions to each of the standard social ills and they are both wrong. Another is that the state keeps making the same mistakes because policymakers in state departments lack awareness of their organizations’ pasts. In general, institutional memory in Illinois state government ranges from faint to amnesic. Narrative accounts of departmental history are as rare as revenue-rich budgets. ("Department" is used loosely here to refer to any administrative subdivision of the executive branch; narratives include interpretive records of key policy debates and the results of administrative initiatives.)

Would knowing the past help keep agencies from wasting time and money and avoid avoidable errors? Would it help frame and contextualize policy debates and proposals? And how would achieving informed perspective work?


An ongoing program of applied history about state government operations would be a new species of what has come to be called “public history.” As practiced in the United States, this still-green art includes history prepared for a public unused to complex fare. It is public historians who, increasingly, concoct museum exhibits, staff the more ambitious local historical societies, and manage the archives of major business corporations. The larger aim of public history is, as one of the movement’s early leaders once put it, to apply the “scientific knowledge of history in the practical affairs of today."

Running state government is certainly a practical affair. But who might assemble this scientific knowledge? One nominee might be in-house historians—not archivists but proper, trained historians whose role would be to search, reflect upon, and reveal the past to inform the present. Such scribes probably should not be regular department employees; insulating state-paid historians from meddling by their masters is crucial.

Thucydides, it should be remembered, was able to write the first objective history—the History of the Peloponnesian War, a chronicle of conflict between Sparta and his native Athens—only because he had been exiled from Athens. His successors ought not to be appointed by department heads whose work they would eventually pass on but by someone else—perhaps a nonpartisan commission set up for the purpose. Under such a scheme, department historians would serve in the same relationship to the bureaucracy that U.S. Supreme Court justices have with the executive and legislative branches.

Any student of the 20th century will pause before endorsing any kind of official history. Wiser it would be, perhaps, to look to an outside body, to guarantee that history is used neither to apologize to the present nor to propagan­dize the future. The state library? A friendly foundation? The Better Govern­ment Association? Veterans of Illinois’s policy wars argue for each. William Furry, executive director of the Illinois State Historical Society, thinks the academy is the place to look. “One of the state universities, say UIS [the University of Illinois at Springfield], might become the institutional memory for state government and its various entities,” he says, “with the state endowing chairs of departments for this purpose.

Independence is a necessary condition for the work, but hardly the only one. The risks to an embedded historian would be scarcely less than those facing an embedded reporter. Each would-be court historian would be distrusted by the authorities on whose protection she depends. As is the case on any battlefield, much of what really determines outcomes during a policy war goes on where the historian can’t see it. And there is always the risk of identifying with helpful low-level combatants—the career middle-management staff members who are the bureaucracy’s equivalent of noncoms—to the detriment of one’s objectivity.

Writing department history would be a daunting job in narrow professional terms as well. One would need technical proficiency in such areas as oral history and archival management and, of course, some grasp of the broader currents of history in which state government gets caught up. One also would face the further constraints of working in, if not for, a State of Illinois bureaucracy. The American Historical Society notes that public history in general requires an understanding of different audiences (and the ability to communicate with ordinary people), along with a willing­ness and ability to work with others, which describes department life to a fare-thee-well.

I will borrow a jibe from corporate gadfly Nell Minow. Though she refers to private-sector executives, it fits public-sector executives, too: They are like subatomic particles, in that they behave differently when they are observed. The prospect of a historian lurking behind the coffee machine, aspiring to become the James Boswell to the administrator’s Samuel Johnson, would leave many of the latter sweating like an alderman in front of a grand jury. Mike Lawrence, former press secretary to Gov. Jim Edgar, worries that the prospect of confidential advice being used in a frank account of controversial program-making might have the unintended consequence of discouraging people from entering it into the public record, and thus, eventually, into the historical record. Without that kind of knowledge, however, we would know the what but not the why. “The history of rules and regulations,” observes Jess McDonald, director under four governors of the Department of Children and Family Services, “is like the wrapping paper on birthday presents. It hides what is inside.”

Some pertinent materials won’t be put in the public record, and some ought not to be. “There are several levels at which stories need to be understood,” explains McDonald, whose former agency is one of those where policy-making can be a life-or-death matter. “Some things cannot be said publicly. The debate about whether or not to settle or fight a court action, for instance, is one of the most important discussions that takes place in human services, but these privileged communications take place outside the public view. It actually should be that way."

The biggest problem with establishing a program of public history focused on executive policy is that the people who need such a program the most, and who have the authority to put it in place, would want it the least. Providing context, clarity, and focus in the political discussion, says Bill Furry, would be invaluable to the media and to historians writing about government. But he adds, “Politicians, I suspect, would find it burdensome.”

Is there not history enough about Illinois state government? No. Politics, governors, constitutions, the General Assembly—these are the preoccupations of academic historians. Institutional histories of departments and other state bodies (apart, of course, from the legislature, universities and a handful of prisons and hospitals) are rare. A good one is Poor Relations, Joan Gittens’ history of the state of Illinois’s care of orphaned, disabled, and delinquent children, which was quoted above.

Biographies and other studies of lowly administrators, laboring in neglected vineyards straggling for lack of light, are even more rare. This is unfortunate, as such people can wield more durable influence in state government than most governors. This was especially true in the early days of the commonwealth, when much of state government was still a malleable infant. One such is Stephen Forbes, who beginning in the 1870s served the state well as curator of what was then the Illinois Natural History Society Museum and later as the long-time chief of the Illinois Natural History Survey. Forbes deserved and got a decent biography—Stephen Forbes and the Rise of American Ecology by Robert A. Croker (Smithsonian Institutions Press, 2001). However, as the title suggests, the focus is on his career as a scientist (Forbes played what has been described as an important anticipatory role in the development of ecological studies) not as a public administrator.

In the absence of more formal accounts, we must glean what insights we can into the life of a state administrator from other published sources, such as memoirs. An entertaining example of the latter is “In Service to Clio,” which was published as part of a posthumous collection titled On a Variety of Subjects. In it, Paul Angle reflected ruefully on his tenure in the 1930s and ‘40s in charge of the Illinois State Historical Library. On securing his annual appropriation: “It turned out to be easy. One found out who really ran the show—usually no more than half a dozen men—one became acquainted, and the job was done.”

Not many department heads write as well as Angle. Indeed, few write anything at all about their time under the lash. Perhaps we should demand that retiring agency heads submit a memoir to the state library as a condition of their pensions. A few have at least talked about it. Back when it was Sangamon State University and mindful of its mission as a public affairs university, the Oral History Office of the future UIS recorded the recollections of several dozen executive branch officials and other veterans of state politics as part of its Illinois Statecraft project. The roster includes directors under various governors of the departments of Aging, Agriculture, Business and Economic Development, Finance, Public Welfare, Revenue, the Bureau of the Budget and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. Alas, these sadder but wiser veterans are not as illuminating as one might wish on matters of policy and program administration. This is not unusual. Most ex-civil servants will tell you that state service was the most demanding, and sometimes the most gratifying part of their working lives, but seldom the most interesting.

Assuming such chronicles were assembled under some aegis, would they be read? Frank Beal, an alum of the Thompson Cabinet, says it would be useful to know the issues that have been addressed, how they were resolved and why. As he puts it, “Any department head worth appointing would surely find it of value.” Yes, but what about department heads not worth appointing? The purpose of policy-making in the state of Illinois is not wisdom but efficacy, defined politically or programmatically, and briefings that recall what is possible, rather than what is desirable, will find more favor with most incoming administrators.

Policy of consequence these days is made by half a dozen legislators and a few high-ranking administration executives, the latter usually members of a governor’s campaign. It is during and for the campaigns that most new policy is generated (or borrowed from think tanks or whichever interest groups are paying the candidates’ bills). These new ideas—if they are new—are then imposed on the departments. It is a rare governor who will ask department careerists whether a policy is wise or prudent or politic (which depends on which kind of governor is proposing it). In any event, patronage extends so deeply into the administrative structure these days that there are few senior career administrators who enjoy the clout to speak up against a misconceived initiative; informed silence is as useless as uninformed silence in shaping events.

Even if our policymakers were to become educated, would it matter? Would policy proposals be altered or abandoned in light of historical evidence that they had been tried and failed? No administration will willingly abandon a program promised during a campaign merely because those policies are shown to have failed in the past. Besides, it is the arrogance of each new administration to assume that if their good ideas failed in the past, it must have been because of funding or political interference or lack of commitment; they can make them work this time.

It should be noted that the notion of state-financed official history is itself something of a throwback. It is typically Progressive in its assumption that information—not money or influence or ethnicity or doctrinaire religion— should be the basis of government decision-making. The better (meaning the more comprehensive, the more accurate, the more disinterested) that information is, the more likely good decisions about policy will result.

The Legislative Reference Bureau was founded in that hope in 1913. Among its more extreme advocates, such bureaus were seen as (in the words of a historian of the movement) “harbingers of the millennium.” This was extravagant. The bureau’s role was to make law-making more efficient, which it has done admirably. But wiser? Wisdom comes in the application of knowledge to public problems, not knowledge itself, and it is likely to be no different if that knowledge is historical. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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