The Sangamon Valley Collection
History finds a home at Springfield’s public library
February 11, 1977
Documents and books about Lincoln found safe homes decades ago in state-funded archives in Springfield and Urbana. The history of central Illinois that did not pertain to Lincoln was orphaned, and huddled in spare corners of public libraries. When Springfield’s new public library was being planned, librarians made certain the building had climate-controlled space to properly house documents and books about the area’s past.
It's a surprisingly modern-looking place to have so much of the past in it. The Sangamon Valley Collection, or SVC, in the new Lincoln Library is an historical archive for an eleven-county region around Springfield, the place where thousands of pieces of central Illinois' past are stored, catalogued and made available for study. In a way it's a sort of giant, better-organized-than-usual closet shelf.
Though the SVC only opened this week, it's been in the planning stages for five years. Back in the winter of 1971, when it first was going to be something more substantial than pictures on a piece of paper, library director Robert Wagenknecht began talking to people around town about his hopes for a new department devoted solely to the history of Springfield and the territory around it. A committee of the Sangamon County Historical Society was put together to give advice, and a name—the "Sangamon Valley Collection"—was chosen.
The outlines of the new collection were clear early on. It would be limited to material about Sangamon County and "contiguous lands." It would not include material about Lincoln, Douglas, or others who are the focus of other established collections. It would place few restrictions on the age or medium of collectible items; in the words of an advisory committee memo, the collection would include "the broadest range of material relating to the people, places, institutions, and episodes . . . both well-known and obscure, ancient and modern." And it would be accessible to as many people as possible.
* * *
In the months before the SVC got a full-time director, the advisory committee made many of the decisions about what the shape of the collection would be. It voted "yes" on accepting a gift from Dr. Floyd Barringer of an indenture document signed by Robert Pulliam, the county's first white settler, "no" to an offer to sell some letters of Vachel Lindsay because "nothing in the Lindsay manuscripts related to Springfield or the Sangamon Valley."
Eventually, the responsibility for the day-to-day tending of the growing collection of books and papers fell on the SVC curator, Ed Russo. Russo joined the library in 1972, began working with the SVC in 1973 and was officially named SVC director the following summer. He is a young man—at 25 he's one of the youngest who works in the collection—has a special interest in architecture and historic preservation.
So what exactly is Russo curator of? The backbone of the SVC is books—books by local authors both well-known (like Vachel Lindsay) and not so well-known, books about Springfield, books about the rest of the Sangamon Valley, books about Illinois, books about Springfieldians, even a few both by and about Springfieldians. Taken together it's a patchwork chronicle of central Illinois. It doesn't tell the whole truth about it, only that part of it that was written down, but it tells a lot.
There is more than books in the SVC, of course. Just about every means that people have of recording words and pictures on paper are to be found in the SVC files. Letters, government documents (including city plans, financial reports, building permits, and the like), city directories, maps, photograph albums, newsletters (of every community group that can afford to pay the postage to the library), playbills, posters, programs, even paintings.
* * *
There are limits, however. "One thing we're not accepting is artifacts," Russo explains, "furniture, somebody's cane, Civil War guns" (what the SVC committee once called "attic artifacts"). "People shouldn't approach us with gifts of that sort, because we'll just end up having to say 'no.'" Space is one reason, appropriateness another; the SVC is housed in a library, not a museum. Besides, have you ever tried to file a rocking chair?
There are limits on the SVC of geography as well as medium. "Sangamon Valley" doesn't mean the same thing to a librarian that it means to a geographer. It was decided from the first that the collection would amass material from a territory much bigger than the immediate Springfield metropolitan area. The problem was deciding how much bigger that territory should be.
Russo tells how they went about it: "First we considered including all the counties contiguous to Sangamon, but that made a pretty lopsided map. So we tried including the actual Sangamon River valley, but we had the same problem." (Knock over a bottle of ink on a state highway map somewhere around Mahomet and you'll get some idea of what the Sangamon valley looks like.) "What we ended up doing was to draw a circle on the map with a radius of fifty miles with Springfield as the center and then to square off that territory so it matched the county boundaries."
The result was an eleven-county district which stretches from the watermelon fields of Cass County to the bean factories of Decatur—a librarian's Sangamon Valley. The counties covered include Mason, Cass, Morgan, Macoupin, Montgomery, Macon, Logan, DeWitt, Christian, Menard, and, of course, Sangamon.
The collection will not be limited to materials from these eleven counties, however. Midwestern culture is a plant with long roots. An example: "A lot of the people who settled around Springfield were from the upland South. If we find a major migration from, say, a certain county down in Kentucky, we'd have to consider a history of that county a legitimate addition to our collection."
When that collection was housed in the library's temporary quarters in the old Penney's building on the square, the term "closet shelf" had a literal as well as a metaphoric meaning. The SVC was stored in a jerry-rigged storage shed, a roofless closet really, that was tacked onto the west wall of the third floor. The closet measured roughly thirty-five by six feet, give-or take an inch, or a little more than 200 square feet. It wasn't much room to store more than two centuries of history. One wall of the closet was lined with bookshelves and the other was clogged with cardboard boxes, desks and filing cabinets. Even though parts of the collection were stored in other parts of the building (indeed, some things, like seventy-five books donated by the county genealogical society, were stored in other parts of the city, at the library's west branch), there was little room to maneuver. Tourists had to slither along the cluttered aisle single-file.
Space isn't a problem in the new building. The SVC occupies the southwest corner of the third floor, where it overlooks the century-old Prince sanitarium and the First Presbyterian Church. The red carpeted room has something like 2,200 square feet of space. Off to one side is an enclosed office and work area as big as the old closet on the square. Here SVC staff can catalog materials, repair books, and the other things that librarians do; the room also provides a place to safely store documents and books too valuable to put on public display. On the other side of the room is a second work room, this one equipped with running water. If and when the budget allows it, Russo wants to put in a darkroom there. The walls of the room are demountable—architecturese meaning they can be moved—which allows its shape and size to be altered to fit the future needs of the SVC.
That feature alone is enough to earn the affection of long-time library staffers. The old building, though handsome in its way, made a better monument than a library. Interior walls could not be knocked out or moved without weakening the whole structure. In the seventy years between its construction and its demolition, libraries changed a lot, but the old building changed, hardly at all. Obsolescence has been designed out of the new library.
The new room offers more than elbow room for the SVC. "It wasn't designed specifically with this in mind," Russo points out, "but the new building will be an almost ideal place to preserve historical materials. The temperature and humidity will be even" (in the old building storage areas were too hot and much too dry, turning rare papers into brown crumbs) "although I lost a battle with the architects to take out the fluorescent lighting. It's maybe the worst kind of light for documents, because it makes them fade prematurely." Sometimes, it's possible to throw too much light on the past.
* * *
Most people are afraid of libraries. They regard the Dewey Decimal System with the awe of an illiterate 12th-century serf contemplating the mysteries of Latin. Any good librarian knows this, and Russo wants to make the SVC easy to use. "We're trying to catalog our things closer and describe them in more detail than you get in the typical library catalog so it'll be easier for people to find what they're after," he says. "We're out to try to provide a reference service instead of a research library. We expect a majority of our people won't be experienced researchers. They'll be students, genealogists maybe. The collection will have to be accessible to all kinds of users."
One of the major tasks before the SVC staff is the preservation of city records. In this the SVC comes, in Russo's judgment anyway, about fifteen years too late. When the city departments moved into their present quarters in the spanking new Municipal Building in 1961, they, like a lot of people making a move, cleaned house. Much of what the city agencies had accumulated over the years was, in the way of governments everywhere, not worth the paper it was scribbled on. But a lot of it was worth a great deal. A century's worth of building permits, for instance, documents which can, in the hands of a good researcher, reconstruct a city or resurrect a ghost, was destroyed. Voting records, precinct maps—the total weight of the discards ran into the thousands of pounds.
The loss of such records can cripple future historical and genealogical research in ways impossible to predict or cure. But local ordinances are silent on the subject of records preservation. "There's nothing in the City Code specifically related to records, such as required retention periods, that sort of thing," Russo explains. "It's understandable that if city officials don't have to keep something around to comply with the code they're probably not going to."
* * *
The library staff started amassing their own general collection of city documents when the old building first opened in 1904. But space problems forced them to abandon the effort around 1920 and limit future acquisitions to such basic documents as financial reports.
Even those few city records barely survived; the move to the library, which was meant to insure their preservation, nearly caused their destruction. Russo explains: "The heating system was murder on old papers and books, and they were crammed on shelves under hot water pipes because there wasn't room to store them properly."
Asked why the SVC should act as librarian for the city archives, Russo says this: "As far as the SVC is concerned, this is legitimate history. And since we're a city agency we think the library's the appropriate place to preserve city records that might otherwise get thrown out."
Why is it important to have places like the Sangamon Valley Room? An historian trying to work without facts is like a bricklayer trying to build a wall without enough bricks. He can either use only what he has, in which case the wall will not be big enough, or he can substitute some other materials for the missing bricks, in which case the wall will not be strong enough. Either way the result is defective. There's been a lot of history written without enough bricks in the past. With the SVC, there should be less of it written in the future. ●