Unlocking Chicago’s History: A Guide to City Government Records

By Joshua Salzmann and Emiliano Aguilar

In the fall of 2021, Northeastern Illinois University launched a web-based guide to help scholars conduct research using the city government records of Chicago.

A product of the industrial age, Chicago is a lens through which scholars examine signal events of the past two centuries: industrialization; urbanization; class conflict; foreign immigration; the Great Migration; suburbanization; and deindustrialization. Through these events, Chicago city government stood on the front lines, acting as the first political body to respond to wrenching political, economic, social, and environmental transformations. In spite of the city government’s pivotal role—and of Chicago’s importance for scholarly research—Chicago’s governmental records are sometimes hard to locate.

Tom Floyd, “Chicago Mayor’s Race” (1983), from Harold Washington political cartoon booklet, ca. 1983-84, Box 55, Meg Greenfield Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

The City of Chicago once had a central repository for its records. In 1901 the city opened the Municipal Reference Library to serve as a resource for both municipal officials and citizens. The library grew to hold approximately 50,000 documents, which included proceedings of city council meetings from as far back as 1858, inaugural speeches from mayors, planning documents, city contracts, reports on key civic issues, and books and periodical stories about Chicago, among other resources.

In the fall of 1992, however, Mayor Richard M. Daley shuttered the Municipal Reference Library at City Hall for the purpose of slashing expenses. “I think that the library closing was really a budget matter,” said former Municipal Reference Librarian Joyce Malden in 1995, “but I think that once it occurred, it didn’t seem like such a bad idea. There are people in the administration who don’t want information out, and who are really happy.” 

Without a central archive, researchers who wish to work with Chicago city government documents have no single, obvious place to start. They instead look for city records scattered at a half-dozen repositories including: The Newberry Library, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Harold Washington Library Center, Chicago History Museum, Chicago City Hall, and the Illinois Regional Archives Depository at Northeastern Illinois University. These institutions are fine stewards of city records. What is missing for researchers, though, is a key to understanding how the collections at each of these archives fit together. Recognizing this challenge, the late Associate Dean of Northeastern Illinois University’s Ronald Williams Library, Dave Green, suggested creating a guide to help researchers navigate the varied collections of city government documents in Chicago.  

Northeastern Illinois University’s “Guide to Chicago City Government Records” was created by librarian Edward Remus and historian Joshua Salzmann with grant funding from the Consortium of Academic Research Libraries of Illinois. Its purposes are to: 1) offer an overview of the structure of city government and identify its principle office-holders over time; 2) help researchers understand what records exist for conducting research on Chicago city government and its officials; and 3) point researchers to the various digital and brick-and-mortar archives that house Chicago city government records.

The guide consists of seven sections:

“Departments and Agencies” features materials that help researchers identify what departments existed and when, who headed them, and how to find their records. City departments and agencies ranged from the highly visible—police and fire, for instance—to those dealing with the often-hidden, infrastructural aspects of city life like sewage, gas, and electricity. The guide points researchers to information on more than six dozen different city departments and agencies.

“City Council” helps researchers locate records of the legislative history of Chicago. Throughout Chicago’s history, the Chicago City Council has passed laws dealing with a wide variety of issues, including crime, business, taxation, morality, infrastructure, public health, and safety. The section on the city council contains: lists of aldermen by ward; genealogies of city council committees; and instructions and links for finding the published and the underutilized unpublished papers of the city council.

“City Officials” provides an overview of who worked in various roles in city government at different points in time. Chicago’s public officials were a colorful cast of characters who managed government institutions that dealt with the immediate, pressing concerns of urban life—sanitation, safety, and infrastructure, to name a few. This section of the guide helps researchers identify Chicago’s mayors, aldermen, city clerks, treasurers, attorneys, and department heads, and it offers direction about how to find governmental and personal papers related to those individuals.

“City Courts,” created by Northwestern University PhD candidate Emiliano Aguilar, explains the changing structure of the local judiciary. Originally referred to as “justice shops,” in 1906 the Illinois State Legislature consolidated the fifty-two local justice of the peace courts into a Municipal Court of Chicago. The Legislature restructured the courts again in 1970, forming the Circuit Court of Cook County. The guide, in turn, shows researchers where to find historical sources about these different court systems, the judges that served in them, and the specific cases they heard.

Harold Washington Library Center, Passing ‘El’ Train, Chicago, Illinois (ca. 1980-2006). Carol M. Highsmith, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

“Archives” provides an introduction to key archives for researchers working in the records of Chicago city government. It features recordings of interviews with archivists discussing the scope and possible uses of the collections of city government documents they manage.

The last two sections of the guide are bibliographies. They are not meant to be comprehensive, but, rather, to suggest texts that would be good starting points for historical research on Chicago. The Bibliography of Studies of Chicago offers a list of historical studies about a wide range of topics in the city’s history. The second bibliography is a more selective list of studies describing the structure and function of city government branches at different points in time. It is called the Bibliography of Chicago City Government Structure

The guide to Chicago city government documents could facilitate new urban history research. For any scholar interested in Chicago, the guide is a good starting point—offering an overview of the changing structure of city government as well as a description of the broad range of the records available to scholars. The sources the guide points to are, moreover, part of what historian William Cronon called the “landmine of information,” or the vast trove of sources about local governments still waiting to be discovered by historians in “The Municipal Rummage.” Because so many municipal government documents remain underutilized in the scholarship about Chicago, incorporating them into new studies will offer scholars an opportunity to elaborate on—and perhaps change—the historiography of one of most studied cities in the United States. In this way, the guide might just be a key for unlocking Chicago’s history.


Emiliano Aguilar Jr. is a PhD candidate in history. His dissertation, “Building a Latino Machine,” focuses on how the ethnic Mexican and Puerto Rican community of East Chicago, Indiana, navigated corrupt machine politics to pursue their inclusion into the city. The project traces the transition of Latinos from cogs in the political machine to eventually becoming the machine itself. His work has been featured in Belt Magazine, Cleveland Review of Books, and the Indiana Historical Society Blog

Joshua Salzmann is an associate professor of history at Northeastern Illinois University. He is the author of Liquid Capital: Making the Chicago Waterfront (University of Pennsylvania Press 2018), which shows how policymakers and business leaders forged public-private partnerships to create a landscape conducive to capital accumulation—and, in the process, set powerful, national precedents for environmental protection and regulation of industry. Salzmann is currently writing a history of gun control in Chicago from Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1966 Freedom Movement to the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in McDonald v. Chicago (2010). 

Featured image (at top): Inauguration of Mayor Busse, Council Chamber, City Hall, Chicago, April 17, 1907. Geo. R. Lawrence Co., Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

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