Thank Goodness for Universities and Historical Societies

Monday, April 25, 2016

University and historical society archives are great resources for researching historical events. And they are even better when they’ve been digitized.

My next middle-grade historical novel will take place during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, so I’ve been reading Chicago and the Great Conflagration by Elias Colbert. Colbert’ book is a study of Chicago’s rise, its economic position before the fire, the fateful October days, and Chicago’s projected future. The great thing about this book is that it was published in 1872—a contemporary account that shows both the events and the prejudices of the time.

Twenty years ago, I would have had a hard time gaining access to Colbert’s book. Or maybe not, since I live in the greater Chicago area. I might have been able to find a physical copy at the Chicago library or the Chicago Historical Society, but I probably would have had to read it and take notes (or photocopies) on their premises. It’s an informative book, and the author does have some creative writing skills to lighten the reading, but many parts are statistics-laden and dull. It would have been hard going.

Fortunately, things have changed in the last twenty years. The book is in the public domain, and I found a Kindle version. It is also available as a PDF and in other formats that have been digitized by the University of Illinois. So instead of blocking out days to read it at a downtown location, I can read it at my leisure in the comfort of my home. And when I find something I want to copy, I simply find the relevant pages in the PDF version and print them off.

Then there is, which is a joint venture of the Chicago Historical Society and Northwestern University. That site contains a number of photographs like the one at the head of this post. It also includes over twenty eyewitness accounts of the events. Again, I can access all of this from the comfort of my own home.

Since the Chicago Historical Society has many other accounts that haven’t been digitized yet, I will still have to spend significant time there. I even purchased a membership. But having some of the information online makes my job much easier.

This isn’t the first time I have found online resources to be invaluable to my research. The first historical I wrote tells about a Japanese American girl living on the west cost when World War II broke out. I took a research trip to the locations in that book, but it would have been cost and time prohibitive to do my document research there. Fortunately, I didn’t have to. The University of California had hundreds of images from the camps where my protagonist was incarcerated, and the University of Utah had digitized all of the camp newspapers.

Where would researchers be without universities and historical societies dedicated to digitizing history?

I’m glad I don’t have to find out.


The photograph at the top of this post shows the corner of State and Madison Streets after the fire. Obviously, some clean-up has already begun. The picture is from the Chicago Historical Society archives and is in the public domain because of its age.

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