CRM Journal

Media Review

The Chicago Historical Society

The Chicago Historical Society; accessed January 4, 2004.


The Chicago Historical Society (CHS) is one of the Nation's premiere historical repositories and a role model for its sister institutions in the United States and abroad. Its visitors range from professional and amateur historians to secondary school teachers and students, curiosity seekers attracted by the fascinating artifacts in its collections, and prospective brides and grooms interested in renting the museum for wedding receptions. The society's website delivers it all with flair in an informative and clear format. Most importantly, the site is an excellent resource for professionals in the fields of historic preservation and cultural resources management.

For researchers, the website offers access to the ARCHIE database (Access for Researching Chicago Historical Information Electronically), which contains records for about 30 percent of the organization's entire collection, or about 6 million of the 20 million historical documents and artifacts. This includes most of the collection’s photographic materials and selected materials. ARCHIE gives researchers a variety of search options and provides quick responses to queries.

The website also provides links to other online catalogs and repositories such as the Illinois State Historical Library, city directories, the U.S. Census Bureau, and the Library of Congress. A link to the Commission on Chicago Landmarks website connects researchers to Your House Has a History, a guide to obtaining archival resources such as building permits, indexes, tract books, and construction reports.

Through its History Lab program, the website provides a series of lesson plans for secondary teachers. Written by the society's teaching fellows, lesson plans are based upon primary sources in the society's collection. The lesson plans are available under six topics: America's Documents of Freedom; African American Life in the Nineteenth Century; Civil War: Up Close and Personal; Chicago's World's Fairs; Face-to-Face with the Great Depression; and History through Opposing Eyes: America and Protest. The website provides a list of Illinois State goals for education fulfilled through these lesson plans and other student programs that the organization offers. Although the lesson plans draw from Chicago history, they are excellent teaching tools for educators in any community.

Information about the society's current exhibits is available on the website with online walk-through and image galleries for some of the exhibits. Currently this section includes Welcome to Harold Washington: The Man and the Movement, which commemorates the 20th anniversary of the historic 1983 election that made Harold Washington Chicago's first African-American mayor.

The Online Projects section demonstrates the society's commitment to finding alternative ways to provide information to its constituents. With a vast collection, but limited resources, the society has partnered with other institutions to develop useful and fascinating web-based products. For example, the society teamed up with several organizations, including the University of Houston and the National Park Service, to create A House Divided: America in the Age of Lincoln. This website provides essays and biographies, an interactive timeline, links to primary sources, lesson plans, and reference materials. With funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the society digitized a portion of its collection of more than 55,000 images of urban life captured between 1902 and 1933 by photographers employed by the Chicago Daily News. The digital images are maintained by the Library of Congress and accessible through its American Memory website.

For those interested in slightly bizarre Americana, the website offers Wet With Blood, an online project created in partnership with Northwestern University, where historians and forensic scientists investigate the authenticity of Lincoln assassination relics. By clicking through What George Wore and Sally Didn't, visitors will see some of the Chicago Historical Society's more offbeat artifacts, including John Dillinger's death mask.

In terms of design, the orange-dominant color scheme is invigorating, and the sleek forms used throughout the site create a fresh backdrop for the information. Although the Chicago Historical Society's business is the past, the organization deftly uses the tools of the Information Age through its website to further our understanding of the Windy City and America at large.

Sarah Dillard Pope
Virginia Main Street Program