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Chicago City Government Records

A Guide to Scholarly Research in Chicago City Governmental Records

Chicago is one of the most studied places in the world—the site of groundbreaking scholarly works in history, literature, sociology, political science, economics, environmental studies, social work, and public health. Why? Chicago is a product of the industrial age. The city grew from an obscure and muddy wilderness outpost of just 350 residents in 1833 to a modern metropolis of over three million souls by 1933. Chicago offers a lens through which scholars can examine the signal events of the nineteenth, twentieth, and now, the twenty-first centuries: frontier conquest; industrialization; urbanization; class conflict; foreign immigration; the Great Migration; suburbanization; deindustrialization; and gentrification.

Through all 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 City government’s pivotal role—and of Chicago’s importance for scholarly research—Chicago's city government records are sometimes hard to locate. The first challenge is to gain an understanding of the ever-changing structure of City of Chicago government; this can be done by consulting scholarly works on Chicago city government structure.

The records of Chicago city government and public officials are not centralized. They have been scattered among various institutions as a result of nearly two centuries of institutional transitions. Collections exist in city, state, and corporate repositories including: the Newberry Library, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago History Museum, Harold Washington Library, Chicago City Hall, Google Books, HathiTrust, the Internet Archives, and the Illinois Regional Archives Depository at Northeastern Illinois University. Consequently, it is sometimes difficult for researchers to identify and find records relevant to their work. 

Purposes of this guide:

The purposes of this guide 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 officials; and 3) point researchers to the various digital and brick-and-mortar archives that house City government records.

Overview of this guide:

The guide consists of seven parts. Departments and Agencies lists the key agencies of City government, when they existed, and where researchers can find their records. City Council shows researchers where to find the records of the Chicago’s legislative branch. City Officials offers an overview of who worked in city government at different points in time as well as where to look for records related to those individuals. City Courts explains the changing structure of the local judiciary and where to find historical sources about judges, legal bureaucracy, and specific cases. Archives provides an introduction to key archives for researchers working in the records of Chicago city government; it also provides video interviews with archivists about the holdings in, and how to use, the collections 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. For a more selective list of studies describing the structure and function of City government branches at different points in time, please consult the Bibliography of Chicago City Government Structure