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Chicago City Government Records

Departments and Agencies

Chicago’s mayors and aldermen created scores of municipal departments and agencies to address a variety of challenges confronted by residents. These departments 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). Other departments and agencies, in turn, focused on social and cultural issues such as promoting the arts and managing race relations. Researchers working on a wide variety of issues might profit from examining the records of a city department.

Purpose of this section:

This section helps researchers determine: 1) the names of the various departments, city offices, and committees; 2) when those agencies existed; and 3) where to find existing records.

A genealogy of City departments:

The departments of city government changed dramatically over time. Politicians perpetually created, fused, and dismantled departments as technology, politics, and culture changed the imperatives of city government. Consequently, it is somewhat difficult to trace the history of all of the City departments through time. Librarians at the Harold Washington Library Center’s Municipal Reference Desk have created the most comprehensive—though not exhaustive—list, the Historical List of City Department Heads, showing who headed the City’s various departments. The list also reveals the names of the City departments; their dates of existence; and the instances when those departments merged or changed names. The list was published in 1988 and updated in 2011.

Where to find records:

There are collections of historical records for many, but not all, of the departments of the City of Chicago. The Harold Washington Library's Municipal Reference Desk offers a list of City offices and departments whose records can be found at their location. The Chicago History Museum also has records from some city departments. To determine which departments have records at the Chicago History Museum, researchers can consult their catalog, ARCHIE.

There are other useful strategies for locating city department records besides going to the Harold Washington Library or the Chicago History Museum. Google Books has digitized many city department records, especially in cases where the department created a significant document like a “special report.” Another strategy for finding city department records online is to conduct a keyword search for a City department by name (e.g. "Chicago Police Department") in HathiTrust, which is a consortium of major research libraries that has digitized a wide range of historical records.

Researchers might also want to consider where and how the records of City government departments intersect with collections that are not exclusively or even principally about a department (a mayor’s personal papers, for example). One method of locating records related to a particular department is to search for the department on the website of the Chicago Collections Consortiuma group of local repositories. Another strategy for locating records of a city department is to search in the records of the Chicago City Council. The City Council dealt with nearly all aspects of Chicago governance and would, therefore, have had numerous points of contact with municipal departments and their personnel. See the City Council tab on this website for more information on how to search in records of the city’s legislative branch.