Aurora, circa 1920
Dixon, circa 1940s
Freeport, early 20th century
Rockford, circa 1920s
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Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
December 14, 2006
DeKalb, Ill. — Each year more than 3,000 people visit the Regional History Center reading room at Northern Illinois University to delve through Civil War diaries, peruse turn-of-the-century postcards and study yellowed business and government records from across the region.
Now NIU is bringing the reading room to the people.
University Libraries is creating an Internet-based digital library of historical materials from all corners of northern Illinois dating to the mid-19th century. The Illinois State Library provided a grant of about $20,000 for construction of the Web site, which will debut late next summer, complementing an already completed site on DeKalb County history (http://dig.lib.niu.edu/dekalb/).
Located on the fourth floor of Founders Memorial Library on the NIU campus, the Regional History Center is the official depository for local government and business records for 18 of 19 northern Illinois counties, the lone exception being Cook County. The Web site will feature highlights of the center’s collection, which boasts about 3,500 postcards dating back as far as 1895 and as many as 10,000 photographs.
The center also has a number of diaries that provide intimate accounts of the daily travails of life in the 19th century. The diaries range from those of Civil War soldiers to those of people who lived on farms or in small towns.
“People say, ‘Wouldn’t you like to go back to the good old days?’ ” said Glen Gildemeister, director of the Regional History Center. “If you read some of this stuff, you wouldn’t.
“For example, one extensive set of diaries is from a woman and her daughter who were both school teachers in Sandwich,” Gildemeister added. “The woman once broke her leg in the middle of winter while her husband was in Michigan buying feeder pigs. She basically sat there in her home without any help for weeks.”
The center collects original manuscripts and records generated by private individuals, institutions and organizations. Holdings include historical records of farmers and their organizations, businesses and retail stores, state and local politicians, churches, cemeteries, civic agencies, individuals, women's organizations and labor unions.
“There’s a really wide range of text and images that we will be digitizing so it can be presented in a user-friendly format on the Web,” said Drew VandeCreek, who heads the NIU Libraries digitization unit.
“We’ll have historical images from places in all of the counties, including postcards from local communities. A century ago, postcards were much more prevalent than they are today. You also can learn a lot about what was going on in a town at the turn of the century by looking at the railroad records, which include photographs and business information.”
The Regional History Center also actively collects local histories, atlases and plat books, city directories, maps, posters, oral histories and genealogical journals.
“The new Web site will be a unique and easily accessed resource, not just for history buffs but also for teachers and students in college, high school and middle school,” VandeCreek said. “People will be able to learn about broad topics through a local lens, which helps make learning history more meaningful.”