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Illinois Supreme Court History: Supreme Court case file conservation

9/28/2021

By John A. Lupton, Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission

In 2020, the Supreme Court of Illinois approved a project to conserve the Court’s case files that are housed at the Illinois State Archives. In July 2021, the Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission hired conservator Jason Blohm to hydrate, flat-file, repair, clean, and deacidify documents. Blohm’s archival experience is with rare book repair, but he has made the transition to document conservation quite well. Blohm has a master’s degree from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and previously worked in the preservation lab at SIUC’s Morris Library.

The Illinois State Archives is the caretaker for approximately 7,400 cubic feet of Supreme Court case files, dating from 1820 to 1974. To give a real-world perspective of the quantity, this is roughly 3,700 filing cabinet drawers. Conservation work took place decades ago on case files from 1820 to 1869, mainly to prepare Abraham Lincoln-era documents for research, but the great majority of the case files are still tri-folded and coated with soot and coal dust. Here are photos of case files before and after conservation. After the work is completed, case files will be more easily accessible for research and eventual digitization.

Preservation of the Illinois Supreme Court’s work is important because its records provide valuable information about the development of Illinois for historical research. In addition, with easier access to court records, public historians in museums and historical societies can use legal records by incorporating them in exhibits, educational materials, or other programming to educate patrons about any period of time in Illinois. All of history is encompassed in legal history: economic history, social history, family history, criminal history, political history, commercial history, real estate history, among many others. Illinois’s rapid growth paralleled new forms of transportation and innovative agricultural advancements in the Prairie State and is largely unprecedented. Within the cases, researchers can uncover information that details businesses, personal lives, community life, and family relationships, making the Supreme Court cases an important research avenue for academic and public historians, genealogists, sociologists, and constitutional and legal scholars.

In September 2021, the Illinois Supreme Court justices toured the Illinois State Archives to get a first-hand look at the work Blohm is doing and to see some important documents, such as Illinois’s first Constitution, the Illinois Supreme Court case file of Myra Bradwell’s failed attempt to be licensed as an attorney, and an 1833 plat of Chicago in which nothing but swamp land existed east of State Street.

To see these documents and more, visit the Archives’s online exhibit, “100 Most Valuable Documents at the Illinois State Archives,”
https://www.ilsos.gov/departments/archives/online_exhibits/100_documents/home.html.

The conservation project is an inter-agency effort with David Joens, the Director of the State Archives; Carolyn Grosboll, the Clerk of the Supreme Court of Illinois; and John Lupton, the Director of the Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission.

A photo gallery from the Supreme Court’s visit to the State Archives is available here.