Q&A with Gerald Danzer, author of Illinois: A History in Pictures

On May 16, 2011, we published Gerald Danzer’s book Illinois: A History in Pictures, which gathers drawings, engravings, photographs, maps, and other illustrations to illuminate the growth and changes in the Prairie State’s history. Dr. Danzer, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago and former director of the Chicago Neighborhood History Project, recently answered some questions about the book.

Q.  You have written a great deal on American history. What inspired you to write this historical picture book on Illinois?

A. In a general sense this book continues a major question that has dogged me throughout my academic career: How to get young people to realize that they are part of history, connected to it in many ways, and certainly influenced, even shaped, by its currents? Two avenues I have always thought useful in pursuing this bundle of concerns are a sense of place, and the dynamics between national and global history on one hand and the local and state experiences on the other. Hopefully the geographic perspective and the relationships between the different scales of history come through to some extent in these pictures with their texts.

Q. In writing a history book, what is the importance of including photographs/illustrations/maps with the text?

A. We live in a visual culture. Human experience in general and history in particular is becoming more and more as much a matter of seeing as listening. We need both, text and pictures. One without the other seems too limited when our goal is to survey a stateʼs history in 250 pages.

Cover for : Illinois: A History in Pictures. Click for larger imageQ. How and where did you find images for Illinois: A History in Pictures?

A. Locating useful images for this book is more of a challenge than one first expects. My initial goal was to travel around the state to visit local libraries, historical societies, historic sites, and the like. This approach produced a rich harvest, but was very demanding on the time and resources available. In the end, we tapped over fifty different institutions and our search widened to consult people and collections from New England to California and from Canada to Texas. By the way, literally hundreds of images in my files never made the final cut to appear in the book. I am hoping some day to have a chance to expand the book in another edition and/or to create a visual library on line of pictorial sources for Illinois history.

Q. How did you balance the number of images from recent history with more historical images and topics?

A. Balancing the pictures over time and space was probably the most difficult task in putting the volume together. Temporal balance was achieved by dividing the story into chronological chapters with appropriate time boundaries. Spatial balance across the state was checked by my habit of marking the place of each image on a separate outline map of Illinois for each chapter. These index maps were under constant revision as one searched for an appropriate distribution. Unfortunately this context between towns led to the absence of many places that I would have liked to include. After all, Illinois has 102 counties and only about half of them show up in the book.

Q. Was there one image or scene that you wanted to include that you couldnʼt find or get permission to use?

A. There are more than a handful of images that I wanted to include but was not able to, especially for the years after 1923 when one needs permission from the copyright holder as well as the person or institution holding the image. Large corporations proved to be very defensive about letting me use materials in their archives, especially if a trade mark appeared in the image. In another case the use of human subjects in research has become such an issue that I could not use a splendid picture of a childrenʼs birthday party in the 1950s because the subjects were probably still living and had not granted permission to use their pictures.

Q. What part of Illinoisʼ history is the most compelling to you?

A. The most compelling aspect of our stateʼs history is the way human activity, most of it purposeful, has transformed the physical geography of the state: its vegetation, hydrographic features, its landscapes, and indeed even its climate. What have we wrought? Will it survive a cost-benefit analysis?

Q. What was the most surprising thing that you learned about Illinois in researching the book?

A. The most surprising thing I learned in writing this book is the great depth of the human experience in our land, reaching all the way back to the glacial epoch. People were here to watch the great ice sheets, one or two miles thick, recede northward and, in their wake, send the plants and animals into a pattern of continuing adjustment. Some were slow to make the adjustment, like earthworms. The original species were so delayed in reclaiming their former territory that, so Iʼm told, almost all of the earthworms in Illinois today are immigrants from the old world, just like our stateʼs citizens.

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