Benton House History Project Underway!

Beginning the Project: Archiving Crash Course

-Ambria Taylor

Since our trip to the Research Center at the Chicago History Museum in November, I've been thinking more and more about all of the stories floating around Benton House and how they relate to us in the here and now. I've also been thinking about how most everything I "know" about the history of the Benton House has been an anecdote passed down orally. And I realize how easily these stories could be lost, and how many of our stories probably already are.

The story of the settlement house movement is one that is still largely untold. This movement (which flourished circa 1890-1930)  is one that has very certainly (in my mind) impacted the social landscape of the United States. Neighborhood social service agencies, intentional community-building across cultural lines, and solidarity with those struggling in poverty are all ideas that were significantly nurtured by settlement houses. Their heyday has not been sufficiently documented, and the story of their nation-wide demise is perhaps even more notably absent. 

Benton House is likely the only settlement house left...

After many, many e-mails and phone calls, it has been concluded that Benton House is likely the only settlement house left which follows the traditional resident staff model in North America. My curiosity about the place where I work in combination with its historical and current significance has inspired me to investigate and preserve its tale. So, this summer, myself and several interns will be creating an archive. On one hand, we will be improving our record-keeping, and on the other hand, we will be finding out more about how we got to where we are. 

At the end of this summer, when the archive is done, I hope to move on to the oral history component of the project. The ultimate goal is to write a complete narrative history of Benton House, filled with the facts, the folklore, the firebombs and the heists (yes, there was a firebomb and a heist or two).

We are an enthusiastic but inexperienced group, and we are just getting started. Luckily, we've already found some support. On May 16th, research assistant Sam Alfrey (with the UIC Special Collections Department) graciously visited Benton House to give us an Archiving 101 workshop. She brought along a booklet titled "Don't Throw It Away! Documenting and Preserving Organizational History," which has already proved an excellent resource. 

I will be publicly sharing the details of this project every step of the way. In the spirit of my day-to-day work at Benton House, I hope this project will be multipurpose, bringing us closer to other historical institutions and to other lovers of history. If you would like to be updated as we go, please e-mail historyprojectupdates@bentonhouse.org. If you are interested in working on the project as an intern or volunteer, please e-mail historyproject@bentonhouse.org.