Placing Illinois in History

The Illinois community experiences two momentous milestones over the next two years: the 150th year anniversary of the founding of the University of Illinois in 2017, followed by the 2018 bicentennial of Illinois’s statehood. These anniversaries call for celebration of the great heritage of our state and the unique contribution to its public life and scientific and cultural innovation made by the land grant university. These landmarks also represent opportunities to reflect on the complex and sometimes conflict-ridden processes that brought the state and the university to the present day. As citizens of Illinois ponder what the 21st century will bring to the 21st state, it is crucial to place current challenges and aspirations in their long-term historical context.

In this spirit, the History Department through our “Center for Historical Interpretation” framework is leading a two-year programming initiative devoted to the sesquicentennial and bicentennial anniversaries. In 2016-2017, we will draw on the fascinating chapters in The University of Illinois: Engine of Innovation, a book on the history of the university edited by Frederick Hoxie. Talks by groups of the book’s 28 authors and invited alumni will focus on people, programs and places that each highlight the history of “innovation” on our campus in a unique light. In each semester, a prominent outside speaker will visit campus to offer a wider perspective on the interplay between Illinois and innovation over the past 150 years. To attract wider public attention to our work, we will host a kick-off event in fall 2017 in Chicago for alumni, legislators and other members of the public.

In 2017-2018, we will turn our focus to the 200-year history of the statehood of Illinois. In addition to talks and workshops by local experts, we will invite two prominent speakers each semester to deliver public lectures illuminating the path of Illinois toward statehood and its distinctive trajectory in the following 200 years.

The audience for our events will include faculty, students, staff, and alumni, as well as members of the local community, teachers, and (through podcasts and social media) the wider public of the state and its lawmakers. In addition to public lectures, we will offer a broad range of events and activities, which draw on the existing Center for Historical Interpretation framework. We will have a reading group open to faculty and graduate students from across campus to read works related to the history and possible future of the land-grant university and, in the following year, on the political as well as social, economic and cultural issues surrounding the creation of the state of Illinois and its trajectory to the 21st century.

A major focus of the two-year initiative will be on providing transformational educational experiences related to the history of the university and Illinois statehood. In Fall 2017, we will debut a new 200-level course on the History of the University (developed by Dana Rabin with support from the Ethnography of the University Initiative). This will become a permanent element of our curriculum and allow students to take advantage of our exceptional archival and library resources to conduct independent historical research on myriad aspects of our university. Four Professional Development Workshops for K-12 teachers will offer content coverage, teaching resources, and sample assignments to help area teachers provide students with necessary background for incorporating these histories into their classrooms.

The History Department's digital documentary publishing unit, Source Lab, provides another venue for us to encourage both students and the larger public to explore Illinois' role in the history of innovation. A commonly acknowledged problem the University faces is that many of the transformative contributions we have made—to scholarship, civic life, technology and commerce—are poorly understood, in part because no one has access to materials that document them. To have a living sense of history, people not only need to hear scholars talk about it: they need a window on the past they can look through themselves. SourceLab is a program that teaches students the art of publishing historical documents, with a particular focus on digital documentary publishing.

The two-year initiative grows out of and is an extension of our efforts to establish a permanent Center for Historical Interpretation. Now in its tenth year, the CHI initiative has a track record of outstanding, multi-faceted programming, including a two-year celebration of the Lincoln Bicentennial (2007-2009), a three-year project on “World Histories from Below” and, currently, a three-year theme on “Global Utopias”. From its inception, this initiative has included visiting speakers, reading groups, curricular enrichment, teacher workshops, and other forms of public outreach. The intellectual work made possible by these themes has resulted in numerous faculty publications and student dissertations, as well as the creation of new undergraduate classes. As always, we will collaborate with and seek input from colleagues across campus, including IPRH, English, Geography, Political Science, and Music.

Interested in joining our reading group/field trips? Our monthly schedule, speaker information, and other information is available here.


The primary contact for the “Placing Illinois in History” program is Bob Morrissey, Associate Professor of History and chair of the Center for Historical Interpretation. Reach him at