Monthly Archives: February 2015

Who owns presidential papers?

I’ve fallen a little behind on writing about this but I loved this piece from Slate that came out on Feb. 12: “Who owns Lincoln’s papers?”—it rings so incredibly familiar to the challenges we’re encountering as we attempt to “unlock” presidential materials.

I don’t want to mis-represent the CPC project as I talk about this: We’re not actually tracking down individual presidential items, for acquisition or scanning or… anything. We leave that up to our partner organizations. But what we do encounter is massive complexity (and… incompleteness…) in partner collections. The chaos is in no way the fault of the organizations themselves—these are places filled with dedicated, clever individuals who do everything they can to clean up and make available these important collections. But the world of presidential materials is a tough nut to crack… and the Slate article outlines one very specific example of why.

A few months ago I had a wonderful meeting at the Papers of Abraham Lincoln and was so intrigued to see that they have an actual map, with pushpins and flags and markers of all types, of where they know Lincoln papers to be held. Some are organizations, but many are individuals. I got the sense that a bit part of their job is exactly this: tracking down, identifying, and attempting to make public documents of importance to national history.

As the article notes, the modern presidential materials are controlled by NARA through the Presidential Library system (and, for our purposes, bless them for it!). This means that the most recent 13 presidents have a neat and tidy 13 presidential libraries. But, before that regulation was put in place, it was the wild west. For example, I had a conversation with Thomas Mackie at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum a few years ago in which he estimated that there are 50-60 site, museums, and libraries dedicated to Lincoln alone.

At any rate, I think I speak for the whole CPC team in echoing the sentiment conveyed in the Slate article: we believe this material should be available for all. For research, for posterity, for entertainment, for education. The purpose doesn’t really matter, in fact. History belongs to all.

Well said by Louis P. Masur in the aforementioned article:

“Beyond academic concerns, there is a public interest in seeing the physical document. Lincoln’s last speech is not just any Lincoln text. In his address, he articulated his plans for reunion and publicly endorsed limited black suffrage for the first time. Hearing that, John Wilkes Booth, who was in the crowd, declared “that is the last speech he will ever make.” Three days later he made good on his threat.”

….“Viewing a manuscript makes history tangible. That is why the National Archives displays the nation’s charter documents. Anyone can read the Declaration of Independence; but to see the original is to imagine the drama and meaning of history in ways that no transcript can provide. Private collectors need to recognize their obligation as citizens to loan Lincoln’s speeches, and other significant documents, to cultural institutions. The American past belongs to the American people, not only to those who can afford to purchase it.”


Time for an update

bushIt has been a while since we have given a general update of the Connecting Presidential Collections project and how we are progressing. We are almost half-way through this three-year grant project. I can’t believe how quickly it has gone! Each section of the grant project is going along smoothly.

As Amber wrote in January, we added three great new partners in the fall. Since that time, we have added two more partners with amazing collections: The Papers of Abraham Lincoln and Ohio History Connection, which includes collections from a variety of different presidents such as Grant, McKinley, and Harding. We are very excited to have these partners aboard—welcome!

We are also talking to a variety of possible partners, and we are hopeful that we will have some more exciting partner announcements in the next few weeks.

Amber and I are also thinking about trips to take to visit presidential sites and libraries in the spring. We are talking with potential partners about challenges they are facing and barriers they need to overcome to help inform the educational materials that we will create. We plan to make it up to DC and the Boston area (once winter is over), and possibly down south to Tennessee. If you are near those areas and you want to talk about presidential digital collections, please let us know!

The microfilm project is making good progress. The team has just begun breaking the ribbons of images from the reels into individual images. Matt is working with an intern to go through the reel ribbons, check on contrast and focus, make any adjustments, and cut them into individual images. This part of the project will take some time as there are 385 reels of microfilm to go through.

We plan to make the catalog publicly available sometime later this year, maybe this summer. The catalog will help researchers and those interested in presidential collections and sites find the many, many places in the country where you can go to learn more about the U.S. presidents.

spotlightAnd speaking of the U.S. presidents, as I’m sure you know, President’s Day is coming up soon. In honor of President’s Day, the Miller Center home page ( is featuring a spotlight on a different president every day this month. It is not part of the CPC project but a neat feature with great photographs that you might want to check out.