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.”

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About Amber Lautigar Reichert

I'm a web developer and tech/design generalist working in higher ed on history and public affairs content. I tweet about my work through @MillerCtr_Amber and through the CPC shared account @Pres_Collection.

One thought on “Who owns presidential papers?

  1. “Wild west” indeed! I was just reading about Chester A. Arthur, who famously ordered most of his papers burned just prior to his death in 1886. The Wisconsin Historical Society published a very good article detailing the long search for the surviving papers, which are held by the Library of Congress. The article is available at http://www.jstor.org/stable/4634741 (access may be restricted).

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