The Connecting Presidential Collections project is thrilled to announce its newest partner, the Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection. Right now, the collection has more than 3,700 items related to Abraham Lincoln, his family, his presidency, and that era in American history. The collection will continue to grow as new items are gradually added.
When the Lincoln National Life Insurance Company was founded in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1905, the company wanted to use a photograph of President Abraham Lincoln on its letterhead as a way to symbolize the company’s values. Robert Lincoln, the president’s son, sent the company a photograph of his father to use. In appreciation, the company started the Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection in 1928, and over many years, it amassed a world-class collection of Lincoln-related material. In 1931, the Lincoln Museum and Library was opened to display the collection to the public. The museum closed in 2008 but the Lincoln Financial Foundation wanted to keep the collection together. Today the collection is managed as a joint venture between the Indiana State Museum and the Allen County Public Library.
Expanding our partnership with the UVA Press’s Rotunda, CPC has added the Papers of Andrew Jackson to its collection. The Papers of Andrew Jackson is a documentary editing project at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. The project has published nine volumes of Jackson’s papers from 1770 to 1831. It anticipates that 17 volumes will be published before the project is done. Dr. Daniel Feller, a professor of history at UT Knoxville, is the director of the papers project.
Rotunda, UVA’s digital imprint, has published the digital version of the Jackson’s papers as part of its American Founding Era collection. The Jackson papers join other presidential papers such as those of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. Andrew Jackson is one of the most important presidents in American history. He was a transformative figure between the presidencies of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, remembered for founding the Democratic Party and for expanding the powers of the presidency. We are excited to have added this valuable collection to CPC!
Recordings from Taft, Coolidge along with Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Warren Harding allow CPC users to hear presidents whose voices are unknown to most people. The audio recordings also add a multimedia dimension to CPC that we hope we to expand in the future.
Beyond its presidential selection, the Vincent Voice Library holds more than 100,000 hours of audio recordings. The collection was founded by G. Robert Vincent who began making recordings in 1912 after borrowing a recording device from his friend, Charles, who was Thomas Edison’s son. We are excited to welcome the Vincent Voice Library as a partner to CPC!
The CPC team is excited to be headed west! Not permanently, but we are packing our bags for the Digital Libraries Federation (DLF) Forum, being held in Vancouver, British Columbia in October.
Connecting Presidential Collections was selected as a Snapshot project update. In 2013, we did a poster presentation of CPC at the DLF Forum in Denver, CO. At that point, the project was mostly theoretical–we had only created a very basic beta website (that looked very different than the site does today). We had 6 partnerships and only about 25,000 items in CPC. Today CPC has 12 partnerships with more than 260,000 items covering 32 out of the 43 presidents. We have come a long way!
Of course, we will cover these updates in our talk but more importantly we will talk about the surprises that have come up and the lessons we have learned in the 2 years we have been working on this 3-year grant project sponsored by the IMLS and the Miller Center. We will also cover the work that we have been doing to smooth out the rough (and varying) edges of our partners’ metadata so that it can all play nicely together in our Solr index.
We will post the slides to our talk after October. Hope to see some of you there!
Three exciting new partners have joined CPC! They are:
Indiana Historical Society
The James Monroe Papers
The Truman Little White House
We are very excited about these great new partners and their fascinating collections!
The Indiana Historical Society adds the Harrison presidents to CPC—William Henry Harrison (1841) and Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893). Benjamin was the grandson of William Henry Harrison, who is notable because he was only in office for one month before he died of pneumonia. He served the shortest time of any U.S. president.
The James Monroe Papers are a valuable collection of letters that span across Monroe’s long career in public service. He served in the Continental Army during the American Revolution and as a U.S. Senator for Virginia, U.S. minister to France, governor of Virginia, secretary of state, secretary of war, and U.S. president. On May 10, 1784, Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Monroe with a list of books that Jefferson sold to Monroe. The collection also includes the farm manager’s daybook of weather, activities, and accounts at Oak Hill in 1830. Oak Hill was Monroe’s residence in Loudon County, Virginia, where he retired at the end of his presidency in 1825. The Monroe Papers are slightly different than many of the CPC partners as the links to their materials take users to a landing page for the papers project and there are instructions for how to access the materials.
The Truman Little White House based in Key West, Florida, was the president’s get-away from Washington, D.C., to warmer and sunnier climates. The collection includes the logs kept by the U.S. Navy of President Truman’s visits to Key West. They include specific details such as the members of the president’s party and the maximum and minimum temperatures when Truman was visiting. They also contain the president’s activities each day with amazing particulars. The log from March 7-27, 1952, noted when the President came downstairs each day (at 7:40 a.m. on Saturday, March 8, 1952) to what cars he traveled in (four Mercury sedans for the president and his party and four Ford sedans for the secret service). The Little White House collection also includes a small sampling of photos from Truman’s visits including the president with a six-pound grouper.
We are always looking to add new partners to CPC and to make descriptions about their collections part of the CPC site. So please get in touch with us if you and your institution have digital collections on the U.S. presidents and want to be part of this exciting project. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I wanted to take a moment and call up an exceptional museum that Sheila and I recently visited—one that, whatever you’re doing, you should stop and visit at this very instant. (Or, I suppose, during your next free weekend.*)
Beth Sullivan, the museum administrator, treated us to an incredible showing of the Museum’s collections, including an original copy of the Virginia ratification of the U.S. Constitution, “Preceptor” (a beautifully illustrated educational book created for “His Highness Prince George”), and a wonderfully curated set of artifacts from the Madison life and presidency.
The James Madison Museum, like so many libraries and museums we’ve visited, relies largely on public support for its wellbeing. It’s an unfortunate consequence of this model that irreplaceable artifacts, evidence of our essential shared history, are subject to the wax and wane of Americans’ personal generosity. Many sites like these have no endowment, few (if any) grant funders, and find themselves fighting tooth and nail just to stay afloat, much less rehabilitate or further disseminate their priceless holdings.
There’s a much larger discussion to be had here about public/government funding for educational and history organizations—a conversation often fraught with differing political views and our own perceived consequences of any given approach.
But there are a few things you can do immediately, and they’re so simple:
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 Lincolnand 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.
“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.”
It 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.
And 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 (millercenter.org) 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.
I thought I’d write about where we are with the microfilm digitization part of our project. In particular, we had a minor setback with our scanning that proved (to me, at least) to be quite educational.
We enlisted the help of The Crowley Company, a commercial digitization lab that offered state-of-the art equipment and a clean room, and that, along with experienced operators doing the work, convinced us that we would produce digital copies of these collections of the highest possible quality. But what of the microfilm itself? Were the reels in good enough condition, and was the original photography done well? We were eager to view the results, and it fell to me to analyze the scans and assess their quality.
How’s it look to you?
I’ll admit to having been a little unsure of myself. I explored various reels, looking for poor exposure, blurry images, anything indicating an error or gap in the digitization process. Eventually, I got a sense of what the overall resolution of the images was. But something didn’t feel right. When I looked at the top of the page (and why wouldn’t you start there?), things looked fine, but occasionally I saw things that looked blurry, and this gave me pause. Was I looking at the maximal sharpness of the image, or could things be improved? Without the microfilm on hand, I couldn’t even determine whether it was the digital photography that was to blame or the original microphotography. If the latter, there was really nothing to be done, short of re-shooting the papers, and that wasn’t an option!
Fortunately, when we had an on-site visit from Crowley, I had a chance to raise the issue with their representative. He very quickly identified a curious trend: the top of each page was crisp and clear, while the bottom was less clear. A few minutes later, he was on the phone to the scanning lab, as they still had the microfilm in their possession. At his request, the film was examined under a microscope, and we confirmed that original microphotography was in focus. This can be done ad hoc, by looking at a frame selected at random. But, fortunately, there is a more systematic method for answering questions such as these.
Resolution Calibration Test Targets Are Your Friends
When microfilm is professionally manufactured, there is a calibration chart included in the material photographed. The photographs of the chart document the focal quality of the entire batch of images. Moreover, they are designed to exhibit the limitations of any optical lens used in photography: aberration. The target looks like this:
The four seemingly redundant charts at the corners tell you something very important: how the photography resolves an image at the extreme edges of the camera lens. It’s not enough to have good focus at the center, a lens must be designed and calibrated to produce sharp images at the periphery, and these charts document how the photographic lens performed for the microfilming session. Like an eye chart, finding the smallest lines that can be resolved (and are not just a grey blur) indicates the limit of your ability to focus in on a detail in an image.
As this is a standard, highly accurate printed chart, rather than pen ink on a hundred-year old manuscript, you can get a much more reliable sense of what the photography (and subsequent scanning) captured. And here we can see the variation between a top-corner and bottom-corner chart on the very same exposure:
I find that if you examine the bars labeled “2.0”, you can see a distinct difference. (Click on the image to expand.)
Once we’d established that at least some of our scanned reels resulted in partially out-of-focus digital images, more detective work was required. Our Crowley representative quickly established that there was a calibration error with the scanner that processed the samples we examined, and their records indicated the entire run was done with the same machine. They very quickly sent that scanner to be repaired and re-calibrated, and since they still had the microfilm on hand, they offered to rescan the material as soon as the machine was deemed fit to return to service.
We were more than happy with this arrangement. I’m hoping to use these images in an effort to extract transcripts and/or metadata from the documents photographed, and clarity is very important. Consider this side-by-side example:
The first scanning attempt:
And the results of recalibration:
I think the increase in clarity is pretty obvious (your mileage may vary!)
I’m glad we investigated this, and the turnaround time for the rescanning was excellent. So thanks again to Crowley for their diligence and expert eyes! I have a much higher degree of confidence in our digital images, and look forward to the next phase of our work.
Just wanted to do a quick check-in/shout out (!) to our wonderful partners—the ones who send us metadata and help make CPC the resource we know it can be. We’re constantly in conversations with new organizations who are interested and, if you’re reading this and manage some sort of presidential collection, that could include you!
At this moment, we’re absolutely thrilled to have officially signed on Ohio History Connection as a partner. This org is truly impressive: they serve as a technical hub for myriad historical organizations in the state, and their archival and museum programs are unique, accessible, and interesting. You’ll see their content on the CPC website in the weeks to come—for now, we’re over the moon to be moving things forward with such an impressive organization!
In Fall 2014, we added three fantastic partners:
UVa Press’s digital imprint, Rotunda, which includes collections from the first four U.S. presidents;
The National Archives’ Founders Online, another impressive collection representing material from the first four U.S. presidents; and
The Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library at Mississippi State University, which brings correspondence, research notes, artifacts, and photographs from Grant’s lifetime.
Together, these collections have added more than 100,000 items to the CPC index and have expanded content available to researchers by both their depth and breadth of coverage. We’re thrilled to have them on board!
Finally, last but never least, we want to acknowledge our original partners, whose participation let us launch a robust initial site to begin with. Those are:
The Miller Center Oral History Program;
The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum;