Palo Alto Weekly

News - February 18, 2011

Preparing the past for the present

Stanford archivists acquire, digitize and make historical documents available

by Karla Kane

Honest Abe has loomed large at Stanford University's Special Collections and University Archives department of late, where staffers have been working on digitizing all 26 of the letters in the university's possession sent to and from President Abraham Lincoln.

The digitization is being performed by request of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum as part of the in-progress "Papers of Abraham Lincoln" project, which will offer Lincoln's documents, speeches and letters, both scans of the originals and typed transcriptions, to the public online for free at www.papersofabrahamlincoln.org.

Mattie Taormina, Special Collections' head of public service and processing manuscripts librarian, said her department's purpose is "to acquire, arrange, describe, preserve and make available documents of historic value."

The Lincoln project is one of many ways in which the university's archives contribute to ongoing scholarship and interest in historical figures.

"It's really exciting for people to see," she said of the letters.

Stanford, like Palo Alto resident Joe Baldwin (see main bar, page 3), has something from every U.S. President in its collections, Taormina said. Treasures include a reward poster following Lincoln's assassination, an invitation to John F. Kennedy's inauguration, audio from the Richard Nixon "Kitchen Debate," and, although his official presidential library is elsewhere, memorabilia of Stanford's only presidential alumnus, Herbert Hoover.

Items can be viewed but not checked out by visitors who register with the university, although items must be requested a few days ahead of time as most are not stored on-site. One special item currently out on display on campus, however, is a copy of Milton's "Paradise Lost," signed by both James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. The book is part of the "American Enlightenment" exhibit in Stanford's Green Library, which will be open through mid-May.

Being able to view primary-source material opens a "window into the life of these figures," Taormina said, forming a connection that goes beyond simply reading a history textbook.

"You can hear about the glamour of (Kennedy-era) 'Camelot,' but looking at one of the actual dinner menus from the time, seeing what they ate, the champagne they had, you get more texture. Seeing the thick card stock used, the beautiful calligraphy ... it gives it a more personal feeling," she said.

One of the issues archivists such as Taormina face in the modern age is the prevalence of digital-only documents, such as e-mails, blogs or Facebook posts, which cannot be physically preserved in the same the way older artifacts are. It is unknown what legacy future presidents will leave schools, history museums, auction houses and libraries.

"Will showing a student an e-mail be as exciting as a handwritten letter? Will it have that same impact if you can't hold it, can't see the ink? We don't know," Taormina said.

And though people now use hard drives, cloud computing and other high-tech ways of backing up valuable files such as photographs, Taormina said they may not realize that digital technology can quickly become irrelevant. The floppy discs of years ago gave way to CDs and USB drives of today, and no one knows how long those formats will remain useful in the future.

"The idea of the transitory nature of history is why archives do exist, to make sure the materials are protected, preserved and made available," she said of her work.

Whatever the future of presidential memorabilia may hold, Stanford has already got a little piece of current commander-in-chief Barack Obama's material history: the inauguration invitation sent to university head John Hennessy.

What: The American Enlightenment: Treasures from the Stanford University Libraries

When: Through May 15. Exhibit cases are illuminated Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 6 p.m.

Where: Green Library, 459 Lasuen Mall, Stanford. First-time visitors must register at the south entrance portal to Green Library's East Wing (557 Escondido Mall) to gain access to the exhibition in the Bing (west) Wing.

Cost: Free

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