Library of Congress completes major project to preserve early presidential papers

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The early presidents didn’t produce documents to match the volume of late 20th and early 21st century presidents. But the legacy of those early executives remains crucial to your understanding of U.S. History. The Library of Congress recently completed a project to digitize and make publicly available the papers of the presidents from George Washington to Calvin Coolidge. For how they did the latest batch, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke to the Civil War and Reconstruction specialist in the Library’s manuscript division, Michelle Krowl.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. Krowl, good to have you on.

Michelle Krowl: Thank you for having me.

Tom Temin: And so your group of presidents then, tell us which group you’re responsible for for this whole project.

Michelle Krowl: I am responsible for the collections of James K. Polk through Theodore Roosevelt. And I share the presidential collections essentially with two other specialists.

Tom Temin: Got it. So you have some of the exciting presidents like Theodore Roosevelt, and some maybe not so exciting like James K. Polk, then?

Michelle Krowl: Well, I think all of the presidents have some level of excitement to their administrations and their lives.

Tom Temin: Sure, I guess, between the two that you’ve got the White House itself to changed a lot then, they had to deal with electricity and so on. Anyway, give us a sense of the extent of documents and what types of formats they were in that you were dealing with.

Michelle Krowl: When you consider the entirety of the 23 presidential collections that we have at the Library of Congress, the extent of the collections are really as different and as varied as the men who held the office. So just even the number of items contained in a presidential collection depends largely on the individual president, how much material he generated and retained during his lifetime, and then also how much was saved. So for example, the smallest of the presidential collections is Zachary Taylors, with only 650 items. Whereas the largest of our presidential papers is William Howard Taft’s collection, which has 676,000 items. So it’s quite a range there. But the Library of Congress collections of presidential papers, we collect from birth to death. So in George Washington’s case, it can be schoolbooks and surveys that he did as a young man, to everything with his presidency and his military career. So it really has a range of materials. It’s also in terms of what’s in the collection can vary quite a lot. For our collections, they tend to have an abundance of correspondence, but it can also be diaries and scrapbooks, and love letters to their wives, visual materials. It really runs a gamut of the kinds of materials that you can find in a president’s papers.

Tom Temin: So even going back that far, they are not all flat documents?

Michelle Krowl: They don’t tend to be. So for example, like diaries obviously are usually bound volumes. We have scrapbooks. Sometimes maps come along with the collections as well. Every once in a while you even find something a little bit more three dimensional, pressed flowers, things of that nature. But for the bulk of the collections, you’ll see the kind of flat documents of correspondence.

Tom Temin: Got it. So these are not the official papers from the White House, or does it include those also?

Michelle Krowl: Well, it can in the sense that prior to the 20th century, there were not records management policies that we’re used to today. So it was a looser designation of what was someone’s personal papers. Now, if it’s an official government document, for example, the Emancipation Proclamation with Abraham Lincoln. So for example, the official preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and the final Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 are down at the National Archives because it was an official government document that was transferred through government agencies until it got to the National Archives when that was created in the 20th century. But in the Abraham Lincoln papers at the Library of Congress, we have his first draft of a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation from about July of 1862. And it was basically him working out what an Emancipation Proclamation might have in it. He read it to his cabinet, they decided to shelve it until the Union Army won a victory, but that was never an official government document so it was retained within his personal papers. But it’s still very important in the process of understanding Lincoln’s Emancipation policies throughout the Civil War.

Tom Temin: And in many ways, the documents you’re dealing with also aid in the understanding of the president as people.

Michelle Krowl: Absolutely. So in addition to the kind of constituent mail and memos or correspondence or things between cabinet officers or the things that you have with running a business, that’s one of the interesting parts of these presidential papers is because they do reflect on the people themselves. So one of my favorite examples is actually from James A Garfield’s papers in that an entire series is letters that he and his wife Lucretia wrote to one another during the time that they were recording and then engaged in during their marriage. And what I find so fascinating about these letters is that they had a rocky relationship for quite some time, they had very different personalities and they loved one another, but he needed more from her than she could give to him. And so they kind of went round and round about their relationship and that’s reflected in the letters that she even tells him prior to their marriage that I don’t want you to marry me just because you feel that you have a duty to do so. And at some point in kind of mid to late 1860s, after a few years of marriage and several children, they fell head over heels in love with one another and they just finally clicked. And then you see that change in their correspondence that they never want to live without one another and they love because they do, not because they have to. And that gives you such an interesting sense of Garfield as a person in terms of what his emotional needs were, how he related to other women to his wife. So you really get more of a sense of a person, rather than just this man who’s sitting in the White House.

Tom Temin: And getting down to some of the technical details, I imagine these are in various states of fragility and legibility because of the paper and parchment they used and inks fade and so forth. So what are some of the processes you have to go through to scan them so that they can be seen digitally?

Michelle Krowl: Well, it’s a process that depends on what documents you’re dealing with within the presidential papers. So in the mid 20th century, from about 1958 to 1978, the library undertook a presidential papers project in which the papers were arranged indexed and microfilmed. So our decision in the manuscript division was to digitize from the microfilm when it was available because that made it more efficient and cost effective so that we were able to spread our resources more broadly in terms of scanning. However, obviously we continue to acquire with these collections some materials that came in after that presidential microfilming project, or perhaps some items that weren’t microfilmed in the first go around were scanned from original materials. And under those circumstances, then we did have our conservation colleagues look at the materials, assess them, if they were too fragile or needed repairs. So we were able to do that kind of thing. So we have a very skilled conservation department that is very knowledgeable about all these different media that you encounter in the presidential papers.

Tom Temin: Because there are qualities that can be reproduced more accurately, or at least shown more with more fidelity to the original with scanning than you could with microfilm, correct?

Michelle Krowl: Well, you’ll see if you go on, which we hope you do, go on to one of our presidential papers is with the microfilm edition, that is what you’ll see for the bulk of the presidential papers, again, because of that project in the 20th century. But even with microfilm, you’re still seeing the essential content that you’d need in terms of the handwriting and letterhead and things of that nature. And to be honest, as people were coming into the manuscript division for all of these years, because we require people to use preservation surrogates when they exist to extend the preservation of the originals, If you had come into the manuscript reading room prior to this digitization project, you would have been looking at that microfilm in any event, but you’re still getting the essential information, getting a sense of what the documents look like and so you’re still getting a good quality.

Tom Temin: And you mentioned that the range of numbers from the presidents is from a few hundred to hundreds of thousands for some of the presidents. Is everything online?

Michelle Krowl: Everything is online, everything that we determined that was in the scope of scanning. Unfortunately, the pandemic did interrupt some original scanning in some of those editions, but once we’re able to resume that operation, then all of that will be online as well. But you really are getting the bulk of the collections. In some cases, you actually are getting the entire collection because it was microfilm, or we were able to scan all the originals we plan to include.

Tom Temin: What’s it like to hold one of these in your hand? Especially for a president you might admire or you just find particularly some interesting historical fact out of it and there you are holding the original.

Michelle Krowl: Well, I have to say as a historian, and I was a researcher at the Library of Congress prior to becoming on staff, there are moments when you encounter a document and you think, oh my goodness Abraham Lincoln had this in his hand. So for example, one of my favorite documents in the Lincoln papers is what we call the blind memorandum. And it was in August of 1864 when he wasn’t sure he was going to be reelected as President. And so he basically wrote a memo that said, it looks exceedingly improbable that I will be reelected so I’m pledging to work with the president elect between the election and the inauguration to save the union because otherwise the union will not be saved afterwards. And so he dated it and signed it and folded it all up and sealed it shut and then he took it to a cabinet meeting and had all of his cabinet members sign it on the flap, and then tucked it into his drawer. Well, as it turned out, he didn’t need to act upon that because he did win reelection. But it’s a document that really resonates with a lot of people because it shows the importance of those contemporary items in that today, you think, oh it’s Abraham Lincoln, of course he’ll be reelected in 64, but it was not a sure thing by any means and Lincoln wasn’t even sure. So these documents give you a contemporary look at that particular time. And so with that particular blind memorandum, when you’re looking at it or when I have that volume open, it’s a reminder of one of the low points of Lincoln’s presidency when things looked very uncertain. It gives you that kind of window into what that person was dealing with at that particular time. I’ll tell you another story that I thought was great in a document. When Ulysses S. Grant, after the presidency when he was dying of cancer and he was also writing his memoirs, the press was just following him all the time, because basically they were on a death watch. And so people were reading all about it. And in the Grant papers is a letter from, I can’t remember how old she is but she’s a grade school girl who is in an industrial school in New York, and she gets to write to Grant and she says she uses some of her money to buy a newspaper every day to find out how he’s doing, and the other boys can tell us what’s happening because they’re blacks and shoe shiners, and newspaper delivery boys. And basically she’s just kind of praying for his recovery and all of this. And it’s a sweet letter from this girl who doesn’t know Grant, but wants to write to him because she’s read all about him. But you’re also getting a view into the lives of children in industrial schools in New York. So multiple layers of what you get, just really striking.

Tom Temin: Interesting, yeah. And that young girl could have lived into the 20th century for all we know.

Michelle Krowl: Oh, absolutely. And what is also very cool about the Library of Congress collections is that because they speak to one another, so we actually have the handwritten manuscripts that Grant wrote for his memoirs. So as he’s writing, she’s writing him about what’s going on, you can go a few boxes over and actually see the manuscripts that he was working on. So it’s just extraordinary how our collections speak to one another. And you almost get a little Night at the Museum feeling sometimes.

Tom Temin: So these collections that are online then, it’s a combination of newly scanned and microfilmed.

Michelle Krowl: That’s right. So the bulk of them will be microfilm because of the presidential microfilm project of the mid 20th century. But there are things that we acquired after the microfilm, or things that may not have been done the first time around but we’ve determined that we really want to have those online now. So it’s a combination. So if you go to Theodore Roosevelt’s papers, for example, quite a lot of it will be microfilm because that was done in the mid 20th century. But if you go to series 16, which was an addition that came in after that microfilming, there’s some wonderful letters that he wrote to his son Archibald, Archie. And many of them are absolutely charming because Archie is off at boarding school, so TR will write about what’s going on, or the pets, or the adventures of Quentin , which always spitball on the paintings and snakes in the office. And because we got those after the microfilming, those actually were done from the original.

Tom Temin: And that is series..?

Michelle Krowl: Series 16.

Tom Temin: Oh, I see. Yeah, editions 1716 to 1993. Got it, not films, scanned from originals. Okay, wow.

Michelle Krowl: Exactly. So we tried to indicate particularly on the overview page, or the about page, that if there are real numbers next to it, then you’re getting microfilm, but if it says it’s not film scanned from original, then that is something that we didn’t have a preservation surrogate to be able to use.

Tom Temin: And interestingly, you can see the advent of the typewriter too.

Michelle Krowl: Oh, yeah, and that’s one thing we didn’t even pick up on in the interview is it’s also almost 150 years worth of different office supplies and paper, from George Washington in the kind of like mid 18th century up to Calvin Coolidge, you’re seeing different handwriting styles, you’re seeing different kind of papers and inks. And then you get to the typewriter. There’s also in my time period, we have something called letterpress, where you physically put almost like moist and tissue paper, and it absorbs the ink from the original so that you have a retained copy. So there’s all sorts of different techniques in terms of office supplies and stationery and inks. And also when you get towards the 20th century, the presidency takes on more of a role and there’s a larger staff, so the collections get more voluminous as well.

Tom Temin: Sure, yeah. And by the time you’re electronic Clinton and on beyond Clinton, there’s an exponential increase in the number of records that keep coming in.

Michelle Krowl: Oh, absolutely. And so now it’s dealing with the born digital aspect of materials that have never been in a paper form.

Tom Temin: Yeah, that paper is amazing. I’m looking at the stories about Clinton. I could talk to you for hours, unfortunately I have to get going. But thank you very much.

Michelle Krowl: Oh, well thank you and hopefully your listeners enjoy looking at our presidential papers.

Tom Temin: Michelle Krowl is Civil War and Reconstruction Specialists in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress. Thanks so much for joining me.

Michelle Krowl: Well, thank you for having me. And I hope that all of your listeners go check out our online presidential collections.

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