By Joan Cary, Chicago Tribune (TNS)
Every morning, Daniel Stowell reads the newspaper on his iPad over breakfast.
But it isn’t the current day’s paper. It’s an edition from 150 years ago to the day of the four-page Daily National Republican.
Not only is the old news of personal interest to the historian and author, it gives Stowell a head start on his workday. He is director and editor of The Papers of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., and he and his co-workers have a goal: employ modern technology to make historical Lincoln documents accessible to anyone with a computer.
They intend to give the world via the Internet 150,000-plus transcriptions and images of papers written by or to Illinois’ favorite son. And they’ve posted about 100,000 legal documents from Lincoln’s law career online. They also are chronicling as many day-to-day events as possible in Lincoln’s life, such as the ones Stowell finds combing through an online archive of the Daily National Republican.
And they are creating apps that allow museum visitors to interact and learn more about the 16th president.
“Millions of people around the world are fascinated by Abraham Lincoln,” said Stowell, who also is director of the museum and library’s Center For Digital Initiatives. “We can never predict with complete accuracy how people are going to connect with him, but they do.”
Stowell’s staff thinks that even documents pertaining to Lincoln’s death and those written in the present will help people connect to who Lincoln was in life.
The citizenlincoln.org website allows researchers to see and read the condolence letters sent by leaders from around the world after Lincoln’s assassination 150 years ago this April, as well as read what the modern counterparts of those people think of Lincoln today.
For example, there’s a letter of sympathy from Queen Victoria to Mary Todd Lincoln on April 29, 1865, offering condolences over “so terrible a calamity,” and one that Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, wrote to the museum in October, in which he said how he drew strength from Lincoln. He noted that streets in Israel are named after Lincoln, who, according to the prime minister, had a desire to visit Jerusalem that went unfulfilled.
As for the president’s time on earth, thelincolnlog.org offers details from the days in the life of Lincoln. So far, more than 7,100 days are documented, most from his adult life.
Wondering what Lincoln was doing on your birthday — or any date — many years ago? On March 9, 1844, he paid 25 cents for a pair of woolen mittens. On Feb. 9, 1864, he was sitting for several portraits, including the one used for the $5 bill. Not historic enough? Read the details of Nov. 19, 1863, the day he delivered the Gettysburg Address.
Museumgoers, whose numbers average 300,000 a year, according to education director Michelle Poe, will also benefit from the efforts of Stowell and his staff.
For example, the museum’s newest website, mylincoln.org, will be launched in April. Instead of telling museum visitors to turn off their smartphones at the door, it encourages them to turn them on and use them. With a phone or tablet they will be able to take part in age-appropriate museum scavenger hunts and have access to enhanced information about the displays.
“I definitely see digitalization and Internet as a way to reach a young audience, but the idea is to reach out to museumgoers and Lincoln enthusiasts of all ages,” Stowell said.
The Papers of Abraham Lincoln office, in a quiet place above the library, houses a long-term project of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and the Lincoln Library and Museum.
There, the state’s Lincoln documents are divided into three categories: 20,000-plus nonlegal papers from Lincoln’s birth to his inauguration in 1861, 97,000 legal documents from when Lincoln practiced law in Illinois courts, and 78,000 presidential papers from the inauguration until Lincoln’s assassination.
These documents already are or will be accessible on papersofabrahamlincoln.org. And Stowell estimates about 50,000 more papers exist.
Two of Stowell’s staff members work in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., still searching for more of those documents, and seven full-time Springfield employees scan, research and contextualize documents the library has acquired, he said.
Stowell said the Papers of Abraham Lincoln is a $720,000 project this fiscal year. Not quite half of that comes from the state. The rest comes from federal funding and private donations. He said state funding is down about 10 percent in recent years, and he expects there may be more cuts.
Digitizing will physically preserve these tender papers and allow people to access them without leaving home, he said. But he and his staff also want to provide the information necessary for readers to understand what they read by linking letters that are related, identifying people and events, and providing historical context.
Stowell said they have digitized documents scattered in more than 400 repositories and more than 200 private collections worldwide. But he knows there are many more in private hands and more documents, particularly from the Lincoln presidency, to still uncover.
Recently, Daniel Weinberg, owner of The Abraham Lincoln Book Shop in Chicago, alerted Stowell to a collection of 45 Lincoln documents in the shop. Stowell came to Chicago with his high-end scanner to find that only eight were already in the state database. The trip was well worth it.
“I’ve seen a lot of Lincoln signatures,” said Weinberg, who has been in the shop since 1971. “Are there significant Lincolns still out there to be found? I can’t say there aren’t because every once in awhile something significant does come out.”
Weinberg said he is always willing to share any newly discovered documents with the state for the sake of research and history, and he does not understand why some others may choose not to share.
“I find it great fun,” Weinberg said. “This man was a true genius. As a person, his moralities, his ethics, organization skills, use of mathematics. He’s iconic. Why would we not want people worldwide to be able to learn more from him?”
(c) 2015 Chicago Tribune, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC
Photo: Daniel Stowell, director and editor of The Papers of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., looks February 4, 2015, at a letter written to the 16th president in 1861 by Queen Victoria about the death of her mother. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/TNS)