Tag Archives: archives

John Sellers, 1933-2019

The Lincoln community is mourning the loss of Dr. John Sellers, who passed away on October 6.  He was a longtime manuscripts specialist at the Library of Congress, where he managed and expanded that institution’s massive collection of Abraham Lincoln papers.  His work to make Lincoln and Civil War documents accessible via electronic media and printed guides constituted an incalculable contribution to the study and appreciation of American history.  He curated landmark exhibitions, organized symposia, and assisted authors of some of the most acclaimed books on Lincoln and his era.

One of his most important legacies was his willingness to advise archives, museums, and public history organizations engaged in the collection and study of Lincoln and Civil War material.  LMU’s Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum and the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy are two of the many historical entities that benefited from his expertise and generous spirit.

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The problems with presidential libraries

Running a presidential library might just be the toughest gig in public history.

Michael Koncewicz, who worked at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, shares a few war stories over at Contingent Magazine.  It’s like a perfect storm of administrative and interpretive nightmares.

Private foundations raise the money to build and operate these institutions, while the federal government is generally responsible for the records themselves.  This can lead to tension over control of the programming.  The subject matter is inescapably political—and since you’re dealing with an individual’s life and legacy, it’s also personal.  The history is often recent and raw.

To top it all off, the subject’s family and associates likely sit on the foundation’s board, looking over the staff’s shoulders.  In the case of the Nixon Museum and Library, the subject himself was looking over everyone’s shoulder, weighing in on the exhibit content.  As Koncewicz writes, it led to some…well, problematic interpretive approaches:

The original exhibit on Watergate blamed the president’s enemies for his downfall and glossed over the key sections of the infamous tapes that led to his resignation. The text read, in part, “Commentators sought to portray Watergate strictly as a morality play, as a struggle between right and wrong, truth and falsehood, good and evil. Given the benefit of time, it is now clear that Watergate was an epic and bloody political battle fought for the highest stakes, with no holds barred.” Museum visitors were told Nixon did not obstruct justice, and Watergate was nothing but partisan politics.

There was also the small matter of spying on the tour guides:

I was also informed they were upset that I had recently rushed through a temporary Nixon centennial exhibit during one of my school tours—which meant, among other things, that I had been spied on! I was further told they were less than thrilled with my dissertation research, a study of Republicans who resisted Nixon’s orders. (The project was born out of my time working on the revamped Watergate exhibit, and was an early version of what eventually became my first book, They Said No to Nixon: Republicans Who Stood Up to the President’s Abuses of Power.) Finally, there were another two or three instances in which I was spied on during a tour, and there were probably others I was not aware of.

Nixon’s presidential limousine at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. Happyme22 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

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Filed under History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites

Archivist job opportunity at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum

We’re looking for an archivist and librarian to join our team at one of the nation’s best repositories of Lincoln and Civil War material.  If you’ve got a master’s degree in library science; a background in archival work with manuscripts, photos, prints, and rare books and pamphlets; and an interest in nineteenth-century American history, then click here for more information.  I’d especially encourage those of you with knowledge of PastPerfect software and experience in digitization to apply.

And if you’re in the public history or archival field, please feel free to share this opening as widely as possible.

 

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And killing IMLS is a terrible idea, too

Check out that whole thread of tweets, if you haven’t already.  If you care about history—and since you’re reading this blog, I assume you do—this should terrify you.

Eliminating the Institute of Museum and Library Services would be devastating to institutions that preserve the past and make it accessible.  These grants are critical to the maintenance of important historical collections, the technology that ensures their availability, and the programs that allow us to share them.

Now would be a very good time to contact your representative.

 

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How much privacy do we owe to Civil War soldiers?

This story out of Connecticut is more than a little bizarre.

The state mental health commissioner is fighting efforts by freedom of information advocates to undo a law — which they say passed under last-minute, “murky circumstances” in 2011 — that blocks historians’ research into Civil War soldiers afflicted with what’s now called post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, the state FOI Commission and the Connecticut State Library all gave legislative testimony this past week in favor of H.B. 5124, a bill that would change the law so that medical and mental-health records could be released 50 years after the death of the person involved.

History professor Matthew Warshauer of Central Connecticut State University also testified and said that the state’s position is frustrating valuable historical research into the treatment of veterans a century before the term PTSD was invented to describe the lingering results of wartime trauma.

Warshauer and his students have fought in recent years for access to state mental hospital records of Civil War veterans. They prevailed in a 2010 case at the FOI Commission, which ordered release of the records. But the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS) fought back in a different way, persuading legislative leaders to tuck the current prohibition into a 98-section public health bill in the 2011 end-of-legislative-session rush.

Why the sensitivity about Civil War-era medical records, you ask?

Rehmer said in her testimony: “Though the individuals … are deceased, it is our firm belief that records of this nature are very sensitive and that family members of those who have been in state hospitals would not want that information disclosed.”

…Deron Drumm, executive director of Advocacy Unlimited Inc., said, “While historical accounts of what treatment entailed fifty years ago would be valuable to the public — releasing the names of individuals involved with psychiatric services will result in discrimination against their relatives.”

Historians shouldn’t be allowed to access the mental health records of Civil War soldiers because it will result in discrimination against their relatives? Can anybody out there actually imagine a scenario where that would be possible?  Is somebody going to get turned down on a job application because his great-great-grandfather developed PTSD after the Overland Campaign?

Look, I think we can all agree that people’s health records should be kept private for a good, long while after their death. But in this case we’re talking about a span of multiple generations.  Indeed, many Americans do not even know the names of their Civil War ancestors, let alone harbor any sensitivity over those ancestors’ mental state.

Is fifty years after someone’s death too soon to open their private records to the public? Maybe, maybe not. But I dare say that a century is quite enough water under the bridge.  Amend the legislation accordingly and open those files.

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Returning the souvenirs from Barry and Jason’s excellent adventure

The items Barry Landau and Jason Savedoff swiped from some two dozen archival repositories are gradually making their way back home.

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More good news

The Georgia State Archives won’t be closing after all.  This is shaping up to be a pretty good Christmas for all us history buffs.

Oh, and the world didn’t end yesterday.  So there’s that, too.

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