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Thursday, July 21, 2016 12:07 am

Welcome to Springfield

ALPLM gets a new director

Alan Lowe
PHOTO courtesy of ALPLM
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum last week welcomed its fifth director since opening day in 2005.

Alan Lowe is somewhat a lifer in the world of presidential libraries, having started his library career as an archivist at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California in 1989. He has also been acting director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in New York state, executive director of the Howard Baker Center for Public Policy in Tennessee and director of operations for the Office of Presidential Libraries, a division of the National Archives and Records Administration that oversees most presidential libraries, but not the ALPLM, which is a division of Illinois state government. Most recently, Lowe was director of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Texas, which opened under his direction in 2013.

Not since the tenure of Richard Norton Smith, the ALPLM’s first director, has the institution had a director with so much experience in presidential libraries. Since Smith left after three years in Springfield, no director has had experience working in presidential libraries before becoming head of the ALPLM.

The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, which administers the ALPLM, refused to arrange an interview with Lowe for Illinois Times. A spokesman said that agency believes that Illinois Times would not give the new director a “fair shake.” IT has broken several stories about problems at the ALPLM, including reductions in staff and services (“Ghost of a library,” Sept. 10, 2015), the hiring of an exhibits manager who is paid $85,000 a year and has none of the education or  experience listed in the written job description (“ALPLM hire has connections,” July 2, 2015), a power struggle between the former head of IHPA and the former head of the ALPLM that helped prompt a proposal to make the museum a standalone agency (“Board games,” June 19, 2014) and cuts at the Papers of Abraham Lincoln Project, which was thrown into turmoil last year after its director was told not to seek grants and that the inspector general was conducting an investigation (“Rauner goes after Lincoln papers,” Sept. 4, 2015).

Lowe wins high marks from Harold Holzer, a nationally acclaimed Lincoln scholar and author who has written several books about the Great Emancipator. Holzer, who declined an offer to be the ALPLM’s first director in 2003, reportedly because the post did not have sufficient autonomy, said that he had never before met Lowe before the two had breakfast in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s library in New York state, shortly before Lowe’s first day on the job in Springfield.

“He’s the last best hope of earth, as Lincoln would say,” Holzer said. “He went away leaving me impressed. I think he’s a total professional. I think he understands presidential history. I think he understands the budget and morale problems in Springfield. … He’s into it, and I think he has the chops to do the job.”

There has been at least one recent positive development at the ALPLM. Holzer said that the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation, a private group organized to help observe the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, has within the past two weeks released $25,000 to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation that will go to help fund the troubled Papers of Abraham Lincoln Project. The bicentennial foundation had withheld the promised gift out of concern for the project’s future after Daniel Stowell, the project’s longtime director, was placed on administrative leave with no public explanation in April. The money was released after Stowell was reinstated last month. The IHPA last month also announced that the Papers of Abraham Lincoln Project will officially become part of the ALPLM as opposed to a division of the historic preservation agency, suggesting that Lowe will have more authority over the papers project than his predecessor, who had clashed with the IHPA head over how to run the project that has historically been a collaboration between the state, the University of Illinois Springfield and the Abraham Lincoln Association, a private nonprofit group.

In interviews with other media, Lowe, who has been interviewed by two radio stations and the State Journal-Register, praised the institution and said that he’s in a learning mode.

“I love the museum – it’s so immersive,” Lowe told Jim Leach of WMAY radio. “What I want to do in the first weeks on the job is to talk to the staff, our wonderful foundation and our visitors, of course, and see what we need to do in the future and in all aspects of our operation.”  

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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