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Thursday, May 18, 2017 12:07 am

Civil war

Fights at ALPLM hit Lincoln papers

Top ALPLM officials worry that images of Lincoln documents can’t be published because the institution has no copyright clearance from owners of privately held documents.

 

Disagreements and dysfunction have been so serious at the Papers of Abraham Lincoln Project that the former director once threatened to move the program out of Illinois, according to testimony during a recent state civil service commission hearing.

The threat came to nothing, but a chance to transcribe nearly 80,000 Lincoln documents in two years, more than have been transcribed in the past 16 years, was scrapped as the project’s ex-director battled his superiors. The project doesn’t have permission to publish thousands of documents, raising concerns that images might not ever be able to be posted online. It took months to fix a computer issue so that scholars could easily read papers from the Great Emancipator’s legal career that were put online in 2009 but became un-viewable about two years ago due to outdated software.

The software fix cost less than $2,000, but it wasn’t accomplished until this year, months after top ALPLM brass first confronted the problem last August. ALPLM director Alan Lowe testified that he was concerned that making documents viewable might interfere with the quest to fire Daniel Stowell, the project’s director who was terminated in January and is now fighting for reinstatement to oversee the project that aims to put online every document ever written or read by the Great Emancipator.

Stowell threatened to move the papers after he was placed on paid leave for more than a month in the spring of 2016, Samuel Wheeler, state historian, testified. Stowell says that he was never told why he was placed on leave. When he returned to work, Stowell asked that a letter be placed in his personnel file stating that he had done nothing wrong, and he also asked that the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency issue a press release exonerating him from any wrongdoing, Wheeler testified. Wheeler said that he asked Stowell what would happen if no press release or letter was written.

“He told me that he would have to take the project elsewhere,” Wheeler testified. “He said ‘I’ll take the project to another institution, like the University of Virginia.’” Wheeler testified that he told Stowell that the project wasn’t his to take. Stowell was ultimately fired in January.

The state concluded its case against Stowell last week. The hearing is scheduled to resume next week, with Stowell’s lawyer calling witnesses.

Wheeler and Lowe testified that the project was a mess when they assumed their current jobs last summer. “I very quickly discovered a dysfunctional program,” Wheeler testified. Stowell’s staff had lost faith in him, Lowe said. After 16 years of collecting and transcribing documents other than those connected to Lincoln’s legal career, the project hadn’t put a single transcript of a non-legal paper online, Lowe testified, and he added that he had no confidence that anything would be published under Stowell’s tenure.

Transcribed papers from Lincoln’s days as a lawyer were put online in 2009 after first being published in book format. But scholars, including ALPLM employees, started having trouble viewing the legal papers about two years ago due to outdated software. Lowe and Wheeler said that Stowell didn’t address the issue until they started asking questions last summer. Stowell says that researchers could make the documents readable by adjusting Java settings on their computers, but his bosses say that shouldn’t be necessary. Stowell initially proposed a solution that would cost between $50,000 and $75,000, then found a way to do it for less than $1,500. The problem was eventually fixed for $1,700, but it took several months.

“I didn’t know, from a legal perspective, if I was allowed at that time to fix this,” Lowe testified when asked why he didn’t move faster. “Once this (termination) process began, I wasn’t sure if I was permitted to. At our first meeting with the attorney general’s office…we asked, specifically, ‘Are we allowed, at this point, to do this fix?’”

Stowell had also failed to get permission to publish privately owned documents. Lowe said the lack of permission was “either horrible planning or incompetence.” Without permission, the project can post transcripts, but not the documents themselves, and that’s not acceptable, Lowe said. As many as 18,000 privately owned documents that have already been scanned could be affected, he said. Stowell says that he intended to get permission to publish from document owners when the project was ready for publication. He also says that he was never told that he should get permission from document owners. But Wheeler and Lowe testified that getting permission to publish was a basic task that should have been obvious and that there is no practical way to get permission years after they were scanned because Lincoln documents are frequently sold or passed on to heirs when owners die.

“The intent of this was not just transcription,” Lowe said. “He (Stowell) did not do something that was a core mission of his job.”

There were also administrative issues. Stowell, who points out that he had always gotten excellent performance evaluations, wasn’t given performance appraisals in 2015 or 2016, even though such appraisals are required by the state personnel code. Wheeler said that he discovered last summer that there had not been a project staff meeting for nine months. Stacy McDermott, the project’s deputy director, had been working from her St. Louis home for five years, Wheeler and Lowe testified, and when she was ordered to start coming to work in Springfield last fall, she refused.

“Dr. McDermott said to us, ‘Let’s see how you enforce it,’” Lowe testified. “It became more and more obvious to me that it (the project) had no management.”

There was little that anyone at ALPLM could do about McDermott’s refusal to report to Springfield, given that she is employed by the University of Illinois Springfield in an arrangement that had the entire project staff, save Stowell, employees of the university instead of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency that oversees the ALPLM. McDermott’s access to the project was cut off last fall, although she remains a UIS employee.

Unaware of turmoil, Laura Trouille, director of citizen science at the Mortimer Adler Planetarium in Chicago, offered to help fast-track a transcription process that had begun in 2000.

Trouille testified that she contacted Stowell in 2015 after hearing a National Public Radio broadcast about the papers project. The Adler Planetarium is part of Zooniverse, a collaborative effort between academic institutions in the United States and England that uses volunteers to sift through data that would take years for paid experts to analyze. Zooniverse volunteers have transcribed Civil War telegrams that contained hidden Union Army communications. They have also located stars in far-off galaxies by scrutinizing photographs. By culling temperatures and barometric pressures from 19th century ship logs written by captains of vessels that sailed the Arctic, Zooniverse volunteers have aided in the study of global warming.

Trouille proposed unleashing volunteers on Lincoln documents, mostly from the National Archives. Via the internet, four volunteers would independently transcribe a given document. Any disagreements would be decided by experts. Trouille testified that volunteers agree in 95 percent of the cases, and experts, owing to the vagaries of handwriting, usually can’t agree in the remaining 5 percent.

Trouille testified that she expected to transcribe 77,000 documents in two years, a huge step given that the project, as of March, had transcribed fewer than 51,000 documents since 2000, according to the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. In addition to a handful of paid employees, the papers had been using 10 or so volunteers to transcribe documents, according to testimony at last week’s hearing. Zooniverse, however, had a potential pool of 1.5 million volunteers. That unpaid effort was bolstered last fall, when the Institute for Museum and Library Services, a federal agency, awarded Zooniverse a $1.2 million grant, in part to help with transcription of Lincoln papers.

Lowe and Wheeler were blindsided when Stowell told them about the successful grant application last year. It was the first time they’d heard of Zooniverse. “I had grave concerns,” Wheeler testified. “The word ‘partner’ was in there, and that’s what raised alarm bells in my mind.” Wheeler said that he questioned Stowell about the collaboration with Zooniverse, but deemed answers unsatisfactory. Among other things, Wheeler said that he was concerned about the project’s budget and whether the National Archives had been consulted.

Under questioning by Carl Draper, Stowell’s lawyer, Wheeler acknowledged that the volunteer transcription effort would be done at no cost to the papers project and that the project was under no obligation to publish transcripts produced by volunteers. Nonetheless, Lowe decided to pull out, and so the Zooniverse partnership is dead. Lowe testified that the papers project needs to ensure that work is of high quality. Following procedures is also important, he said.

“The fundamental concern was, Daniel had not informed us of this,” Lowe testified. “I was flying blind, essentially. There has to be a planning process, and an approval process, for these types of things.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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