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Thursday, June 15, 2017 12:05 am

Lincoln papers melodrama plays on

 Somewhere inside the National Archives in Washington, D.C., resides a Zeutschel OS 14000 A2 TT planetary capture system that has been, perhaps, Abraham Lincoln’s best friend in the 21st century.

A Zeutschel planetary capture system is a fancy term for a scanner, the kind that’s used to convert paper to pixels. No offense to Xerox or Samsung, but this is no ordinary copying machine. A Zeutschel can cost more than $100,000, depending on options, which buys state-of-the-art technology capable of safely and accurately capturing the most minute details of the world’s most important documents. In Europe, they’ve used Zeutschels to copy documents dating back to Otto the Great’s coronation as king of Germany in 936 A.D., plus original manuscripts penned by Johann Sebastian Bach.

In America, a Zeutschel installed at the National Archives, purchased in 2012 by the Papers of Abraham Lincoln Project, has been the starting point for a pipeline of documents from the nation’s capital to Springfield, where researchers have been working since 2000 to collect, transcribe and ultimately publish every document ever read or written by the Great Emancipator. It has been a massive undertaking, and important enough to historians that the archives has given researchers with the papers project their own space in the building, including room for the Zeutschel.

Now, the papers project is suspending the search for Lincoln documents at the National Archives, the latest chapter in a saga that has seen staffing at the papers project plummet from 12 researchers to five since the fall of 2015, and that number will be reduced to three on July 1 (“Enough stuff?” June 12, 2016).

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, which oversees the effort, says that the scope of the project, launched during the 1980s as an effort to collect documents from Lincoln’s days as a lawyer, needs to be reassessed. ALPLM director Alan Lowe, hired last summer, has said that the project needs to start publishing, instead of just collecting, documents. Perhaps, ALPLM brass has said, the project has been collecting too much stuff, and so search parameters should be tightened.

Cutting off the search now is convenient, at least from a bureaucratic standpoint, because annual contracts for researchers based at the archives expire on June 30. But that’s not the official explanation for ending the search.

“The most important thing is that it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to have the search continuing if there’s uncertainty about what they’re searching for,” says Chris Wills, spokesman for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency that is the umbrella agency for the ALPLM. “We need a clear editorial policy in place in order to make the work as useful and productive as possible, so we don’t want the search in Washington to spin its wheels and go down a road that we later determine isn’t productive.”

Will the search resume?

“I couldn’t put a percentage on it,” Wills answers. “But I can say, all the discussions have been in terms of suspending it, putting it on hold. The attitude is, we want to get the project on track before resuming. What shape the resumption will take down the road, I don’t know yet.”

Archives of the Union Army from the Civil War remain largely unsearched. Meanwhile, a deadline to apply for a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, a division of the National Archives, arrived on Wednesday. As of press time, Wills wasn’t able to say whether the project will apply for a grant from the commission, which has provided as much as $100,000 in annual funding in past years. A year ago, after the project’s director was put on administrative leave, the commission put a grant request on hold due to concerns about the project’s future leadership, but the grant was ultimately approved in November. Daniel Stowell, the former director who was terminated in January, is appealing his dismissal to the state civil service commission. During a hearing last month, Stowell acknowledged that he had once threatened to move the project out of Illinois, even though he had no such authority, because he was frustrated by what he felt was a lack of support for the project within the ALPLM. Before Lowe came on board, the project was reportedly caught in a power struggle between Eileen Mackevich, former ALPLM director, and Amy Martin, former head of the IHPA, both of whom were replaced by Gov. Bruce Rauner (“Shredding Lincoln,” June 8, 2016).

“You could write a historical melodrama about this whole thing,” observes Richard Hart, a Springfield lawyer and member of the Abraham Lincoln Association that has helped fund the effort to collect Lincoln documents for more than three decades. “You’ve had drama. You’ve had intrigue. You’ve had innuendo.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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