Lincoln papers a mess
Project bogged down, experts say
The Papers of Abraham Lincoln project is a disaster, according to a panel of experts who have blasted the effort to collect and publish every document ever read or written by the Great Emancipator.
There is no editorial direction. The staff is demoralized and divided. Time and money has been wasted on collecting papers that Lincoln didn’t write and likely never read. And the project will never be completed unless there is immediate change.
These are just a few of conclusions of five historians who were asked by Alan Lowe, director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, to evaluate the project. The written evaluations submitted in March and April are the clearest picture yet of what’s gone wrong with the project, which suffered deep cuts in the fall of 2015 with little explanation, aside from tight budgets, about why change is needed.
"It is pretty harsh, and they did find major issues,” Lowe said in an interview. “They all, to a person, said it is a project worth doing.”
The experts painted pictures of wasted money and a project adrift. They agreed that the effort to collect Lincoln documents has bogged down due to impossible goals of perfection and completeness.
Matthew Pinsker, a Lincoln historian at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, compared the project’s status to Union’s plight during the early years of the Civil War, when General George McClellan resisted Lincoln’s demands to prosecute the war instead of making endless preparations for battles that never came.
“You must act,” Pinsker wrote in his review of the project. “The PAL (Papers of Abraham Lincoln) is staring down at its own George McClellan moment.”
Researchers have wasted time writing footnotes to explain such common terms as “flintlock” and “Mississippi River,” reviewers found, as if scholars didn’t know anything about Lincoln or the United States. Susan Perdue, director of a program at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities that advises projects that are assembling historic documents, wrote that the Lincoln project has spent $3.5 million in the past decade gathering documents, including papers that are already available online. The “obsessive fixation” with finding documents has resulted in a cost of $52 for each document found, and each of the 68,000 documents located will require nine hours of staff time to prepare footnotes and otherwise prepare it for publication, she wrote.
“The project has lost sight of the original mission,” Perdue wrote. “In my 30 years of work, I have never witnessed a group of people so shell shocked, so unsure of their own abilities to do the work, so unable to figure out their priorities, and so uncertain of the future.”
In one case, a piece of state legislation concerning Cook County has been transcribed and footnoted to explain such words as “Chicago” and “Illinois.”
“This is absurd,” wrote Daniel Feller, director of the Papers of Andrew Jackson at the University of Tennessee. “It would be absurd even if this act was an actual Lincoln document, but there is nothing to show that it is. Lincoln apparently did not introduce this law, or speak on it. It is not even clear that he voted on it. He just happened to be a member of the legislature that passed it.”
The transcription of the law that Feller found “fairly routine” was included in a successful federal grant request for money from the National Historic papers and Records Commission, with the notation that it was “a tantalizing glimpse of what was in store.”
“Indeed it is, in the same sense that the Titanic’s first sighting of the iceberg offered a tantalizing glimpse of what was in store,” Feller wrote. “Because, without a change in course, what is in store is imminent and complete disaster. Documenting Lincoln’s legislative years in this exhaustive manner has all but paralyzed the project’s progress in the 1830s. Doing it for his two years in Congress in the 1840s will do the same again. We will never get to the presidency.”
The experts criticized researchers based in Washington D.C. who have combed the National Archives for documents. Their effectiveness has been judged by the quantity of documents found rather than quality, which has resulted in the project collecting mundane records such as proclamations of land sales that contain only Lincoln’s signature. Reseachers in Washington don’t know the editing process or how to establish priorities, the experts found.
“Without question, they have a difficult time finding positions at other documentary editing projects if this is their only work experience,” wrote Perdue, who had a dim view of staff members who had applied for jobs at documentary projects where she has worked. “These candidates (from the papers project) were not competitive with other applicants from projects where they had even a minimal amount of experience on editorial production (i.e., research, fact checking and annotation).”
The ALPLM is cutting the project’s two Washington-based staffers as of July 1. A $72,000 scanner at the National Archives that’s been used to copy documents likely will be shipped to Springfield. The project has also paused grant requests to the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Historical Papers and Records Commission, an arm of the National Archives, which have both provided money in the past. Both entities, according to Lowe, recommended some of the experts who served on the review team.
“At the recommendation of the NHPRC, we are not applying for a grant in this next funding cycle,” ALPLM spokesman Chris Wills wrote in an email. “They (the NEH and NHPRC) have advised us that it would be better to wait until next summer, when we will have new policies and procedures in place for the papers (project).”
With the project eliminating researchers in Washington, the project as of July 1 will have three employees. Just two years ago, there were a dozen. Staffing will never be as robust as it has been in the past, predicted Patrick Lewis, director of a project sponsored by the Kentucky Historical Society that is assembling papers from Kentucky governors who served during the Civil War. Without naming names, Lewis criticized Daniel Stowell, the project’s former director who is contesting his January dismissal.
“The problem that Papers of Abraham Lincoln ran into stemmed from being too tempted to include ‘neat’ and ‘interesting’ and never make the hard decisions that editors make,” Lewis wrote. “Scholars get tempted; directors stand firm.”
Lowe said that the ALPLM via the institution’s private foundation has secured funding from an anonymous donor to retain Perdue as a consultant to help establish new policies for the project. Staffing, he said, may not be as big as it has been in past years, but he will wait for Perdue to complete her work to determine what’s best.
“In my experience in the past with documentary editing projects, three or four people is what, often, they would have,” Lowe said. “I guess that’s to be answered.”
Funders, Lowe said, have been shown the experts’ written assessments.
“To their credit, they have supported the effort along the way,” Lowe said. “They, kind of like us, have said this is a project worth doing. They want to support it. But they do say, you obviously have issues, and they need to get fixed. They, like us, realize there are problems, and now we have to figure out how to fix those problems.”
Before coming to the ALPLM last summer, Lowe said that he’d heard concerns about the project, most notably, concerns about the lack of documents published since the project 17 years ago started searching for documents not connected to Lincoln’s legal career – lawsuits and other papers associated with Lincoln’s career as a lawyer were gathered and published before the search was expanded to include every document he ever read or wrote. The papers project, he predicted, will be resurrected and ultimately prove a success.
“It’s a resource that will change the world of Lincoln scholarship and education about Abraham Lincoln,” Lowe said.
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.