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Abraham Lincoln Document Project Announced

Long after Illinois' favorite son left town to assume the presidency, his hometown buzzes with activity celebrating his legacy. While the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum attract visitors and the Lincoln home neighborhood restoration progresses, an exciting documentary project flourishes in Springfield. The staff of the Lincoln Legals Papers, noted for their ground-breaking research on Lincoln's legal career, have expanded their work to make yet another contribution to Lincoln scholarship.

Introducing the Papers of Abraham Lincoln

This long-term documentary editing project seeks to identify, photograph and publish every document written by or to Lincoln during his lifetime (1809-1865). The ambitious program is sponsored by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and cosponsored by the University of Illinois at Springfield.

Daniel W. Stowell, Director
At the helm of this activity is historian and author Daniel W. Stowell, a familiar figure in Lincoln scholarship. You may recall that he joined the Lincoln Legal Papers in 1996 and assumed its leadership in 2000. These new added responsibilities make for a hectic career, but Dr. Stowell clearly relishes it. He anticipates that the Papers will offer a valuable historical research tool for the 21st and 22nd centuries. In November 2001 he spoke with us about this exciting project.

The Papers Divided: Series I, II, III

Dr. Stowell can't identify the launch date of the Papers project, but says the idea first emerged late in 1999. At that point, the DVD-ROM edition of the Lincoln Legal Papers neared completion and work on a four-volume book edition remained. With a talented and experienced staff available, and the need for updating The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln looming, the Papers concept naturally evolved.

The Legals portion now comprises Series I of the overall Papers project. Series II will focus on non-legal Lincoln documents from his birth in 1809 to his presidential inauguration on March 4, 1861. Series III covers documents from the presidential years of 1861 to 1865.

The Need to Update and Expand Lincoln Texts

Currently, the most authoritative body of Lincoln documents is the venerable Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler, Marion Dolores Pratt, and Lloyd A. Dunlap, under the direction of the Abraham Lincoln Association. This nine-volume work was published in 1953 with two succeeding supplements. But as Lincoln researchers know, these immensely useful volumes require updating.

Dr. Stowell explains, "There are more pieces of information that we've uncovered in our research to flesh out some of the documents and make sense of the documents in ways that Basler and his colleagues haven't. And then we simply have 50 more years of scholarship on Abraham Lincoln and his life and times to draw on."

One reason for updating the Collected Works, according to Dr. Stowell, is to "include incoming correspondence, which gives you both sides of conversations. I think it will also open up really rich new opportunities for research because it's my feeling that a documentary edition done well tells you quite a bit about its subject but also opens up the subject's world." He adds, "The best documentary editions open up topical areas and time periods for richer study because of the documents they bring together, annotate and contextualize."

Another reason for updating the Collected Works is because of the changes in documentary editing. "These allow us to be more faithful to the original documents," he says. "Obviously any time you take a handwritten document and you translate it, if you will, into type, then you have to make some changes. We've learned a lot from documentary editors who have been at this for 30-40 years. We're drawing on the rich subdiscipline, or craft, of documentary editing."

He says that the third reason is, "We've had 50 more years of scholarship on Lincoln and new documents have surfaced, new ways of looking at some of the major documents have surfaced. We're not seeking to be interpretive in our editing but we've simply got more materials. There are things that the original editors simply could not do because they were constrained by time and by the publication medium of print. I should hasten to add, however, that I don't think electronic publishing should ever substitute for the careful attention of a trained editor."

"We're clearly building upon what Basler and his colleagues did. We're not revising their work in the sense that we are going to take their transcriptions and tinker with them. Probably in any instance in which we can find the original document, we will re-transcribe from the original. We're not simply taking their transcriptions at face value. We'll use them as a resource as we would anyone else's transcriptions."

Exciting Results Anticipated

Eventually, all materials in the Papers series will be freely accessible on the Internet, with authoritative, annotated texts linked to images of the original manuscripts. Dr. Stowell says the electronic format and how it's coded will give readers more flexibility, power, and precision for data searches. Researchers will be able to search more easily by date, recipient and location. Also, they will be able to distinguish between Lincoln's own words and those attributed to him, which documents were written to him, and when Lincoln was one of several authors.

A major feature of this electronic publication will be actual images of the documents. Dr. Stowell says, "One of the things that we are doing that is quite unique even among documentary editions is having color images of documents. We're going to capture the original documents in color. Not only does that give you a better aesthetic connection to the document but it also helps us to read the document. It helps a great deal to have those color variations. It's the closest thing we can get to the original. And what we're planning to do is to film them on color microfilm so there will be a preservation component, and digitize from the color microfilm."

In addition, the project calls for traditional publishing. "We're also keeping the door very much open to doing book editions -- selective book editions, of course -- for Series II and Series III," he explains. A selective book edition is currently underway for Series I.

The Search Begins

How soon will all this be available? Dr. Stowell says, "We really don't know. We do want to be as comprehensive as possible. That's our goal. We can make projections but that's all they are. It's going to be a very large and comprehensive search, as we did with the Legals project, when we sent out searches to approximately 14,000 institutions. But there will be some we won't target, like bar associations. This time we're looking for anything. I suspect we'll even find a few new legal documents."

"To complete an electronic edition with transcriptions and images of documents and with the caveat of proper funding, I would estimate that we're probably looking at 2010 for Series II and 2020 - 2025 for Series III. For the next four years, five members of the staff will be devoted to finishing Series I. We currently have one full-time staff member devoted to Series II and III and we hope to increase that to three or four with additional funding, so that group will conduct the mail survey and begin the collection of images and maybe some early transcription while the current staff of Series I finishes their work on the Legals book edition. When all of that happens in 2005, the whole group will turn their attention to Series II and Series III."

"All this takes time, but in terms of documentary projects, the Lincoln Legals Papers is actually a very rapid project. When it's actually published in 2006, it will be 20 years from conception to completion. That may sound like a long time, but in documentary editing projects, that's a very short time."

The Focus on Quality

Dr. Stowell emphasizes quality in his comments about the Papers project. "It honors Lincoln more to do it well," he remarks. "As I say to my staff, 'Life's too short to do bad work.'" He is justifiably proud of his qualified staff and their work and explains, "We could sprint but what we produce wouldn't be as useful."

"We're committed to doing an edition of the quality that I think Lincoln deserves and of the quality that will endure. As one fellow editor (not on this project) put it, 'the majority of the people who use our edition have not been born yet.' The edition that we're creating will have utility and value in terms of our discoveries and the things that we're able to do. It's an edition that will have its full value probably for my children's children. It speaks to what we hope to accomplish. In other words, we hope to accomplish an edition of enduring value so that someone doesn't have to come along 20 years later and redo the whole thing, because we have done it thoroughly and well."

He also pays tribute to the editors of the Collected Works. "I think that Basler and his fellow editors did a wonderful job given the time constraints, the technology, and the budget they had to work with. They accomplished an enormous amount of work. I don't think we have to justify the Papers of Abraham Lincoln by in any way detracting from what they did. They did a wonderful thing 50 years ago."

"What we're looking to do is to provide a tool, an edition, for the 21st and 22nd centuries that will be as useful, if not more useful, using technology that they didn't have available, using the best practices of documentary editing that they didn't have. We've learned a lot in the last 50 years and there's been an enormous amount of Lincoln scholarship in the last 50 years, in part because of what the Collected Works did. It served to inspire and stimulate a generation or two of scholarship and we hope to do the same kind of thing."

"Some scholars have even said in looking back on the twentieth century that documentary editions are going to be the real historical contribution of the century in terms of what historians have done. It won't be the monographs as much as it will be the documentary editions that have assembled and preserved through print and dissemination a lot of text that might otherwise be lost. So obviously we're biased. We're proud of what we do. And we're committed to doing something that will be worthwhile."

How You Can Help

Locating Documents: The Papers project is looking for virtually every Lincoln document in existence. Stowell says, "We want to know about a Lincoln document even if the person who tells us about it doesn't have it in their possession. Word of mouth is often our best friend in terms of getting out the word -- even if you don't have a Lincoln document, if you know an individual who does, at least tell them to contact us."

You can read more about identifying these documents in our related article. For more information about the Papers project, visit their Website. To contact the staff about possible documents, describe the document briefly in an email.

Related Links
Illinois Historic Preservation Agency
Looking for Lincoln Documents
The Papers of Abraham Lincoln
Update on Lincoln Papers (SJ-R)

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