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Library of Congress Newsmaker: John R. Sellers

John R. Sellers
John R. Sellers
© Abraham Lincoln Online
"Lincoln has an appeal worldwide," John Sellers says, and his position at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., allowed him to witness that magnetism every day. For many years he was historian in charge of Lincoln and Civil War manuscripts, talking regularly with collectors and dealers, researchers and authors, politicians and business people.

Dr. Sellers was with the Nation's Library for more than 30 years, long enough for him to become almost as legendary as the institution he served. In April 2002, several years before he retired, we asked him to describe the fascinating world he has inhabited.

In his book-lined office in the Madison Building, Dr. Sellers said, "Basically, I'm the reference person for Lincoln. Now some people say, 'You're the most knowledgeable person on Lincoln,' but that's not so. I'm more of a reference person. I learn a lot that isn't common knowledge because I buy manuscripts that are offered. I get calls from people worldwide trying to sell me Lincoln documents. I talk with donors who are interested in supporting Lincoln work, like Don Jones of Wisconsin. He gave us a million dollars to put Lincoln's papers online. So I deal with a lot of different types of people."

Meeting the Scholars

Personable and soft-spoken, Dr. Sellers says, "I'm also involved in the public relations side of it in that I help get Lincoln out to the public. I entertain a lot of scholars coming through. Almost anybody doing a major work on Lincoln has to come here because we have the presidential papers. I generally meet them, talk to them. I know right now there are five books in progress on the assassination and all five writers call and talk. They are obviously pursuing any lead that might give them access to new material. So I stay on top of what's happening in Lincoln research and writing."

"I really enjoy making friends with the writers. It's just such a fascinating array of people. Geoffrey Perret lives in England but he's here about five months of the year doing research. He's been working for close to a year now on Lincoln. He does a book about every two to two and a half years. He's done MacArthur, he's done Eisenhower; Jack Kennedy was his last book. So he's doing Lincoln now [The Union Forever: Lincoln's Civil War]. He's not a scholar who's immersed in the material as far as a career -- he goes from subject to subject. But when he tackles something he goes at it with such dedication and he has a totally new perspective on it. So I find that fascinating."

Working with Documents

"I don't buy as many manuscripts on Lincoln. I handle 14 different Presidents. I cover from 1848 to 1900 and I buy material that's offered on each one. Also, a lot of material comes in by donation. I may buy collections from auction houses like Christie's or Sotheby's but it's basically seeing the gaps in our own collections when something's offered. If it fills a need or has research value I will go after it. Prices for Lincoln material have gone sky high. Lincoln's last speech of April 11 is now the outstanding document as far as price."

"I was interested in buying the letter of Lincoln to Grant on Robert Todd (trying to get him a position in the army safely) and the estimate was $75,000 to $100,000. It went for $690,000. We have benefactors who will help us if we really want something, but we can't justify prices like that."

"I'm also working with the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission to a degree. They're headquartered here. Jackie Williams is the current acting director. It's about a 16 or so member committee. I think it will do good work. The Lincoln Memorial is really the outgrowth of a commission like this."

"I get in a lot of documents that are casually Lincoln related. An example would be correspondence from the Wilkes family. Some are letters from Admiral Charles Wilkes, then Captain Wilkes. These are all 1863. They deal with the Trent affair and the pursuit of the Alabama. They deal with Wilkes's relationship to Welles, Secretary of the Navy, and Lincoln is involved indirectly or directly. It's extremely valuable material. It's never been seen outside the family before."

"The [Horatio Nelson] Taft diary that we recently put online was the same thing. It's a lot of nice new information. The diary had been owned by the youngest son of Taft -- he was called Willie. That diary, in three volumes, was just in his house and nobody outside the family was allowed to use it. So it basically is new information."

"I try to explain to people that if they put a collection for public auction it's usually bought by another dealer, and often to maximize profit, the material is scattered -- it's sold individually or in small groups. And I've even heard of things being cut up. I try to persuade people to take a tax write-off and make a donation and keep it whole, the integrity of the collection, for research purposes. And then, for the family name, to have something in an archive, is a point of pride."

"I never know from day to day what's going to happen. I get a lot of calls from people who have fake Lincoln documents -- even outright forgery. So you have to develop an eye for original material, versus the early stone lithographic, which is very good. Private citizens are always calling me with great excitement, having mentally banked a lot of money, thinking they have the Bixby letter or an original copy of the Gettysburg Address. I don't really try to string them along. I tell them up front and it's often disappointing.

Serving the Greater Lincoln Community

"I'm also involved in the origin of the Abraham Lincoln Institute of the Mid-Atlantic, which really is not a membership organization. It's only for the promotion of the latest in Lincoln research. We have a symposium once a year and we have speakers at the National Archives quarterly, related to a Lincoln topic."

"The annual symposium -- a day-long session, usually with five or six speakers -- is our main thrust. We try to have speakers whose books are just out or on the way out. We have done very well so far. Our attendance was about 350 this year, which is primarily local. We have a good academic Lincoln audience here -- quite a few enthusiasts, writers, collectors, who are quite devoted to the subject."

"I've never met anyone who was engaged in Lincoln research who did not gain in appreciation and admiration of Lincoln. Everyone I've worked with, even Southerners, who have delved into the material -- the original writings of Lincoln -- come away more impressed. They've grown in their appreciation of Lincoln. I think that speaks well of Lincoln. Perret was saying his fascination was watching Lincoln develop and grow, and he says that's so evident in the materials."

"I also do reviews, and I work with people like Michael Burlingame, who has a three-volume contract on Lincoln with Johns Hopkins Press. The scholars come through; some of them are graduate students, some are just doing articles or essays, some are doing research for major professors."

Speaking of Lincoln North and South

"I do some speaking -- I'm heading down to Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee. James McPherson had to cancel. And I'm speaking out in Topeka, Kansas in May. They're opening a new museum there. I rarely lecture on Lincoln in the South because there's an abhorrence almost, still a Confederate bias. Generally, the people in the South don't want to hear what I have to say. That's been my experience."

"Most of my speaking has been Midwest or North. I'd like to see that change. I'd like somehow to promote that. I think it's a matter of education, because if people really work at it, that is, read the material, it speaks for itself. It would have an impact. You can hardly work with Lincoln's words and writings and not be impressed."

Putting on Exhibits

"I'm also involved in exhibitions. I've done several major ones. One of them was put over at the Supreme Court for a couple of years. I also evaluate materials for our own purposes. We're not allowed to appraise materials that are coming into the institution; that's a conflict of interest. But I have to tell people, when they are giving things, what something is worth."

"I'm also involved in the curatorial end in the sense of maintaining the physical integrity of the material, recommending whether it goes through a restoration process, or how frequently it can be exhibited or whether it can be given on loan to other institutions that want to mount an exhibit, so I do get involved there."

"Some of our most valuable things, like the Gettysburg Address, of which we have two copies, the Inaugural Addresses (we have the First and Second of Lincoln's), those are specially housed in a vault. Part of my job is to recommend which things need careful attention and more security. You get a lot of applications for a loan of these things. It's problematic -- even the transportation of the documents."

Branching Out

"The work involves writing. I write for the Gazette, for different magazines, on new acquisitions. Email has taken over my life. I think about half of my work is Lincoln related. Sometimes you get a major collection in like the Pinkerton Detective Agency -- the early part of it is Civil War-related -- and that has brought in an inordinate number of calls and letters and email. It's mostly high profile criminals, so I get calls from Europe and everywhere. It was a company that got started in the mid 1850's, very involved with McClellan and there's photographs of Pinkerton with Lincoln. It's a history of the underside of America."

"I'm also involved in this new attempt to establish a documentary for Lincoln, the Presidential Papers of Abraham Lincoln, which would be the digital online version. The Knox College Lincoln Studies Center handles the editorial end of it. I'm just directing the research. We've hired three retired people from the National Archives to do research, each of whom has about 30 years experience, and we have people in New York, including Chuck Strozier who is the head of the project."

"The Library's entire Lincoln collection is online now, and what they didn't transcribe before they're now transcribing. They did 10,000 documents and now they're doing the rest of the transcription and annotation. To that will be added all this we're uncovering in the Archives plus we're arranging for a researcher to go around to private collectors and other institutions. We're still piecing staff together."

"The things we're uncovering now have never been seen by most people. The collections we're getting now are about 1,000 boxes; sometimes the subcategories of the collections are 1,000 boxes. Two boxes a day is the best the researchers can do because they're working part time."

Related Links
Abraham Lincoln Institute
Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress
National Archives and Records Administration

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