Lincoln project needs funding

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For more than a decade, the staff at the Papers of Abraham Lincoln Project has sifted through 550 repositories and private collections in 47 states, attempting to locate every document written by or to the nation’s 16th president. When a researcher finds a relevant document, he or she scans, transcribes, annotates and formats it for publication on the Internet.

The goal of the project, which was established in 2001, when project directors expanded the scope to more than just Lincoln’s legal documents, is to create one of the largest online archives of its kind — a free database that would allow anyone to conduct refined searches through thousands of letters with the same precision as if hunting for a pair of shoes online.

In a recent Washington Post article, Michael E. Ruane reported the project’s money is running out. A five-year, $1.4 million grant from the Shelby Cullom Davis Charitable Fund ended in June. If that revenue stream is not replaced, the project’s directors will be forced to shrink their staff and their ambitions.

One casualty probably will be the search for Lincoln’s papers in the National Archives in Washington, the remaining major repository to be scoured to complete the project as envisioned from the outset.

The researchers are not seeking one hidden gem. They assign equal weight to thousands of pages with fleeting connections to Lincoln. Sometimes the giveaway is a rectangle-shaped hole in a letter, where a previous reader clipped out Lincoln’s lopsided, upward-tilting, unbroken signature with its five loops and then likely sold it as a rare document.

What Lincoln had to say has obvious historical value; what people wanted Lincoln to know reveals much about his era.

“There is simply no substitute for the written record. It doesn’t matter how obscure or seemingly meaningless, written documentation is the basis of history,” says Robert Caro, who has spent much of his life rifling through the papers of Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Caro, who has a written a multi-volume biography of LBJ, adds, “Over and over again, [I find myself] saying you better turn every page, you better look at everything that was ever written because that’s where you will find what really happened.”

Finishing the project would help more than biographers. The project’s goal is to democratize the historian’s search and to make the record accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.

For more than a century, public and private funds have preserved in archives the documents researchers are locating; it would be a shame if the papers project is unable to raise the resources to make them accessible in a way never before possible.

The Washington Post


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