Historian Karen Needles has undertaken quite the task. Since 2002 she has been digitalizing all executive, legislative, judicial and military federal records created during the presidency of our 16th President. We’re talking 30 million records that are being scanned and housed in one place. To date, about 60,000 have been uploaded, including newspapers, documents, maps, photographs, and political cartoons. The BGES recently partnered with the Lincoln Archives to ensure this important archive is available to all. The plan is to showcase a revolving door of interesting documents on our website. We caught up with Karen to get a better grip on this impressive mission.
BGES Blog: Give us the Lincoln-penny description of the Lincoln Archives Digital Project.
Karen Needles: Why Lincoln? Lincoln has always been a role model. Drive to improve his circumstances, loved to read, loved to tell stories. But his most important function was to keep our country together, in our greatest time of need. He refused to compromise his oath of office, his allegiance to the United States. He believed that education, infrastructure, and immigration were vital components to the future of America, and to the economy. He was an eloquent speaker, whose words still provide comfort to this generation.
BGES Blog: How do you decide what stays and what goes?
Karen Needles: The Lincoln Archives project does not cherry-pick through the records. Every document, photograph, map, political cartoon, and newspaper dated within the scope of Lincoln's presidency is digitized.
BGES Blog: This is an amazing amount of work that you are undertaking. Who does the work?
Karen Needles: I started this project in 2002. In 2005 I contacted my alma mater Pittsburg State University, located in Pittsburg, Kansas, about a two-week internship opportunity. Monday through Thursday they worked on the project, and Friday through Sunday they were tourists. I provided a bedroom/bedrooms for them to stay in. Have had a wonderful group of PSU Gorillas over the years. About two years ago, I began working with the Washington Center, here in DC. They provide interns for an entire semester. They get the opportunity to work with the records scanning, then using Excel to create an inventory, then finish what they have done by creating the webpages for those records, as well as transcribing those cursive documents. They get pushed up to the Amazon cloud, and see the results of their hard work.
BGES Blog: How did you become involved?
Karen Needles: In 1999, I was hired by the Library of Congress to train teachers in using primary source records to teach history. This was a grant program that ended in 2002, so when I left there, I decided to start my own digital project, the Lincoln Archives Digital Project. I wanted the project to be more than an autograph collection. By providing a project which showed how the federal government ran, as well as the Civil War, provides a 360° look at Lincoln the President, Lincoln the Commander in Chief, and Lincoln the Statesman. So you will see how Seward handled the State Dept., domestic and foreign policy; how the Treasury paid for everything; how Interior handled Indian affairs, territories; etc.
BGES Blog: Would you please share with us three of the most interesting documents you’ve come across?
Karen Needles: In 2007, while looking through Treasury records, I located an 1864 letter from Grace Bedell to Lincoln. Grace was the little girl who wrote Lincoln suggesting he grow whiskers. I found a letter from Lamon to Lincoln a week after the First Battle of Bull Run, threatening to take care of the unruly and drunken soldiers in D.C. A couple of weeks later, a Senate bill proposed the creation of the Metropolitan Police Dept., of D.C. All of the records are fascinating. I love them all.
BGES Blog: Imagine you could invite four historic figures to the dinner table. Assuming one would be Lincoln, who would the other three be?
Karen Needles: Frederick Douglass, Clara Barton, and Walt Whitman.
BGES Blog: What is your dream for the archives?
Karen Needles: I want this to become a global project, from private collectors, to local historical societies, to state archives, to university collections, digitizing their collections that are dated within the scope of the project, providing federal records, as well as citizen collections to bring the social aspect of this time period, creating an awesome site for the study of this period. Bringing together art, science, music, literature, technology, and world events shows how inclusive all aspects of daily living had an impact on this period of history.