A Crusade To Digitize All Lincoln Administration Records
By Scott C. Boyd
(August 2009 Civil War News)

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — “She’s a champion of the ‘In America, anything’s possible’ way of thinking,” says Len Riedel, Executive Director of the Blue and Gray Education Society.

Riedel is speaking about Karen Needles, who is waging a virtual one-woman crusade to digitize and make accessible all the records of President Abraham Lincoln’s administration.

Several projects are trying to scan and digitize documents related to Lincoln. Usually the documents must be written by Lincoln, signed by him, or have a marginal note by him – some direct tie to Lincoln himself – to qualify for inclusion.

However, a letter from Navy Secretary Gideon Welles to Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus Fox would not qualify for most Lincoln scanning projects. It would qualify for Needles who says, “I believe that every single piece of paper is a piece of the puzzle.”

She emphasizes, “This is the first project that’s digitizing a president’s entire administration.”

Rising at 5 every weekday morning, Needles is either using her computer at home, her scanner at her worksite, or commuting until 9:30 p.m., with a little time off to eat. “This is my baby. This is what I’m so excited about,” she explains.

As a former teacher, Needles knew the value of teaching with primary source documents. She realized how difficult it would be for the average teacher to come to Washington to use the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) facilities, where so many of those original documents are stored and can only be seen in person.

“So, I decided to go ahead and launch this massive project,” she says.

“With the Lincoln bicentennial of his birth this year and the upcoming sesquicentennial of the start of the war in 2011, I thought that Lincoln was the perfect president to do the project with.”

She calls her project, which she began in 2002, the LincolnArchives Digital Project. Her Web site is  www.lincolnarchives.us.

Needles knows all about using the National Archives to research Lincoln. She helped author Ron White with his recently released A. Lincoln: A Biography and is assisting James Swanson, author of Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, with his new book.

The project has two main goals: First, to provide Web access to the material for “the millions of people who can’t afford to come to Washington, D.C.” Travel and lodging expenses make such trips prohibitive for scholars and other researchers, according to Needles.

The second goal is to create a digital inventory of all the Lincoln administration records NARA holds. “There is no inventory of the documents that are housed at the National Archives,” Needles says. The Archives has finding aids, but they are not detailed down to a list of specific documents.

When documents are given to NARA, they are organized into record groups and then placed into storage boxes on shelves, she explains. There are no inventories listing each document in each box. This can make tedious work for researchers who are left sorting through boxes of paper documents by hand.

Needles is very clear about her standard for how the scanning of each document is to be done.

Besides scanning at 600 dpi, which she says produces preservation-quality images, “the documents are scanned in color, because history happened in color.

A lot of the documents have different colored inks. They have stampings, markings and pencil notations that are very important for a scholar when he’s trying to analyze that document — and microfilm does not pick any of that up [because it only displays black and white].”

The National Archives put some documents in which Needles is interested on microfilm and stored the originals in vaults. Researchers are only permitted to see the microfilm version of those documents, according to Needles.

Ironically, descriptions in the finding aids for those documents mention the different colored inks on the documents and what each signifies.

“At the end of the description it says, ‘This entry is available on microfilm,’ which is totally unacceptable because you don’t have the different colored inks on microfilm,” Needles says.

She wants to be able to access and scan the originals to get the color back, but she says the Archives has declined her request. “They claim what they’re doing is preserving them for future generations.”

Aside from the absence of color in the microfilmed documents, Needles said the overall quality is poor. “They don’t pay the people that do the microfilm very much money. A large majority of it is out of focus,” she notes.

Another limitation is that “when the paper has discolored over the years, when it’s microfilmed, it just turns that segment of the page into a black blob. When you digitize in color, you can actually still read the text.”

Since she began her work Needles has put 6,000 documents online and scanned over 500,000 documents. In addition to digitizing them, “we’re [summer interns] transcribing everything so that everything’s fully searchable.”

She says she offered to share her prodigious digital output with NARA, but they were not interested.
Needles is appreciative of the consideration shown by one of the NARA sites she uses in the Washington area. They let her store two scanners there, so she doesn’t have to carry the 60-pound machines the days she works there.

The project’s financing is largely in keeping with how the rest of it is run. “For the last seven years, I’ve been funding it myself,” Needles says. She even temporarily suspended the project once so she could get a part-time job to pay for some of the sophisticated software her Web site uses.

“I’m hoping that those who are really interested in this period of time will see the worth of this project and will help the project by subscribing,” she says. She sees subscriptions for full access to her site as the best way to fund it, but has not had much support so far.

One guardian angel has been the Blue and Gray Education Society Board. Riedel said they voted this year to cover Needles’ annual expenses for running the Web site, a donation of about $3,600. They may cover some other expenses in the future, he says. “We think it’s a public service that she really deserves formal recognition for.”

“I can’t think of anything that would be a greater gift to the country and to the world than having finally the archives of the Lincoln administration available to the whole world to review,” Riedel says.

“This article is her announcement to the Civil War community that something important and wonderful is happening and hopefully will get her some support.”