Presidents Factor Heavily in the Wake of Presidents Day

March 21, 2011
Astrid Johannah Smith

It seems, as of late, that the Green Library has been abuzz with rare books and ephemera of a Presidential persuasion. This is to be expected, as the current Library Exhibition focuses on The American Enlightenment, and features a copy of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which has the signatures of both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. It also highlights some other noteworthy items from the Special Collections, which are displayed in the cases along the Library’s rotunda and halls. American History Professor Caroline Winterer, Special Collections' Exhibition Manager and Designer Elizabeth Fischbach, and Curator of Rare Books John Mustain, selected every item to help flesh out an understanding of how certain aspects of the Enlightenment in Europe were interpreted across the seas -- ranging from fashion, to science, art and architecture and all other areas of life -- during that particular time period. The various display cases serve to illustrate different facets of these new ways of thinking, and also serve as a framework for the incredibly beautiful and well researched exhibition catalog and accompanying exhibition website. Indeed, the exhibition has been receiving a lot of attention from visitors and scholars, and was recently featured in an article by the San Jose Mercury News.

In a lecture that Professor Winterer gave on the curatorial preparation that went into the exhibition, she described how difficult it was to decide which books to include. She explained how the exhibition team selected items based on their content and the contributions that they made to the overall themes, not based purely on their outward aesthetic, as the old adage would remind us.

"The books are quirky like people," she said, "some of them are boring until you get to know them."

And the exhibition does just that -- it allows visitors to fully engage with the materials they selected to showcase, and encourages them to allow themselves to be fully immersed in what were once such revolutionary concepts.  As with the visitors, it was a treat for the Digital Production Group to be so personally engaged with these remarkable historical items while we provided the images needed to execute the exhibition team's vision. All of the images produced for the exhibition and accompanying catalog may be viewed in the American Enlightenment section of the Stanford University Libraries Image Gallery space. While almost all of the books were quite rare and fragile, one of the most lovely was also one of the most unwieldly to work with because of it's enormous size: Mark Catesby's 1754 The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands was definitely a two-person job. Almost two feet in height, the book needed a very sturdy support structure to hold it open at the perfect angle to capture the image -- while being careful not to hold it so far open that the pages lying flat would start to pop up. The weight of the book alone made it challenging even to locate the selected pages, so that one person would have to hold the accumulating pages while the other would turn them. Working with these kinds of materials always requires very slow, focused, and deliberate movements, with a consciousness of where one's hands and fingertips are at all times. Often, when imaging the most fragile items, we will have one person who is exclusively "hands on," and another who is on the computer inputting file names and making sure the images are perfect. With hundreds of files, multi-leveled metadata, and images going into a web environment, the project was far more complex to execute than the seemingly simple piles of beautiful old books would immediately suggest.

In addition to the momentous American Enlightenment Exhibition preparation, the Digital Production Group was also recently involved in an effort to digitize the personal papers of President Abraham Lincoln. Originating in a request made on behalf of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, the project will eventually include any noteworthy Lincoln document held by a large sampling of institutions, and will be featured on a specially tailored website, The Papers of Abraham Lincoln. The twenty-six items requested range from large-scale legal appointment documents with detailed embellishments, to small notes, seemingly written in great haste. Some were printed on curling vellum with a waxy feel to it, and some were on brittle and yellowing paper seemingly ripped from a notebook. Cropping the images was sometimes problematic, as the items often had inconsistent angles or deckle edges. The specifications for the project also required use of a specific color bar, which they provided, in order to ensure image accuracy as they gather items from multiple holdings. The color bar was placed close to each object, in every shot, and was analyzed to confirm that all the colors in the documents were depicted correctly. But in the minds of our photographers, the best part of all was trying to decipher the intricate cursive handwriting in these various items. Lincoln’s scrawled and slanting “A” became almost commonplace, and the lovely script of his letters’ transcriptions made all the more real an era before scanners, photocopiers, and PDFs.

Interested in hearing more about the project, Palo Alto Online featured a Presidents Day article that included an interview with Special Collections’ Head of Public Service and Processing Manuscripts Librarian, Mattie Taormina. Mattie was the person who gathered the items from their various collections, and was present to observe these important documents as they were being digitized for the project. During the shoot, DPG's Production Coordinator and Digitization Specialist, Doris Cheung, was keeping track of files and naming the images, while Rare Book and Special Collections Digitization Specialist Astrid Smith carefully handled each of the items and operated the camera. Though the photography sessions only lasted a few hours, the post-production and image quality assurance steps took much longer. Palo Alto Online’s Karla Kane describes the results of these combined efforts, saying, “The Lincoln project is one of many ways in which the university's archives contribute to ongoing scholarship and interest in historical figures.”

In terms of the “hype” that surrounds Special Collections items that are associated with particular historical figures, part of what made contributing to the Lincoln Project such a special undertaking was the mere act of coming into physical contact with these documents.  Even just seeing them in scale on the screen made President Abraham Lincoln all the more real – as though he stepped down from his famous larger-than-life marble seat and entered into the realm of personal experience. And that is what making these and other important historical documents readily available is, ultimately, all about.

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To see some more candid shots of the Lincoln Papers, visit our flickr page.

The documents included in this entry are are:
M0002, Partially Printed Document Signed, Appointment of William Clarke as Assistant Adjutant General of Volunteers with the rank of Captain, signed by Abraham Lincoln and Edwin Stanton, 3/4/1863, and M0206, Autograph Letter Signed, John A. Dahlgren to Abraham Lincoln, 6/10/1861

Information on visiting the American Enlightenment Exhibition: The physical exhibition will be on display in the Peterson Gallery and Munger Rotunda, Green Library Bing Wing, Stanford University, February 7 through May 15, 2011. The gallery is accessible whenever Green Library is open; case lights are on Monday–Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday from 12 to 6 p.m. Building hours vary with the academic schedule, so it's a good idea to call the Green Library hours recording line at 650-723-0931 or go to before you make the trip.  NOTE: Visitors without a Stanford University i.d. must register at the south entrance portal to Green Library’s East Wing to gain access to the exhibition.