Promoting, supporting and encouraging the study of the United States since 1955

British Association for American Studies


Resources for American Studies: Issue 59, 2006


Resources for American Studies: Issue 59, 2006


  1. Foreword
  2. Contributors
  3. The Presidential Library: From Early Development towards a Definition (Part 1)
  4. The Presidential Library: From Early Development towards a Definition (Part 2)
  5. Benjamin Franklin and Public History: Restoring Benjamin Franklin House
  6. Exhibiting Franklin
  7. Whitman: “A poet given to compulsive self-revision”
  8. Readers’ Writes: Ch-ch-changes — a Bibliophile’s Path through Higher Education Resources
  9. Read All About It: Free online Newspaper sources for Nineteenth-Century
  10. American Sheet Music
  11. Useful Web Resources
  12. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  13. American Legislative Intelligence


As the cover suggests, we are happy to mark the tercentenary of the birth of one of America ’s founding fathers (and printer, book collector and founder of the Library Company), with the inclusion of two articles on Franklin’s life in London and his afterlife in public memory. These articles were presented at the 2006 BAAS conference at a panel partly organised by the Library and Resources Sub-Committee. We are also delighted to include a substantial article on the making of Presidential Libraries.

We are also pleased to report that the journal is now sent annually with the American Studies newsletter. Existing subscribers will continue to receive their copy under separate cover. We have tried to coordinate the mailing list, but there is likely to be some duplication so please let us know if you are receiving two copies. Similarly, if you know of an institution or individual who would like to receive a copy, let us know.

As ever, the journal welcomes submissions. If you would like to review a resource, whether in print or online, or have an article in mind on any aspect of resources American Studies, then please contact us. Similarly, the committee would be pleased to be informed of any matters relating to library provision for American Studies.

Finally, thank your for your support, and we hope that you find something of value in this year’s journal.

Matthew Shaw

Editor, Resources for American Studies



Márcia Balisciano is the Founding Director of Benjamin Franklin House, London.

Dorian Hayes curates the Canadian and North American literature collections at the British Library.

Paul Jenks writes a monthly column for and is an Account Manager for GalleryWatch

Jonathan Pearson is a lecturer in American history at the University of Durham.

Jean Petrovic is the bibliographic editor, Eccles Centre for America Studies at the British Library.

Lisa Rull is a Learning Support Tutor at the University of Nottingham.

Matthew Shaw is a curator in the Americas Collections at the British Library.

Donald Tait is subject librarian at Glasgow University Library.

Arnie Thomas keeps a close watch on events in the Beltway for GaleryWatch.


The Presidential Library: From Early Development towards a Definition (Part 1)

Jonathan Pearson, University of Durham

The Presidential Library is a unique institution in the United States and has courted much comment since its inception. As a genre, it is caught at the centre of a network of issues inextricably linked to the evolution of the presidency, memorialisation, commemoration, preservation and American identity itself. Individually and as a group, they have been seen as contested spaces and reflect both public adoration and criticism of the presidency. They have been called disparagingly, ‘America’s pyramids’[1], ‘Presidential Temples’[2] or ‘Presidential Palaces’[3] but also ‘Necessary Monuments’[4] or ‘Rewarding Institutions’.[5] Opinion continues to be divided over whether they are ‘Mines or Shrines,’[6] not least because they have become mausolea to their subjects[7] and provide a majority of the evidential base for presidential histories.

The apparent paradox of their popularity is explained by Richard Norton Smith, a former director of four presidential libraries and now the Director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum: ‘They serve diverse audiences – that’s their glory and their weakness’.[8] Moreover, they are becoming the focus of increasing academic concern, largely with regard to their future.[9] To have any sense of that future, it is essential to consider both what they actually are and how they have derived from the melting pot of late nineteenth century and early twentieth century American debates over the Presidency, heritage preservation and archival development. It is no coincidence therefore that the debate should find itself reopened each time the power and roles of the Presidency have been questioned. Vitriolic Congressional debate greeted the establishment of the first official Presidential Library, that of Franklin Roosevelt, followed by a protracted controversy over access to ‘his’ presidential records, although there was little published or public discontent. There was little negative reaction to the beginnings of the Truman (1957), Eisenhower (1962) and Hoover (1962) Libraries, which, enshrined in the legislation of the 1955 Presidential Libraries Act, demonstrated the development of a Presidential Library System. In fact, the first rumblings of public and private discontent began to emanate when the Imperial Presidents, led by Lyndon Johnson began to carve their legacies out of stone. Johnson, intending to create the largest Presidential Library in the world, opened his ‘monolith’ in 1971. As one reporter remarked shortly after the opening: ‘It’s as though Lyndon Johnson were trying to pick up those five years in the White House with his bare hands and squeeze them into a shape that will make his history stand back in awe’.[10] The same reporter concluded that she would not ‘care to write a history of the Johnson years in that building, surrounded, overwhelmed by his words chiseled in granite and his deeds recorded in plastic display cases’.[11] Nevertheless, for all the negative associations, the Johnson Library has been ‘widely hailed for making virtually everything [presidential papers] available with heroic speed’.[12] The Library quickly became the most popular of its genre, with approximately 300,000 visitors inside the first six months.[13] Between 1980 and 2005, the Johnson Library attracted a total of 8,201,706 visitors, some two million more than at the Kennedy Library over the same period,[14] despite Johnson languishing in both public and academic post-presidential opinion polls.[15] From their inception up to 2005, the official Presidential Libraries had received approximately 67 million visitors.[16] To a large extent this interest reflects ‘a fundamental shift in the public’s values and priorities relative to museums,’ which has invoked ‘a change in the public’s perceptions of the role museums can play in their lives’, specifically within the last thirty years.[17] In 2001, Gallup revealed that nearly 53% of Americans visited a museum at least once a year.[18] Additionally, museologist Eilean Hooper-Greenhill has seen the period from the early 1980s to the early 1990s as a period of ‘enormous changes in museums and galleries across the world’. These are represented, in her words, by a shift from museums being ‘static storehouses for artefacts’ to ‘learning environments for people’.[19] This would appear to be something of an oversimplification when looking at museums and museum bodies on an individual basis but it reflected a generic change in the perception of museum roles by both public and professionals.

As a group, Presidential Libraries are unique because of their diverse roles and functions, serving as aging monuments to past presidents but also living memorials, with researchers continuing to flock to the archival deposits: they are simultaneously, to some extent, donor memorials, regional, national and international museums, preservers and conservers of collections, centres of education, visitor attractions, and research institutions. They continue to evolve. Any discussion of Presidential Libraries is immediately beset by the problem of definition, itself plagued by diversity and hence inconsistency. Confusion is immediately provided by the term ‘Library’. The name was originally chosen by the Executive Committee responsible for the papers and collections at what would become the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library. It was believed that this title would, in Benjamin Hufbauer’s words, be ‘less alien to the public’, given the unique nature of the establishment. In addition, it reflected the precedent set by the Hayes Memorial Library.[20] The institutions do contain libraries of books, often those belonging to their founders, but as Herman Kahn, the second Director of the Roosevelt Library, remarked, they ‘are at least as much archival depositories and museums as they are libraries.’[21] Some have seen the presidential library as an ‘information warehouse’.[22] But at what point does the library and museum become distinct? The Libraries, at least theoretically, substantiate the exhibits and the potential interpretation. As such, the two elements compliment each other. However, in practical terms, the obvious distinction is that while the public is allowed access to both parts of the Library, they predominantly visit the museum, leaving a much smaller group of specialists to use the research capacity of the archive. In fact, it was estimated in 1980 that ‘researchers and scholars [made] up fewer than one percent of the visitors’ to presidential libraries.[23] This gap has narrowed marginally with the increasing release of papers and tailing off of visitation after the initial enthusiasm associated with the opening of each new site. Nevertheless, the relationship remains and is exacerbated by the fact that while the Libraries were originally founded to house the President’s collection, itself predominantly paper-based archival deposits, the first elements of all Presidential Libraries to be opened and the principle point of contact between the Library and the public, is still the museum.[24] There is the hope that the regular visits by scholars will maintain a historical balance in the museum displays. As Director of the Johnson Library, Betty Sue Flowers considered, ‘[h]aving historians around keeps us honest’.[25] Yet, in reality, as Kennedy historian Robert Dallek reflected on the Kennedy Library, ‘[t]he images are so powerful, so compelling – it’s hard even for me to be objective’.[26] This has been reinforced by the increasing professionalism of the museums, employing renowned designers such as Ralph Appelbaum Associates, and modern museological practice, to produce compelling displays.

As archives, their existence has also been bound up in the discussion over the preservation and ownership of presidential papers. As can be seen from the mission statements and museums of the Presidential Libraries, there is an apparent dichotomy for each institution between providing a high level of objectivity and maintaining the legacy of the particular President. This has promoted discussion, such as that from Paula Span[27] and Michael Kammen,[28] questioning the efficacy of having several repositories rather than one central presidential ‘archive’, the appropriateness of having a museum attached to the archive, and the extent to which the President’s materials are private or public property.[29] The issue over the creation of a central repository for Federal records and materials had already aroused concern long before the creation of the Presidential Library system. Much of the material of former Presidents had either been lost or sold into private ownership. George Washington[30] and his immediate seventeen successors had each taken their material with them as private possessions. The heirs of Martin Van Buren, Franklin Pierce, Ulysses S. Grant and Millard Fillmore destroyed parts of theirs. Much of John Tyler’s records were burnt in the fire that swept through Richmond in 1865. Federal troops seized Zachary Taylor’s. Abraham Lincoln’s were kept from the public until 1948, and John Quincy Adams’s were kept behind the, largely, closed doors of the Massachusetts Historical Society.[31] In fact, the main bulk of the Adams’ Papers were only donated to the Society by the family in 1956. Additionally, some of Andrew Jackson’s disappeared when his home, the Hermitage, near Nashville, Tennessee, caught fire in 1934.[32] Such was the situation by the end of the nineteenth century, that one White House secretary exclaimed, ‘until recently “hardly a scrap of paper was kept here to show what a President did or why he did it”’.[33] This situation was made worse by the fact that because of the poor way that the ‘preserved’ material had been stored it proved very difficult to gain thorough access.[34] In fact, it was not until 1901 that the Library of Congress published ‘its first description of a manuscript collection,’ although it did focus upon the nation’s first President.[35]

In 1903, the Government moved several of the collections of Presidential Papers to the Library of Congress, promoting a policy of acquisition of such records.[36] Under Theodore Roosevelt’s executive order of March 9 the papers of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe, along with those of other important figures were transferred.[37] It was at this time that published reaction to the dangers faced by the ‘nation’s’ records first began to appear, particularly when it was realised that not even the originals of the Declaration of Independence or of the Constitution were adequately protected.[38] Remonstrations by William Howard Taft, The New York Times and the American Historical Association[39] finally brought action but even after Senate had appropriated $2,500,000 for the project, $500,000 of which could be used to begin work immediately[40], no consensus existed to force through completion.

Additionally, no legislation existed to compel Presidents to hand over their records and, in fact, after 1903, while ‘Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the widow of Woodrow Wilson complied… Herbert Hoover and the widows of Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge made other plans’.[41] In fact, Warren Harding’s widow burnt some of her husband’s papers, specifically related to correspondence with ‘ Ohio political cronies’.[42] This inconsistency was despite the consistent calls for a national archives building.[43] However, the ‘first installment of the gift of the Theodore Roosevelt papers’ in 1917 was groundbreaking in that it was the first receipt of presidential papers ‘directly from a former president’.[44] The higher profile of the United States and the Presidency led to a substantial increase in the number of Presidential papers produced during each administration. In addition, Presidents, increasingly aware of their own historical value, both produced and kept more personal material, often to help in the writing of memoirs. Since the turn of the century the Library of Congress had been the ‘“National Library of the
United States ,”’[45] and its role represented a change in both Governmental and public attitudes towards heritage, as Ray Geselbracht remarked: ‘Americans were becoming protective of their memory’.[46] Significantly, this memory was embodied within the Presidency. By the late 1930s, papers from 22 of the previous 31 Presidents were held in the Library of Congress.[47] However, The Library was in no position to keep collecting and preserving Presidential materials, which were expanding voluminously, approaching two million pages of manuscript,[48] and The National Archives[49] were only ever intended to house federal records from administrative departments. Where were future presidential records to be kept? In addition, this question of storage and access was even more pertinent for other forms of material culture associated with the presidency. Possessions and gifts, for instance, which had been predominantly distributed between family and collectors were now being kept by presidents. At the same time that American attitudes towards protecting presidential papers were changing, Government began to take more of an interest in historic preservation.

In 1916, Colonel Webb Cook Hayes opened the Hayes Memorial Library (later renamed the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center).[50] The Library and Museum were intended to ‘focus on the President and his family’ but also the ‘Gilded Age’, reflecting both the interests of the founder and ‘the American public’.[51] The construction was financed largely by the Hayes Family with a contribution from the State of Ohio and could be said to be the first Presidential Library in the United States and the only one to represent a nineteenth century President.[52] However, despite this early lead, subsequent Presidents continued to destroy material, or place it outside of the general public’s domain, in historical societies and private collections.[53] In addition, even when the National Archives assumed control of the Presidential Libraries, on the gifting of the Roosevelt Library to the Government in 1941, it did not involve itself with overseeing the Hayes Presidential Center, whose associated land and holdings had been deeded over to the State of Ohio by the President’s son. In fact, many Presidential memorials remained under the control of individual states or were being run privately.

A further difficulty in attempting to generically discuss Presidential Libraries is caused by organisational structure. There are currently eleven official Presidential Libraries[54], each overseen by the United States ’ Government via the Office of Presidential Libraries, a division of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).[55] As Richard Norton Smith has remarked, ‘[t]hey’re hybrids and I think that’s why people have trouble understanding or justifying them’.[56] However, despite the apparent continuities engendered by the organisational structure, each institution is individually operated, with varying management and interpretation. Of particular significance is that the Libraries are funding their own educational and, hence, outreach programs, as well as their own advancement. As a group, the Libraries tend to experience a minimum of external interference, despite the apparent oversight of NARA and the Office of Presidential Libraries. [57] This is particularly true for the attached museum branches, which remain virtually unmentioned in NARA’s latest strategic plan[58] and experience very little in the way of directive from central authority, relying on the personalities of the staff to direct their running and interpretation. Further complication in attempting to generically analyse the official Presidential Libraries is provided by the fact that the museums of these institutions are not members of the American Association of Museums (AAM) and, as such, are not registered museums that fulfill certain standardised criteria in terms of management and ethic. Despite these variations, the Presidential Libraries have been classified as a system, both by their overseer NARA and more formally by academics as a ‘quiescent policy subsystem’.[59]


[1] Historian Robert Caro cited in Paula Span, ‘Monumental Ambition’, in The Washington Post Magazine, February 17, 2002. See also Richard J. Cox, ‘
America ’s pyramids: Presidents and their libraries’, in Government Information Quarterly (Vol.19, 2002), 45-75. One of the first references appeared in Molly Ivins, ‘A Monumental Undertaking’, in The New York Times, August 9, 1971.

[2] Benjamin Hufbauer, Presidential Temples: How Memorials and Libraries Shape Public Memory ( University of Kansas Press: Lawrence, Kansas, 2006).

[3] August Gribbin ‘Presidential Palaces’, in Insight on the News, (Vol. 16, No. 13, April 3, 2000).

[4] Cynthia J. Wolff, ‘Necessary Monuments: The Making of the Presidential Library System’, in Government Publications Review (Vol.16, No. 1, January/February 1989), 47-62.

[5] William H. Honan, ‘11 Ridiculed but Rewarding Institutions’, in The New York Times, November 7, 1997.

[6] Robert F. Wroth, ‘Presidential Libraries: Mines or Shrines’, in The New York Times, April 24, 2002.

[7] Of the eleven official Presidential Libraries, seven of the Presidents represented have died and five of those are buried at their Libraries: They are Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower and Reagan.  Kennedy is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia and Lyndon Johnson is buried at the family cemetery near Stonewall, Texas. In addition, of the two unofficial Presidential Libraries, both Presidents Hayes and Nixon are buried ‘on-site’, while President Ford and George HW Bush plan to be interred at their respective facilities: Donald Holloway, Collections Manager, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, in correspondence with the author, August 27, 2002 & Stephannie Oriabure, Archivist, George Bush Presidential Library, in correspondence with the author, August 28, 2002. It is unclear, at this stage, where Presidents Carter or Clinton intend to be laid to rest, although President Carter has already filed a plan for a state funeral.

[8] Norton Smith cited in Worth, ‘Presidential Libraries: Mines or Shrines’.

[9] See for example, Princeton University Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies, Museums in Presidential Libraries: A First Report on Policies, Practices and Performance (December 2004), Princeton University Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies, Presidential Libraries: A Background Paper on their Museums and their Public Programs (Princeton University, December 2004), or American Association for State and Local History, ‘Presidential Sites and Libraries Conference IV: The American Presidential Community’, June 19-22, 2006.

[10] Ivins, ‘A Monumental Undertaking’.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Worth, ‘Presidential Libraries: Mines or Shrine?’

[13] Gary Cartwright, ‘The L.B.J. Library: The Life and Times of Lyndon Johnson in Eight Full Stories’, in The New York Times, October 17, 1971.

[14] Figures synthesised from Curt Smith, Windows on the White House: The Story of the Presidential Libraries (Diamond Communications Inc.: South Bend, Indiana, 1997), 233 and statistics provided by the Office of Presidential Libraries, see Sharon Fawcett to the author, May 11, 2006. From its opening in 1971 through 2005, the Johnson Library had received 13,276,741 visitors. These were by far the highest visitor figures of all the Presidential Libraries and reflected a virtually consistent topping of yearly attendance.

[15] In 1990 Gallup recorded Johnson’s current approval rating at 40%. This low was reflected in academic and public surveys rating the presidents in which Johnson appeared consistently down. For Johnson’s poll ranking in academic and public polls, including Schlesinger Sr. (1948 & 1962), Murray-Blessing (1982), Schlesinger Jr. (1996) and C-Span (2000), see Bose, Meena, ‘Presidential Ratings: Lessons and Liabilities’, in White House Studies (Winter, 2003). See also, Gallup Poll News Service, ‘Greatest U.S. President? Public Names Reagan, Clinton, Lincoln’, February 18, 2005.

[16] Figures synthesised from Smith (1997), op. cit., 233 and Sharon Fawcett to the author, May 11, 2006.

[17] John H. Falk & Lynn D. Dierking, Learning From Museums: Visitor Experiences and the Making of Meaning (Alta Mira: Walnut Creek, Lanham& Oxford, 2000), 2.

[18] Gallup Poll, Question: qn36C, ‘About how many times in the past year, if any, did you do each of the following? How about…Visit a museum?’ December 6, 2001-December 9, 2001.

[19] Eileen Hooper-Greenhill, Museums and their Visitors (Routledge: London & New York, 1996), 1. This reflected Cannon Brookes’ opinion, first articulated in 1984, that ‘[t]he fundamental role of the museum, of assembling objects and maintaining them within a specific intellectual environment, emphasizes that museums are storehouses of knowledge as well as storehouses of objects’: Peter Cannon-Brookes, ‘The nature of museum collections’ in Thompson, John M A, Manual of Curatorship: A Guide to Museum Practice (Butterworth Heinemann: London, 1992), 501.

[20] Hufbauer (2001), op. cit., 181.

[21] Harman Kahn, ‘The Presidential Library – A New Institution’, in Special Libraries (Vol.50, March 1959).

[22] ‘On the Record: Clinton Library as Complex as His Presidential Legacy’, in The Washington Times, July 19, 2002.

[23] ‘The Spirit of Presidents Past’, in The New York Times, January 7, 1980.

[24] Further complication is also provided by the fact that the Gerald Ford Presidential Library and Museum, while a single entity online, is actual two separate institutions: the Library is at Ann Arbor, Michigan and the Museum is at Grand Rapids, Michigan.

[25] Worth, ‘Presidential Libraries: Mines or Shrines?’

[26] Span, ‘Monumental Ambition’.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (Vintage Books: New York, 1993), 446.

[29] This is even in spite of the fact that the 1978 Presidential Records Act legalised the public ownership of Presidential records.

[30] Washington’s papers were later sold, in 1834, to the State Department for $55,000.  In 1848, $20,000 was paid for part of the Jefferson Papers; $65,000 for Madison’s Papers; $20,000 for Monroe’s Papers; $18,000 for Andrew Jackson’s Papers.

[31] Smith, op. cit., 1-2; See also, Geselbracht, Raymond H., ‘The Four Eras in the History of Presidential Papers’, in Presidential Papers (Spring, 1983), 37.

[32] Smith, op. cit., 1-2.

[33] Cited in Kammen, op. cit., 613.

[34] Ibid.

[35] John Y. Cole, Jefferson’s Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of Congress,, viewed February 28, 2006.

[36] The building had been opened as a library for the new centre of American government in 1800 and then as an archive in 1897.

[37] Other papers included those of Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton.


[39] William Howard Taft, 4th Annual Message, December 3, 1912 in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States ( United States Government Printing Office: Washington DC). ‘FIRE-THREATENED ARCHIVES’, in The New York Times, January 21, 1912. This appeal by the newspaper was being repeated in 1919, ‘Cellars and Attics for Archives: These and Rented Non-Fireproof Buildings House Many of the Most Valuable Records in Washington’, in The New York Times, May 4, 1919. The originals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were transferred to the Library of Congress in 1921.

[40] ‘To Protect Government Records’, in The New York Times, January 21, 1923.

[41]Raymond Geselbracht & Timothy Walch, ‘The Presidential Libraries Act After 50 Years’, Prologue (Summer, 2005), 49.

[42] Neil Sheehan, ‘Historians Worried by Cutbacks In Access to Presidential Papers’, in The New York Times, June 13, 1970.

[43] In addition, at the end of 1922 Princeton University decided ‘to petition Congress for an appropriation for the construction of a national archives building in Washington’: The New York Times, December 7, 1922.

[44] Roosevelt to Herbert Putnam, December 5, 1916, Theodore Roosevelt Papers, Library of Congress,, viewed on  March 1, 2006.

[45] Herbert Putnam to Roosevelt, October, 1901, Theodore Roosevelt Papers, Library of Congress,, viewed March 1, 2006.

[46] Geselbracht (1983), op. cit., 38.

[47] Ibid., 37-38. Currently the Library of Congress holds the records of 23 presidents, see Appendix A. For further discussion of the development of Presidential Papers, see Lloyd, David Demarest, ‘Presidential Papers and How They Grew’, in The Reporter (February 1, 1954), 31-34.

[48] Geselbracht (1983), op. cit., 38.

[49] The National Archives Building had been completed in 1933.

[50] Colonel Webb Cook Hayes was the second son of former President Rutherford B. Hayes.

[51] Roger D. Bridges, ‘Our Purpose and Direction’, in The Hayes Historical Journal: A Journal of the Gilded Age (Vol.10, No.2, Winter 1991), 6-7.

[52] Ibid.; Thomas A. Smith, ‘Creation of the Nation’s First Presidential Library and Museum: A Study in Cooperation’ & Culbertson, Thomas J., ‘The Hayes Presidential Center Library and Archives’, in The Hayes Historical Journal: A Journal of the Gilded Age (Vol.10, No.2, Winter 1991), 12-29 & 40-44.

[53] Smith, op. cit., 2.

[54] See Appendix B.

[55] For a discussion of the development of the National Archives, see McCoy, Donald R., The National Archives: America ’s Ministry of Documents 1934-1958 (University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1978).

[56] Norton Smith cited in Worth, ‘Presidential Libraries: Mines or Shrines?’

[57] NARA, Presidential Libraries Manual (NARA: Washington DC, 1985).

[58] NARA, Ready Access to Essential Evidence: The Strategic Plan of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA: Washington DC, 1999; revised 2000 & 2003).

[59] Cochrane, Lyn Scott, The Presidential Library System: A quiescent policy subsystem (Ph.D., Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 1999).


The Presidential Library: From Early Development towards a Definition (Part 2)

Officially, the presidential library system originated in 1941 when Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) opened his Presidential Library and Museum at his family home at Hyde Park in New York State. FDR crystallised public identification with the presidency and the nation, signifying for many historians and political commentators the origin of the modern presidency.[60] It was his intention to build a library and museum to ‘house the vast quantity of historical papers, books, and memorabilia he had accumulated during a lifetime of public service and private collecting’.[61] Practically, there was a need to find a repository for the Presidential papers. Roosevelt had generated far more than any other President, exacerbated by his expansion of the Executive Office and, in combination with his own avid collecting, he had acquired more material than he had personal room to house.[62] This predicament had been worsened by the enormous number of gifts given to the President; significantly greater than any previously. Such was the size of his personal collection that he exclaimed: ‘“Future historians will curse as well as praise me”’.[63] He believed in the importance of preserving the past[64] and expected the library to be a place to which ‘visitors could come and where he could work “preparing the collections during hours when the public was not admitted”’.[65] As such, he wanted to maintain a hands-on approach to the library’s running and, more specifically, access to the presidential papers. This was also indicated by, as Benjamin Hufbauer has observed, the attempt to make his long-time friend and adviser Harry Hopkins the library’s first director. While this was cut off at the pass by the Archivist of the United States , Robert D.W. Connor, FDR continued to try and control the library’s functions.[66] While publicly Connor declared that ‘“Franklin D. Roosevelt is the nation’s answer to the historian’s prayer,”’[67] this undercut the populist element implicit within the creation of the museum, as well as the patriarchal legitimising of the American public’s ownership of the presidential papers and thus, to some extent, ownership of the Presidency through its symbolism of American tradition and values. Additionally, Connor privately recorded his concern that ‘“[t]he President still thinks of the Library as his property”’.[68] In a memorandum to the Director of the Library, FDR was firm that ‘“[b]efore any of my personal or confidential files are transferred to the Library… I wish to go through them and select those which are never to be made public”’. Provision was also made for censorship after his death, such that a committee consisting of Sam Rosenman, Harry Hopkins and Grace Tully ‘“or the survivors thereof”’ should perform the same function.[69] Despite having gifted his papers to the nation FDR continued to effect access to them. While this did not cause immediate problems, by 1947 the memorandum had appeared in the press and the Library trustees had withheld documents from an investigating committee.[70] The situation had raised a serious issue with regard to presidential papers that a nation believed had been gifted. The problem appeared to have been laid to rest on July 21, 1947 when a court ruling ‘decided that the late President Roosevelt made a valid and effective gift to the United States Government of all his papers and files, including those in his possession at the time of his death’. Responsibility for controlling access was passed to the United States Archivist.[71] Nevertheless, this was a debate that would continue[72] and Roosevelt’s papers would not be considered open until 1950,[73] even courting controversy over access again in 1969.[74]

By May 1949, within 8 years of opening, Hyde Park had received over one million visitors.[75] Roosevelt’s perceived gift and the creation of the museum reflected a changing America . However, despite the development of cultural responsibility, the iconic nature of the president and the impact of the War, at this point, as one of Truman’s biographers noted, ‘the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library…might have served as a unique depository for the papers of a unique president had Truman not been determined to push ahead with his’.[76] Even as he was packing up to leave the White House, Truman was ‘making plans for his presidential library’.[77] However, he was also adamant that he did not want to start fundraising and putting the mechanics in place to raise the Library until he had officially left office.[78] In fact, the two things he wanted most after leaving office were ‘to become a grandfather and to see his library established’.[79] The latter became the ‘focus of his life’. Part of this drive was gained from the ‘disappointment’ derived from writing his memoirs but beyond this he had a vision for an educational establishment that would benefit the nation.[80] He hoped that the library would become a regional centre for the study of the presidency, a subject on which he said of himself that he was ‘a nut’.[81] Truman acknowledged that ‘“I got the idea from Franklin Roosevelt, but he died before he could come and do it like this.”’[82] The Truman Library was not going to be the national shrine that FDR had created.[83] Truman ‘refused to allow paintings of himself or postcards with his likeness in the public part of the library’[84] and was emphatic that he did not want to be portrayed in Hart Benton’s mural in the Library’s lobby,[85] because he did not want the Library to become ‘the Truman Memorial Library’.[86] He also accepted that he could be proud of the Library ‘even though he knew he was its principal exhibit’.[87] A ‘Harry S. Truman Memorial Building’ had been envisioned by local community and municipal leaders, as early as 1948/1949, but Truman persisted with his own vision for a more balanced library and museum, one that would give visitors ‘a better understanding of the history and the nature of the presidency and the government of the United States’. He had no intention of creating an ostentatious repository. Truman made sketches for the Library architects, proposing that it look like his Grandfather Solomon Young’s house, ‘the big house of his own childhood memories’[88] and vehemently rejected such ideas as enshrining his future gravesite within a ‘little chapel’.[89]

By July 1950, a non-profit corporation had been established to raise the necessary $1,750,000 for the library project.[90] The popularity of the Presidency was revealed by the individual donations exceeding 17,000 in number and the diversity of the contributors in terms of background, geographical location and political allegiance.[91] Furthermore, the number of visitors to the Truman Library in its first eight years exceeded the one million that had visited the Roosevelt Library during the same number of years from its inception; each paying fifty cents.[92] Given that, by the end of July, Truman’s presidential approval rating had dropped as low as 39%, here was another indication that whatever the public attitude towards an incumbent’s perceived political successes or failures there was now a core that believed in the office of the presidency and were prepared to pay to commemorate it; favourability was more important in this process than approval.[93]

In planning the preservation of his papers while President, Truman had supported the 1949 Federal Property and Administrative Series Act which provided authority to the National Archives ‘to accept and care for papers of present and future Presidents’.[94] In 1950 he also backed the Federal Records Act, further professionalising records’ management. In this way, all the critical elements of what we have come to expect from Presidential Libraries were coming together; the archives, the historical representation and education, popular support and an associated supporting non-profit foundation. They were formally fused by the passage of the Presidential Libraries Act of 1955, championed by former president Truman.[95] The Joint Resolution authorised the Government to extend the Federal and Administrative Services Act to accept, ‘in the name of the
United States ’, the land and/or buildings to house these collections from the donor. However, this was subject to the securing ‘so far as possible, the right [of Government] to have continuous and permanent possession of such materials’.[96] The 1955 legislation enshrined the purpose and endurance of the Libraries. As Truman had stipulated in his will, reaffirming the 1955 Act, he was bequeathing ‘to the United States of America all of my right, title and interest in, and possession of’ his papers.[97] Construction of the Library began in 1955 and the building was finally dedicated on July 6, 1957, when the presidential materials were ceremonially transferred to the Government, with a pomp and circumstance that reflected the VIP guests belief in Truman’s vision.

Unlike FDR or, later, Eisenhower ‘Truman’s image of the Presidency and of himself as President kept job and man distinct’ such that ‘never in his tenure does he seem to have conceived that he fulfilled the Presidency by being Harry Truman’. He lacked the subtleties of other Presidents but there was an honesty that was often ignored.[98] As such, he saw the need for a Presidential Library system and set up the legal parameters within which others could follow, not so much for his own glory but for that of the office. Additionally, Truman intended the Library to bring a federal resource closer to the people of the Mid-West.[99] Yet, none of Truman’s actions guaranteed immediate access to his papers. While the same storm that had surrounded Roosevelt’s desire to censor access to his papers did not break, Truman continued to retain control over certain papers, notably those associated with foreign policy.[100] It was not until after his death in 1972 and that of his wife, ten years later, that historians began to break into the history of the Truman administration with notable releases by Robert Ferrell, Alonzo Hamby and David McCullough. Truman alleged that he did ‘not want any competition with his memoirs’ but there is little doubt that he was also concerned how historians would perceive him. He even went as far as to refuse access to the ‘chief State Department historian’.[101] He should not have worried. Truman is now perceived as a ‘near-great’ by both academics and public alike. But this was not Truman’s overriding concern for his Library. For the President, it was about the office. The Truman Library, like the president’s legacy, has matured and provides a largely objective interpretation that reflects the current historiographical position but also Truman’s focus upon education and the presidency as an institution. In developing, in his words, a ‘cultural center’[102], he had suggested the importance and interconnection of the public, the presidency and the nation’s history.

The timing of the inception of the Presidential Library system predated the clearer development of a national commitment to the preservation and, even, construction of an American memory outlined by, among others, Michael Kammen. Public identification with the president and its evolutionary interest in the preservation of the nation’s history combined, such that national and Federal interests met by defining the nation through the filter of the Presidency, culminating with the opening of the Truman Library in 1957. From this point there was an increased commitment to national history reflected in a series of legislative moves. At the same time that the Truman Library was being opened, Congress was debating the passage of an act ‘to organize and microfilm the papers of the Presidents of the United States in the collections of the Library of Congress… as a means of safeguarding them and in order to make them more widely available to researchers and students of American and world history’.[103] The legislation was finally passed on August 16, 1957 and with it an authorisation for $720,000 to facilitate its implementation.[104] The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, which established the National Register of Historical Places, and the National Museums Act, also of 1966, were also primary in this process.[105] Nevertheless, even though the National Museums Act acknowledged Congress’ acceptance that ‘“national recognition is necessary to insure that museum resources for preserving and interpreting the Nation’s heritage may be more fully utilized in the enrichment of public life in the individual community”’, Congressional action was still ad hoc and ‘fiscal conservatives…believed that such work was an “obligation of the local communities and states”’.[106] Further legislation in the 1970s appeared to reinforce Congressional commitment. The 1974 Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act, while applying only to President Nixon’s materials, showed a concern for the possible loss of historical materials, the basis of the memory and historical construct. In the Act, the Federal Government defined which of the President’s materials were to be publicly owned and cared for on behalf of the nation by the National Archives and Records Service (NARS, the forerunner of NARA).[107] This attitude towards ownership went a stage further, again born out of the fears that another President might choose to destroy or refuse access to certain materials. Historians had already become ‘worried that legal and bureaucratic complications surrounding the preservation of Presidential papers [might] be crippling their efforts to analyze the world’s most powerful office’.[108] The Presidential Materials Act of 1978 thus extended the 1974 legislation to pertain to any future President, officially affecting those from Reagan onwards. Further legislation does not seem to have helped. The amount of work required to process presidential papers in the wake of the 1978 Act, the Freedom of Information Act (1966-2000) and the amendments to the Presidential Materials Act (1989, 1995, 2001 & 2003) have brought greater work to an overstretched and depleted number of archivists.[109] In particular, presidential records were now to be released within twelve years or even faster, if processed through a Freedom of Information request. Paradoxically, it is becoming increasingly difficult to make papers accessible to researchers, despite the apparent ability of researchers to request early release of materials. Further restrictions on release and access have been imposed by President George W. Bush’s Executive Order 13233 of 2001. Whilst being called, somewhat disingenuously, ‘Further Implementation of the Presidential Records Act’, in historian Robert Watson’s words the order ‘permits the sitting president to deny the release of papers of a former president, even if that previous president authorizes the release of his papers’, thus reversing the previous legislation which permitted ‘only the former president in question to weigh in on the accessibility of his presidential materials’. Additionally, the amendment ‘allows for the release of certain types of presidential papers and documents only if both the former and sitting presidents approve their release,’ making it ‘difficult for the public or scholars to obtain materials and locks away from public introspection potentially important documents, deemed sensitive by the incumbent president’.[110] This attitude was reinforced by Robert Putnam and Robert Spitzer in their ‘American Political Science Association Response to Executive Order 13233’.[111]

The Presidential Libraries continued to appear to some as, at best, anomalous and, at worst, antithetical. This was bound up in the ‘essential contest’, in the United States , shaping ‘the commemoration and interpretation of the past’.[112] The contest was being ‘waged between the advocates of centralized power and those who were unwilling to completely relinquish the autonomy of their small worlds’.[113] Hence the same reservations held by the preservationists such as William Sumner Appleton and the New Englanders at the beginning of the Twentieth Century[114] were still prevalent and competing against the attitudes of those such as Theodore Roosevelt. Therefore, in terms of perception, Presidential Libraries appear to fall between two stalls. For those advocating centralised control, the Libraries are seen as independent institutions that, because of this limited oversight, develop self-serving donor memorials with overly biased legacies. To those advocating decentralised control, they appear to be part of a Library system, centrally overseen by the Federal Government, through NARA and the Office of Presidential Libraries. Other, unofficial Presidential Libraries have avoided some of this controversy by maintaining their autonomy but this is increasingly financially difficult in a country that has been inundated with new museums.[115] However, the timing of its inception has also meant that the Presidential Library has become inextricably linked with the legacy of the nation, which is synonymous with the legacy of the President. In this way, it constructs and reaffirms an identification with the nation and the President through preserving and conserving the Presidential materials and making them as accessible as possible, within a cultural-historical context, to the widest audience through a variety of means dominated by specialist, educational and touristic programs. The Library is unavoidably political but its parameters are being defined by sociological, museological and historical writing. When considered within the Library system, the plethora of other multi-functional museums in the
United States and, through the globalisation of media and audiences and the rest of the world, the Presidential Library continues to pragmatically reassert itself as a national archive and museum with a significant role to play for its various audiences in the Twenty-first century.

Appendix A

Presidential Papers: Location of the dominant collections

NB: The presidential papers held by the Library of Congress have been microfilmed and are available through many Libraries and Universities throughout the
UK . Additionally, many of the presidential papers are currently under publication bringing those collections listed below and other previously dissipated collections together. As such, it is worth checking the details provided by the Scripps Library of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at


George Washington Library of Congress
John Adams Massachusetts Historical Society
Thomas Jefferson Library of Congress
James Madison Library of Congress
James Monroe Library of Congress
John Quincy Adams Massachusetts Historical Society
Andrew Jackson Library of Congress
Martin Van Buren Library of Congress
William H. Harrison Library of Congress
John Tyler Library of Congress
James K. Polk Library of Congress
Zachary Taylor Library of Congress
Millard Fillmore Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society
Franklin Pierce Library of Congress
James Buchanan Historical Society of Pennsylvania
Abraham Lincoln Library of Congress
Andrew Johnson Library of Congress
Ulysses S. Grant Library of Congress
Rutherford B. Hayes Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center
James A. Garfield Library of Congress
Chester A. Arthur Library of Congress
Grover Cleveland Library of Congress
Benjamin Harrison Library of Congress
William McKinley Library of Congress
Theodore Roosevelt Library of Congress
William H. Taft Library of Congress
Woodrow Wilson Library of Congress
Warren Harding Ohio Historical Society
Calvin Coolidge Library of Congress
Herbert Hoover Herbert Hoover Presidential Library
Franklin D. Roosevelt Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library
Harry S Truman Harry S Truman Presidential Library
Dwight D. Eisenhower Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library
John F. Kennedy John F. Kennedy Presidential Library
Lyndon B. Johnson Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library
Richard M. Nixon Nixon Materials Project, College Park, Washington D.C.[116]
Gerald R. Ford Gerald Ford Presidential Library
James E. Carter James Carter Presidential Library
Ronald Reagan Ronald Reagan Presidential Library
George H. W. Bush George Bush Presidential Library
William J. Clinton William J. Clinton Presidential Library

Appendix B

Official Presidential Libraries and Dates of Original Dedication


Franklin D. Roosevelt June 30, 1941
Harry S Truman July 6, 1957
Dwight D. Eisenhower May 1, 1962
Herbert Hoover August 10, 1962
Lyndon B. Johnson May 22, 1971
John F. Kennedy October 20, 1979
Gerald R. Ford April 27, 1981
Jimmy Carter October 1, 1986
Ronald Reagan November 4, 1991
George H.W. Bush November 6, 1997
William J. Clinton November 18, 2004

[60] See for example: Pfiffner, James , The Modern Presidency (St. Martin’s Press: Boston,, 2000), Davis, James W., The American presidency: a new perspective (Harper & Row: New York, 1987), Greenstein, Fred I., The presidential difference: leadership style from FDR to Clinton (Martin Kessler/Free Press: New York & London, 2000), Polsby, Nelson W., (ed.) The Modern Presidency (Random House: New York, 1973), Kernell, Samuel, Going public: new strategies of presidential leadership (CQ Press: Washington DC, 1986) or Neustadt, Richard E., Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents: The Politics of Leadership from Roosevelt to Reagan (The Free Press: New York, 1990).

[61] The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, ‘The Franklin D. Roosevelt Library’,, viewed March 5, 2006.

[62] Kahn (1959), op. cit.

[63] Ward, Geoffrey, ‘Future historians will curse as well as praise me’, in Smithsonian (December 1989), 62.

[64] See for example, ‘Remarks at the Dedication of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park, New York, June 30th, 1941’, in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States (United States Government Printing Office: Washington, DC).

[65] McCoy (1975), op. cit., 138.

[66] Hufbauer (2001), op. cit., 183.

[67] Connor cited in The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, ‘The Franklin D. Roosevelt Library’,, viewed February 23, 2006.

[68] Connor Journal, June 30, 1941, cited in Hufbauer (2001), op. cit., 183.

[69] ‘FDR to Director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, July 16, 1943’, Truman Papers, Truman Library, White House Central File, Official File, 158-d, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library – Museum.

[70] ‘Roosevelt’s “Personal” File Shut by His Memo in 1943’, in The New York Times, May 22, 1943. See also, ‘Truman Will Get Roosevelt Papers’, in The New York Times, May 3, 1943‘Roosevelt Estate Bars Hunt in Files’, in The New York Times, May 9, 1943 & ‘Senators Get Part of Roosevelt File’, in The New York Times, May 26, 1943.

[71] ‘Roosevelt Files Are U.S. Property, Not Part of His Estate, Judge Rules’, in The NewYork Times, July 22, 1947.

[72] See for instance, Nevins, Allan, ‘The President’s Papers – Private or Public?’, in The New York Times, October 19, 1947 & ‘Letters: Presidential Papers’, in The New York Times, September 7, 1969

[73] Parke, Richard H., ‘Roosevelt Papers Opened To The World at Hyde Park’, in The New York Times, March 18, 1950.

[74] Bates Leonard, et al. ‘Presidential Papers’, in The New York Times, September 7, 1969, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., ‘F.D.R. and Foreign Affairs (continued)’, in The New York Times, October 19, 1969, Carl N. Degler, ‘F.D.R. and Foreign Affairs (continued)’, in The New York Times, November 9, 1969 & Henry Raymont, ‘Secrecy of Documents Irks Historians’, in The New York Times, December 28, 1969.

[75] John E. Booth ‘ Hyde Park Shrine: Millionth Visitor Tallied At the Roosevelt Home’, in The New York Times, June 5, 1949.

[76] Alonzo Hamby, Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman (Oxford University Press: Oxford & New York, 1995), 629.

[77] David McCullough, Truman (Simon & Schuster: New York & London, 1993), 916.

[78] Oral History Interview with Tom L. Evans, Kansas City, Missouri, December 10, 1963, interviewed by J.R. Fuchs, Truman Library, Truman Papers, 608 & 622.

[79] Ibid., 961.

[80] Ibid., 962.

[81] Ferrell, Robert, Harry S. Truman: A Life (University of Missouri Press: Columbia, Missouri, 1994), 389.

[82] Oral History Interview with Milton Perry…10.

[83] Harry Vaughan to Tom Evans, January 18, 1949, Truman Papers, Truman Library, Papers of Tom Evans, Alphabetical File, Washington Correspondence – 1949.

[84] Ferrell, op. cit., 389.

[85] McCullough, op. cit., 968.

[86] Ferrell, op. cit., 389. See also Herscher, Betty, ‘ Missouri’s Presidential Library: The Harry S. Truman Library’, in The Missouri Library Association (Vol.21, No.3, September 1960). 82-83.

[87] Ferrell, op. cit., 388.

[88] McCullough, op. cit., 931.

[89] Oral History Interview with Tom L. Evans, Kansas City, Missouri, December 10, 1963, interviewed by J.R. Fuchs, Truman Library, Truman Papers, 656-657.

[90] ‘Press Information: Dedication Ceremony of the Harry S. Truman Library Independence, Missouri’, July 6, 1957, Truman Papers, Truman Library, Vertical File.

[91] McCullough, op. cit., 962.

[92] Visitor statistics provided by Ray Geselbracht in correspondence with the author, April 14, 2006.

[93] Presidential Job Performance, Roper Center for Public Opinion,;start=HS_fullresults?pr=Truman, viewed February 26, 2006.

[94] Federal Property and Administrative Series Act 1949, http://, viewed March 6, 2006.

[95] Public Law 81-754, ‘An act to amend the Federal and Property and Administrative Services Act of 1949, and for other purposes’: Truman Papers, Truman Library, Post-Presidential Files, Library-Museum File, Pre-dedication, Box 889, Personnel – applications.

[96] H.J.RES. 330, July 6, 1955: Truman Papers, Truman Library, Harry S Truman Inc. Files, Box 19, Presidential Libraries General.

[97] H. S. Truman ‘Last Will and Testament’, January 7, 1959, Truman Papers, Truman Library, Vertical File.

[98] Neustadt, Richard E., Presidential Power and the Modern President: The Politics of Leadership From Roosevelt to Reagan (Free Press: New York, 1990), 147-148.

[99] New York Post, January 9, 1953.

[100] See for example, Sheehan, ‘Historians Worried by Cutbacks…’

[101] Ibid.

[102] HST to Mr W P Marchman, Secretary, Rutherford B. Hayes and Lucy B. Hayes Foundation, November 7, 1952, Truman Papers, Truman Library, President’s Secretary’s Files, Truman Library Foundation File: Correspondence – General.

[103] Report No.615, July 17, 1957: Truman Papers, Truman Library, Post-Presidential Files, Library-Museum File, Post-Dedication, Box 893, Papers.

[104] Public Law 85-147, August 16, 1957 cited in ‘The Presidential Papers Program of the Library of Congress’, October 1, 1960, Truman Papers, Truman Library, Harry S Truman Inc. Files, Box 20, Papers of Presidents (folder 2).

[105] For further discussion see, Kammen, op. cit., 570.

[106] Ibid., 613-614.

[107] This is still an area of debate, see Ibid., 613.

[108] Sheehan, ‘Historians Worried by Cutbacks…’

[109] Executive Order 12667, January 16, 1989; Executive Order 12958, April 17, 1995; Executive Order 13233, November, 1, 2001; Executive Order 13292, March 25, 2003.

[110] Watson, Robert, ‘A Challenge to the Presidential Records Act?’, in White House Studies (Vol.2, No.2, 2002).

[111] Robert D. Putnam & Robert J. Spitzer, ‘American Political Science Association Response to Executive Order 13233’, in Presidential Studies Quarterly (Vol.32, No.1, 2002). See also, Kumar, Martha Joynt, ‘Executive Order 13233 Further Implementation of the Presidential Records Act’, in Presidential Studies Quarterly (Vol.32, No.1, 2002).

[112] John Bodnar, Remaking America : Public Memory, Commemoration and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century (Princeton University Press: Princeton, New Jersey, 1994), 245.

[113] Ibid.

[114] See Kammen, op. cit., 264.

[115] Alexander estimated that, at his time of writing, 3.3 new museums were being created daily: Alexander, op. cit., 5. This pace may have declined but the United States is currently home to an estimated 17,500 museums, American Association of Museums (AAM), ‘ABCs of Museums’, viewed March 5, 2006, receiving more than 865 million visitors a year, AAM, ‘Working in the Public interest’,, viewed March 1, 2006.

[116] Congress passed legislation in January 2004 to amend the 1974 Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act and provided for the establishment of a federally-operated Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda at the current site of the private Nixon Library and Birthplace. NARA have recently agreed that if and when the Nixon Foundation raises the money to complete a satisfactory archives building at the Library, the former president’s papers will be transferred from Washington. The provisional timeframe suggests that NARA will accept the Nixon Library as another official Presidential Library in the Summer of 2006, after which time it will take at least eighteen months to transfer all materials from the College Park archive.


Benjamin Franklin and Public History: Restoring Benjamin Franklin House

Dr. Márcia Balisciano, Founding Director, Benjamin Franklin House

What is the best way to engage the public in the history of a person, location, time? This is a question that was put to the test at Benjamin Franklin House. This paper reviews the process by which a 1730s building, derelict for over 25 years, and never open to the public, became a new kind of museum.

By some quirk of fate, the only surviving home of Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s most iconic figures, is not in Boston where he was born; not in Philadelphia, his adopted city, where he created civic institutions that have shaped American life and where he made lasting contributions to science; and not in Paris where he served as the first official representative of a fledging American government, garnering support which helped decide the course of the American Revolution. It is, in fact, in the heart of London, just steps from Trafalgar Square. Benjamin Franklin called a narrow, brick terrace building at 36 Craven Street home for nearly sixteen years between 1757 and 1775.

By 1980 the Georgian building was empty and derelict. In recognition of the importance of the building and its plight, a trust was formed. It was not, however, until the late 1990s that substantial fundraising allowed serious consideration of the building’s future. The starting point for this exploration was Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin’s passionate curiosity, his commitment to furthering public knowledge, and embrace of technology – to the degree he longed to know what would be made, centuries on, of inventions he had pioneered – marked his long life and spurred our quest to make his only surviving residence a tribute to this legacy.

Benjamin Franklin and 36 Craven Street

Leaving behind wife Deborah, who feared an ocean crossing, and fourteen year-old daughter Sally, Franklin departed Philadelphia on 4 April 1757. It was not, however, his first visit to the motherland. In 1724, as a young man of eighteen, Franklin travelled to London to expand his printing skills and remained for nearly two years. In his amazing lifetime (1706-1790), Franklin ventured across the Atlantic eight times.

Accompanied by his son William and two black servants, Peter and King, Franklin’s second sojourn in London began on 26 July 1757. As Agent of the Province of Pennsylvania at the Court of His Most Serene Majesty, Franklin’s mission was to convince the Penn family, Pennsylvania’s proprietary owners, to pay tax in order to alleviate the expense of the French and Indian War, or persuade George III to bring the colony under Royal dominion, with concomitant financial support. He also served as Postmaster-General of North America.

Perhaps Franklin chose the house for its nearness to the seats of British power; it was additionally close to the Penns’ palatial home at Spring Gardens. And it had an upright mistress, widow Margaret Stevenson, her charming daughter Polly (Mary), and maid Janey who hailed from Pennsylvania to recommend it. Franklin found a surrogate family that did not look all that different from the one he had left behind. Biographer Carl Van Doren said he was less a lodger than the head of a household living in serene comfort and affection.

In London, Franklin continued his innovative work in science. On the banks of the Thames at the bottom of his street he demonstrated his kite and key experiment proving lightning to be an electrical phenomenon (and St. Paul’s Cathedral was the first building in Britain to have a Franklin lightning rod) – a hallmark of the Age of Enlightenment he helped shape. At Craven Street, Franklin worked with chemist Joseph Priestley on oxygen experiments, tested the smoothing properties of oil on water, and the effect of canal depths on ships. During conservation we discovered the remnants of a Franklin stove he installed in his laboratory at Craven Street.

Franklin returned to Philadelphia in 1762, but his presence in London was soon deemed essential in order to further colonial views before a distracted King and an increasingly antagonistic Parliament. He successfully fought against the punitive Stamp Act, but despite his continued negotiations and pleas, a final break proved inevitable. Franklin’s last days in London were marked by political strife, precipitated by the so-called Hutchinson Affair. Franklin leaked letters to Boston which showed the intention of American-born Massachusetts Governor, Thomas Hutchinson, to call in British troops should denizens prove unruly. The fiasco led to a duel in Hyde Park between two disgruntled players in the drama – and Franklin’s call-down in 1774 before the House of Commons.

When Franklin learned of the death of his wife Deborah, he knew he finally had to leave, which he did clandestinely in March 1775, with his grandson William Temple Franklin. He spent his final day at Craven Street with friend and chemist Joseph Priestley scanning the American newspapers for any snippet to relive the gloom. Within months, Franklin, having signed the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, was sailing back to Europe, this time, on his way to France to broker the alliance that eventually saved the young United States from ignominious defeat.

Franklin’s contribution in London was significant in many ways. Politically, he survived many years of near impossible controversy, demonstrating tireless skills of patience, perseverance, and compromise. By his pen, his chief weapon, he explained his current and future vision for the Colonies, and their ongoing relationship with the mother country.

Bringing the Project to Fruition

Craven Street’s townhouses are built on in-filled soil, which does not provide a fully stable foundation. Benjamin Franklin House also suffered from a change to the original mansard roof in 1780 and the addition of the back ‘closet’ story, over the ensuing 270 years the additional weight, shifting subsoil conditions, and damage to the fabric of the building caused delamination of the front brick facade, critical sagging of the spine wall, and overall structural decay. When the Craven family fell on lean times at the turn of the 20th century, they decided to sell the freehold to what became British Rail. They recognised the historic and architectural value of Benjamin Franklin House but did not invest funding to prevent the building from becoming derelict.

Our first step in 1998 was to ensure exterior stabilisation of the building to avoid the collapse of the structural. With planning approval from the relevant statutory bodies and primary funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), English Heritage, the Getty Foundation, and the William Hewlett Trust, among others – support beams were reinforced, brickwork was tuck-pointed, repairs were made to the roof, and ties were instated to steady floors at a cost of nearly £1 million.

Throughout the project we adhered to the following conservation principles:

1) Minimise the extent of repair work

2) Retain original material wherever possible

3) Use traditional methods and materials wherever possible

4) Provide long-term rather than ad hoc repairs which need early renewal

While this work completed by 2000 secured the structure of the building, the interior was still derelict. Between 2000 and the start of 2004, all design work was completed for the Historical Experience, Student Science Centre, and Scholarship Centre and two floors of interior conservation. Of the approximately £3.3 million total project cost, by the close of 2003 there was still £1.5 million to raise; and with a goal to open on the tercentenary of Franklin’s birth in January 2006, timescales were tight. We were extremely fortunate to receive an £1 million grant from the HLF; this served as a catalyst to raising the required balance.[117]

With funding in hand, we tendered for final conservation and all multimedia and electrical services. During the year, ceilings, panelling, fireplaces, and flooring were brought back to their original lustre by primary contractor Wallis under the watchful eye of a project management team that included a member of the Board who is a conservation specialist. Sysco installed the technology (including sound, lighting, switches, video, PC networking) needed for all uses of the House. Heating, cooling, cabling and multimedia requirements were sensitively integrated into the 18th century fabric of the building.

Where we go from Here

On a remarkable day, Benjamin Franklin’s 300th birthday, Benjamin Franklin House opened to the public for the first time. In a fitting tribute to the Anglo-American Franklin, the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, and the American Ambassador, Robert Tuttle, cut a ribbon across the threshold of 36 Craven Street on 17 January 2006 to welcome the public to Franklin’s last remaining home.

The House’s offerings make best use of the building’s limited space uncovering the rich yet not widely known story of Franklin’s London years. The Historical Experience employs live interpretation and leading edge sound, lighting and visual projection to tell Franklin’s rich London story in his own words.  The historic spaces serve as stage for this ‘museum as theatre’ which removes the traditional distance between visitor and the past and illuminates a unique moment in Anglo-American history: food, health, botany, and daily living in the basement kitchen; public and personal relationships, musical inventions and political tension on the ground floor; scientific work, political triumphs and woes, and a hurried return to America in the face of the looming War of Independence on the first floor. Emmy-award winning actor Peter Coyote is the voice of Benjamin Franklin and Academy Award-nominated actress Imelda Staunton is Margaret Stevenson, Franklin’s landlady.

The Student Science Centre features hands-on experimentation with scientific discoveries from Franklin’s London years, juxtaposing past and present knowledge, and inspiring young people – particular those from disadvantaged backgrounds to think and test in the mode of Franklin, translating curiosity and discovery into practical ways of improving life and society. The Student Science Centre allows students to re-create diverse and important experiments from Franklin’s sojourn in London and support elements of the National Curriculum. The emphasis in the Medical History Room is on the medical research work of William Hewson, who ran an operating theatre in Craven Street.[118] Children will carry out experiments with the House’s Education Officer encompassing Franklin’s work on canal depths, electricity and lightning rod design, and the Franklin developed instrument, the glass armonica. Dramatic, interest-catching audio-visual segments support the presentations, extending the lesson and enabling children to explore ‘what if’ questions such as ‘what happens if lightning strikes a building with no lightning conductor?’


The Scholarship Centre is the intellec-tual hub at the top of the building. It features a full set of the Papers of Benjamin Franklin, prepared by Yale University purchased with support from the US Embassy London with access to the prototype online Papers catalogued by Yale and the Packard Institute for the Humanities. We aim to have a scholar in residence by the new academic year in October 2006 focusing on one of the myriad subjects of interest to Franklin, while annual Symposia will use Franklin as a point of departure for contemporary discussions of issues related to his key contributions in science, the arts, diplomacy and letters.

By reaching out to underserved communities we are further using the House and the character of Franklin to further history and education. Our work with inner city young people show they are familiar with American products or brands but many do not realise the US and the UK were once joined. They are unfamiliar with the circumstances that led to the War of Independence between Britain and America . The House and Franklin played an important role in these events will be a catalyst to help local youth understand more about this pivotal historical period.

The primary focus now is ensuring Benjamin Franklin House is widely experienced by the public. In their interest we have tried to engagingly capture the London life of one of history’s great figures in a manner that would have appealed to the man himself. For Franklin is a character whose pragmatism, inventiveness, and sense of civic responsibility has much to teach us still.

[117] We received contributions from numerous sources including £150,000 from a single US donor as well as a low, fixed interest loan from the Architectural Heritage Fund.

[118] For instance, a circulation game requires students to follow the route of blood through arteries and veins with butterflies that flutter in the stomach and red lights that flash in the brain of the glass body’s silhouette when all is connected correctly.


Exhibiting Franklin

Before curating a small exhibition for the tercentenary of Franklin’s birth at the British Library, Matthew Shaw wondered how it had been done before

The history of our revolution,’ John Adams wrote to Benjamin Rush in 1790, ‘will be one continued lye from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr Franklins electrical Rod smote the earth, and out sprung General Washington… thenceforward these two conduced all the policy, negotiation, legislation, and War’.[119] Adams may have been happy to know of the success of David McCullough’s John Adams (2001), a work that has sold in great numbers, but his fear of ‘one continued lye’ remains a potent one for the public history of the American nation.[120] While a focus on ‘Great Men’ has often obscured the broader historical picture, the elevation of the leaders of 1776 to the status of Founding Fathers has at least kept historical writing on the shelves of Borders and Barnes and Noble. As Colin Kidd noted in a recent review of another of McCullough’s works, ‘the founders in their periwigs, breeches and frockcoats,’ Kidd notes, ‘hold a secure place in the popular iconography of American freedom, alongside comic-book heroes in capes and tights.’[121] Such historical superheroes are developed largely outside of the pages of historical texts, but find their way at the heart of popular culture, forming the backbone of what might be termed the American national myth. The collection of stories that America tells about itself, about how it came to be, and what America means, in Carla Mulford’s words, ‘takes shape outside the parameters of controlled discourse and is highly and haphazardly impressionistic’.[122] Movies, half-remembered school lessons, postage stamps, novels, plays, songs… all these help to shape how a nation is imagined or remembered.[123] The following pages look at Franklin’s place in this story, a place not always as prominent as Adams feared, and concentrate on the role of the public exhibition, concluding with some remarks on my own experience of curating an exhibition in his tercentennial year.

National Myth

The Revolution and the founding fathers were commemorated in a variety of ways from the time of the birth of the nation. For example, Simon Newman has examined the importance of festivals and communal feasts, celebrating American (and, for that matter, French) victories, the declaration of independence and other key events. While celebrating the new nation, such democratic events also reflected and enunciated social divisions, of class, occupation and gender.[124] Thanksgiving sermons provided another forum for commemoration, celebration and education. Print culture offered another outlet for such expression, and men such as Mason Locke Weems, found that bringing news of ‘the ‘nation’ to a culture-starved rural population’ could be a profitable endeavour, publishing selections from Franklin’s writings, including the Way to Wealth, as well as Choice Anecdotes in the early nineteenth century. The Founding Fathers also impressed themselves on material culture, on shop-fronts, advertising hoardings, and so forth, as well as the dominance of Washington and Franklin on a variety of medals, stamps, tokens and bank notes.[125] Commemoration also fulfilled a social function, serving as a motif for fraternal meals, meetings and ceremonies of all kinds.[126] Streets, towns, buildings or parks also served as a geographical memorial (including the fourteenth state, which was supposed to be named after Franklin), often providing a figure to represent all Americans in the face of ethnic immigrant diversity.[127]

Michael Kammen has detailed the printed path that the image of the founding fathers followed. He suggests that Franklin (and Hamilton) rose in prominence, when compared to George Washington, in the Gilded Age. The New York Times singled Franklin out for particular praise in its centennial issue, and John Bach McMaster ‘declared him to be the greatest American of the Revolutionary Era’. As many have commented, Franklin’s promotion of thrift and hard work made him a role model to a bourgeois, capitalist society. McMaster’s publication of Franklin’s letters in 1887 raised his stock further, as did a series of popular works and essays in journals such as the Century Magazine (1898). Franklin’s example of rising from obscurity to greatness also figured strongly in the juvenile literature of the latter quarter of the nineteenth century.[128]

As the nineteenth-century ended, works such as Sydney George Fisher, The True Benjamin Franklin (1899) sought to strip away the myths and to offer a more human and accurate portraits as a reaction against the sanitised and popularised version of Franklin as the embodiment of the American Dream. The new science and profession of history also set to work on the founding fathers, beginning a series of studies on aspects of their lives or biographies of the whole, such as Carl Van Doren’s Pulitzer-prize winning biography of 1938. The image of Franklin has shifted from the envy of Adams, to the semi-obscurity of the early-nineteenth century, to celebration and censure as the supposed father of American business, reassessment according to the lights of professional historians, an avuncular figure of popular culture, all kites, keys and kisses for the ladies, to today’s more rounded picture.

The Loan Exhibition of Frankliniana, Grand Lodge, Philadelphia (1906)

In 1906 – or rather 5906 according to the Masonic Calendar – The Right Worshipful Grand Lodge at Philadelphia arranged for an ‘exhibition of […] relics’ of Franklin, the fourth Grand Master in Pennsylvania and ‘an enthusiastic freemason’.[129] It was the 250th anniversary of Franklin’s birth. The Lodge printed two thousand copies of a 351-page Memorial Volume, complete with several facsimiles and plates. The Lodge had close connections with the American Philosophical Society, which organised the ‘Franklin Bi-Centenary’, welcomed delegates from lodges across the world, held a dinner and conferred an honorary degree (in absentia) on ‘Brother Edward VII, King of Great Britain and Ireland and Emperor of India…’[130] Talks were given on ‘Franklin – the lesson his life teaches’, Franklin and the University of Pennsylvania and Franklin as a Freemason. The President of the Society, R.W. George W. Kendrick, also presided at a large memorial service at the tomb of Franklin.[131] A medal was struck, with federal government funds, and a Calendar of the Franklin papers at the American Philosophical Society and University of Pennsylvania was produced.[132] Lectures and sermons emphasised Franklin’s moral character.

Clearly, the exhibition and its associated activities were major events in Philadelphia. Organised by the Grand Lodge, the American Philosophical Society, and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the exhibition was visited by 43,287 people, and the catalogue included a vast number of paintings, objects, books and letters relating to Franklin.[133] Interestingly, out of the 487 exhibits, some 250 were engraved portraits. As such, the exhibition straddled the era of the cabinet of the curiosity and the museum, with an emphasis on the visual image of the man and an almost totemic significance placed on objects associated with him (which were often held in private hands). In its organisation and focus, the exhibition demonstrated the national influence held by the Masons, and also the range of groups, such as the American Philosophical Society and the University, which helped to constitute civil society. It tied Franklin to Philadelphia, and linked both the man and the city to the wider nation. Finally, the commemoration was not a single, scholarly or leisure event, but was part sermon, part public ritual, with a ceremony at Franklin’s tomb, much like the popular feasts and celebrations of the revolutionary era. The Philadelphia commemoration represented the last of the ‘living’ rituals connected to Franklin, in which the exhibit was part of a wider commemoration practice.

Metropolitan Museum of Art (1936) and the 250th Anniversary

The visual depiction of Franklin lay at the heart of the next major exhibition, ‘Benjamin Franklin and his Circle’, which took place at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, May to September 1936. [134] This show included 356 items; mostly portraits but also some furniture, busts and decorative objects. The Metropolitan exhibition aimed to show the many friend, acquaintances, correspondents and enemies of the ‘extraordinarily versatile genius’. It also served a political purpose, emphasising the ‘most prominent links between the three nations involved in the American Revolution’, namely Britain , France and the US : the White House lent a portrait, as did the Musée Carnavalet, Paris. The exhibition also attempted to show the cultured side of Franklin, and by association, America : the catalogue is prefaced with a solitary essay, ‘His Interest in the Arts’.[135] Reviews of the exhibition, such as that by Elizabeth Luther Cary in the New York Times, thought that such a collection of portraits could reveal ‘ Franklin’s elusive personality.’ It was the age of Freud, of ‘personality’ rather than just character, but also one that sought to demonstrate the civility and achievement of the American nation.

Restraint and respectability marked another anniversary twenty years’ later. The commemoration of Franklin’s birth in 1956 was largely a sober affair, marked by academic papers, musical performances, and many allusions to the Yale University Franklin Papers project.[136] The American Philosophical Society again helped to co-ordinate a range of meetings and exhibitions, including an exhibition of Franklin portraits at Philosophical Hall, which ‘emphasizes quality rather than quantity, because so far as possible the major portraits are from life.’ They were seen as ‘not only works of art but historical documents of primary significance’. [137] William Lingelbach, the Librarian of the American Philosophical Society, also provided a historical overview of Franklin commemorations, noting how he appeared to fall from favour in the early nineteenth century, and the birthdays were not as celebrated in the past. Lingelbach placed special importance on the discovery of Franklin’s papers by Henry Stevens, the publishing of Franklins works and biographies, and noted the importance of public commemorations such as street names and statues. The American Philosophical Society had also benefited from a number of purchases and donations, such as the Craven Street Gazette; scholarly production and the creation of special collections matched the massive growth in US libraries in the post-war world.

The World of Franklin and Jefferson (1976)

While the previous two exhibitions were relatively scholarly and objective, the bicentennial served as the opportunity for a more emotive exhibition. The Cold War, Watergate, Vietnam and the oil crisis served as a backdrop for an extensive exhibition designed by Charles and Ray Eames. In 1971, the United States Information Service’s Paris Office proposed a Jefferson exhibition as a counterpoint to the Soviet’s Lenin exhibition. The proposal then became a bicentennial exhibition and when the Eameses were offered the contract, Charles Eames suggested that Franklin should ‘share the billing’. The exhibition, which the most complex project undertaken by the firm, running to 40,000 words, travelled to Pairs, Warsaw, Mexico City and the British Museum in London, where 117,000 visited. A $550,000 grant from IBM to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York allowed the exhibition to travel in the US .[138] The exhibition, which included copies of the Atrium, Pavilion and Rotunda from Jefferson’s University of Virginia as a stuffed Bison from the Field Museum in Chicago, was accompanied by a book and three films, one narrated by Orson Welles. As one critic has noted, ‘projects such as these elevated the Eameses to the status of US ambassadors overseas and cultural interpreters of the meaning of America at home’.

The exhibition, which was based around three themes, ‘Architects of Independence’, ‘Contrast and Continuity’, ‘Three Document’ and ‘ Jefferson and the West’. It drew on the Eames interest in ‘information overload’, with cases full, as one visitor reported of a ‘too many things – a mish-mash.’ The show was soon dubbed the ‘Bison-tennial’. The critics, led by Hilton Kramer of the New York Times, were not impressed. In a review entitled, ‘What Is This Stuff Doing at the Met?’, offered ‘no inducements to thought’ and was a ‘public relations’ exercise, ‘a contemptible way to make use of works of art, and […] doubly offensive to see it done in one of our greatest art museums’.[139] Everything about the photographs in the show was ‘phony’, showing a world ‘at once cozy and glamorous… all emotions are either noble or picturesque’. The whole show was designed to ‘sell’ something, in the manner of corporate, IBM showroom, in an atmosphere of ‘immaculate neutrality and benign instruction’.

Real and recreation were conflated, propaganda posed as objectivity, all to attempt to ‘commemorate something more than national splendour’, in the words of an USIS memo, and the Eames hoped, to rediscover a collective Americanness based on common interest and reason, to reconstitute the nation in the biennial. But by simply ignoring contemporary crises and rejecting, in one commentator’s words, the counterculture’s ‘emphasis on the self’ the exhibition aroused Eames desire for the government to be seen as a rational ‘corporate enterprise’, with a forum to report to the people, ‘took on a different resonance.’[140] While Kramer’s critique represented something of a metropolitan elite’s view, and the visitor books also record many patriotic appreciations of the exhibition, the focus on Westward Expansion, which Eames saw as a positive, democratic force, was also unpalatable in the aftermath of Vietnam .[141] Official government or corporate influenced representations of the past were a difficult sell in the 1970s.

Experience: Benjamin Franklin 300 (2005)

In contrast, the current Benjamin Franklin exhibition has been greeted with widespread and deserved praise. For example, the New York Times suggested that ‘if Franklin were to mount a museum exhibition about himself, it might very well resemble—in its variety, intelligence and pleasures—“Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World”.[142] A major exhibition, which will tour several cities in the States before arriving in Paris in December 2007, ‘In Search of a Better World’ covers nearly all aspects of his life: ‘Character Matters’, ‘Printer’, ‘Civic Visions’, ‘Useful Knowledge’, ‘World Statesman’, ‘Seeing Franklin’; the final section offers the chance to reflect on Franklin’s reputation and his relevance today.

‘In Search of Better World’ also employed a well-qualified and talented team, who have worked to promote a range of events, under the umbrella of ‘Benjamin Franklin 300’. Reflecting greater understanding of range of Franklin’s exploits, plus a cautious didacticism, the current exhibitions are more measured and self-aware than those in the past, with educational material asking students to design their own exhibition, bringing to mind the choices that they must make.[143] The exhibition, which combines a wealth of original artefacts as well as displays, artwork and interactive, is aimed at a number of audiences, including the ‘general public’, whatever that may be, and children. The result, some reviewers have noted, are displays that sometimes strain too hard for attention, veering into the ‘gimmicky’.[144] However, in the PsP age, it seems to me that exhibitions have little choice but to compete on these terms if they are to reach a wide audience.[145] More interestingly, perhaps, the exhibition demands that visitors engage not just intellectually, but through sensation and emotion; contemporary art, installation, sculpture and interaction, allow the modern visitor to consume Franklin in a variety of ways. And like any commemoration, it celebrates far more than it criticizes.

Seen in historical context, the current exhibition seems to combine elements of the former. There is not just an exhibition, but a series of events, such as lectures and children’s activities, which promote Philadelphia as well as Franklin. There is also a scholarly aspect, with an excellent catalogue and a database of Frankliniana. But unlike the Masonic celebration, which reflected the dense social fabric of civil society, there is more the air of the lobby group, seeking special attention. Unlike the Eameses celebration, which was closely associated with the government, here the connection is more discrete. Franklin – and history – is today more at home in the domain of entertainment and leisure than the civic space.


Mounting an exhibition in Britain is a problem of a different order. In contrast with America , where such a thing as Franklin fatigue could be diagnosed, Franklin’s reputation one this side of the Atlantic is vaguer and murkier. The 150th anniversary of his death was marked by Northampton, marking the famous descendent of Northamptonshire stock; and St Bartholomew’s Church in the City of London made some moves to mark Franklin’s association with Palmer’s print shop in Bartholomew’s close for his bicentenary in 1906.[146] Such efforts had little success, and in 1939 the preface to a biography noted that Franklin ‘is practically unknown to the reading public in England ’.[147] When the Benjamin Franklin House opened as a centre for the British Society for International Understanding in 1947, the National Archives reveal that that Foreign and Home Offices did not feel it appropriate for the Prime Minister to attend; a minister was proposed instead. The Americans managed Mrs Douglas, the wife of the American Ambassador.[148] In 1951, an appeal was made for a portrait of Franklin to hang in the Craven Street parlour during the Festival of Britain. In this, it appeared to have been unsuccessful.[149]

More recently, London’s Franklin House has reopened (17 January 2007; see the accompanying article in this journal), offering education and the chance to re-imagine and even feel emotionally something of Franklin’s life in London. An exhibition to mark his birth was held by the Royal College of Surgeons, and the US Embassy has begun a scholarship in his name. The British Library hosted a five-case exhibition, illustrating Franklin’s relationship with print, Britain , politics and science, and his reputation. We were able to display several autograph manuscripts held by the Library, as well as items printed by Franklin during his first visit, and a unique copy of the Boston Courant, annotated by Franklin and showing the first of his Silence Dogood letters. In terms of interpretation, it became apparent during the planning stages that the main aim was simply to make Franklin better known to a British audience, incorporating the latest historical research in the accompanying texts as far as possible, showing how Franklin was a man among many. Rather than engaging with a national myth, mounting the exhibition was an exercise in narrative – using the object available to tell a story or to expand horizons – and in judging what an audience visiting the British Library would appreciate being told. Indeed once the deadline approached, thorny interpretative issues could be settled by the limited word length of labels. Putting a single figure at the centre of an exhibition, unless the curator really sticks the boot in, inevitably creates an exercise in veneration; in this case, I shall just have to hope that Franklin (and Adams) doesn’t mind too much.

[119] J. Adams to Benjamin Rush, 4 April 1790, quoted in Carla Mulford, ‘Figuring Benjamin Franklin in American Cultural Memory’, The New England Quarterly, vol. 72, (1999), 415-443, quotation, 415.  On Franklin and Adams, see Richard D. Miles, ‘The American Image of Benjamin Franklin’, American Quarterly, vol. 9 (1957), 117-143.

[120] McCullough’s biography of John Adams, ‘a federalist president who failed to secure re-election’ has sold 2 million copies since 2001 (Colin Kidd, ‘Damnable Defeat’, London Review of Books, 17 November 2005). See also Simon  Newman, Parades and the Politics of the Street: festive culture in the Early American Republic ( Philadelphia, 1997), xi.

[121] Kidd, ‘Damnable Defeat’.  See also C. Bradley Thompson, ‘Great and Small’, Times Literary Supplement, 9 December 2005: ‘If academic historians are writing the histories of ordinary people doing ordinary things (which, it turns out, ordinary people find tediously ordinary), David McCullough, Stanley Weintraub and the non-professional historians are writing books that examine ordinary (and great) people doing great things – and that makes all the difference.’

[122] Mulford, ‘Figuring’, 416.

[123] Cultural historians have offered several analyses of the American ‘national myth’, notably Michael Kammen, in Season of Youth (1977) and Mystic Chords of Memory (1991).  Bernard Bailyn and Jack  Greene have also, and in different ways, examined the creation of the American nation: Jack  Greene, The Intellectual Construction of America (Chapel Hill & London, 1993).

[124] Newman, Parades.

[125] Mulford, ‘Figuring’, 427-34.

[126] Annual Dinner of the Typothetæ of New York in Honor of the Birthday of Benjamin Franklin at Hotel Brunswick, Saturday, January 17, 1891 ([ New York], [1891]), British Library 11903.d.31(9).

[127] Mulford, ‘Figuring’; Lingelbach, ‘Benjamin Franklin’, 361.

[128] Michael Kammen, A Season of Youth: the American Revolution and the Historical Imagination (New York, 1978), 63-5.  Kammen suggests that ‘By the early 1900s the American Revolution in national tradition had been trivialized – and to a large degree, de-revolutionized’.  The transition from adult to juvenile participation at festivals and commemorative events is commonly seen by anthropologists as a sign of just such trivialisation.

[129] Proceedings of the Right Worshipful Grand Lodge… at its Celebration of the Bi-Centenary of the Birth of Right Worshipful Past Grand Master Brother Benjamin Franklin ( Philadelphia, 1906).

[130] Proceedings, 13.

[131] Proceedings, 179.

[132] Lingelbach, ‘ Franklin’, 365.

[133] Compiled by Julius F. Sasche, for the Committee on Library.

[134] Joseph Downs, ‘Benjamin Franklin and his Circle’, in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Vol. 31, No. 5. (May, 1936), 97-104

[135] R.T. H. Halsey, ‘Benjamin Franklin: His Interest in the Arts’, in Benjamin Franklin and his Circle.  A catalogue of an exhibition, New York, 1936.

[136] William E. Lingelbach, ‘Benjamin Franklin and the American Philosophical Society in 1956’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 100 (1956), 354-368.

[137] Lingelbach, ‘Benjamin Franklin’, 354-5.

[138] Hélène Lipstadt, ‘“Natural Overlap”: Charles and Ray Eames and the Federal Government’, in The Work of Charles and Ray Eames: a legacy of invention (New York, 1997), 166-68.

[139] Hilton Kramer, New York Times, 14 March 1976, D29.

[140] Lipstadt, ‘Natural Overlap’, 166, 170.

[141] The Eameses’ exhibitions, and in particular their films, A Communication Primer, Powers of Ten and The World of Franklin and Jefferson, have been seen as ‘pre-digital precedents’ of the Internet age: Philip C. Repp, ‘Three Information Design Lessons: selected films by Charles and Ray Eames’, LOOP: AIGA Journal of Interaction Design Education (2001:2).

[142] Edward Rothstein, ‘Knowing a Man (Ben Franklin), but Not Melons’, New York Times, 19 December 2005.

[143] One of the educational tools provided by BF300 is a kit for school children to design a museum exhibition, asking them to consider the problems of interpretation: ‘Lesson 8: Designing Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World’, <http://> (Accessed 18 April 2006).

[144] Rothstein, ‘Knowing a Man’.

[145] Newspaper and online reviews have also treated the exhibition as one of a range of competing attractions for leisure dollars: ‘Let me say right away, the exhibition is amazing and should be seen by everyone who has any chance to see it. That old Ben was quite a guy and more importantly he not only played a big role in the 18th century, but he plays a big role in today’s world and the little thing we call the United States of America’, < events/fr/franklin_world.htm> (Accessed 18 April 2006).

[146] The Times, April 1940.

[147] Evarts S. Scudder, Benjamin Franklin ( London, 1939).

[148] The Times, 21 Jun 1947.  Several ‘relics’ were presented to the house and a Benjamin Franklin Fund appeal begun in 1948.

[149] Lord Duncannon, Letters to the Editor, The Times, 30 March 1951; John Underwood, Letters to the Editor, The Times, 4 April 1951; Willard Connelly, Letters to the Editor, The Times, 3 May 1951.


Whitman: “A poet given to compulsive self-revision”

Dorian Hayes reflects on Walt Whitman, hypertextuality and the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass[150]

[Walt Whitman was]…“a poet given to compulsive self-revision”. Whitman’s work “is better understood in terms of process rather than product, fluidity rather than stability”—a style accommodated… far better by hypertext than by traditionally static printed texts.[151]

A fascinating project is currently under way at the University of Iowa’s Department of English which prompts questions of how poetry should and will be read and interpreted, now and into the future. Indeed, the Walt Whitman Hypertext Archive throws into question precisely what a “finished” text—even one as supposedly canonical as Leaves of Grass—might look like. This new technological initiative also complicates the value and place of a printed artefact such as the prized first edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, of which only a few hundred were published in 1855, and of which the British Library holds one.

This article sketches out the enormous scope and gradual accretion of Whitman’s work, from notebook scribblings, through all six different and entirely distinct editions of Leaves of Grass, and related writings. I will argue that, taken together, Whitman’s work amounts to a uniquely “hypertextual” oeuvre. There will follow a close-textual analysis of some key passages from the first (1855) edition of Leaves, and a consideration of the effects of reading this already multivalent, hybrid text in a “virtual environment”. Without drawing any specific conclusions, I shall then seek to bring together some of the above observations, and suggest areas of literary reception and interpretation which become more pertinent in this context.

“Democratic Vistas”: The Hypertextual Walt Whitman

As numerous critics have pointed out, Whitman’s work is uniquely suited to a modern, “hypertextual” re-presentation. As suggested above, the poet was “given to compulsive self-revision” throughout his literary career. From his earliest notebooks begun in the 1850s, through the life-changing ravages of the Civil War and the bitter Reconstruction years, all the way forward to the sixth, so-called “death-bed” edition published just before his actual death in 1892, Leaves of Grass expanded from a slim 95-page volume to a vast and sprawling 450-page opus. Aside from Leaves of Grass and the later poems of A Passage to India (1871), Whitman was also a prodigious prose-writer (principal works include Democratic Vistas [1870] and Specimen Days [1882]), correspondent, and sketch-writer. In addition to the sheer extent, Whitman’s frequent prolixity, habitual revisions and re-orderings of major works, editorial rigour, and grammatical complexity all render the poet’s oeuvre something of an archivist’s nightmare—his collected published works run to 22 volumes alone, to say nothing of the ever-expanding quantity of manuscript material unearthed year on year.

Describing their original intentions in creating the Whitman Hypertext Archive, academic Kenneth Price asserts that:

Whitman’s writings defy the constraints of the book. Documents associated with a Whitman poem might well include an initial prose jotting containing a key image or idea; trial lines in a notebook; a published version appearing in a periodical; corrected page proofs; and various printed versions of the poem appearing in books, including (but not limited to) the six distinct editions of Leaves of Grass.

Price goes on to argue that “the fixed forms of print are cumbersome and inadequate for capturing Whitman’s numerous and complex revisions”. Meanwhile, Price’s University of Iowa colleague, Ed Folsom, suggests that “the form and structure of hypertext are particularly appropriate and useful for studying Whitman”:


We finally have a technology that can capture Whitman’s incessant alterations of his poetry…. Archives are filled with copies of his printed texts on which he has added handwritten alterations. Working through these documents becomes an exercise in hypertext. You see a poem changing, word by word, line by line, edition by edition.[152]


With these stirring words, Folsom and Price echo the promotional drive of other pioneering digitisation projects, including some produced (or co-produced) by the British Library, such as the extensive “Turning the Pages” initiative, and the International Dunhuang Project. So, how does the experience of working with hypertexts of this kind work in practice? How does it compare with the seemingly anachronistic experience of reading the “original” paper texts? Can the two media be used together—indeed does this act of juxtaposition serve to enrich the process?

“When I read the book”: Re-reading Leaves of Grass (1855)

The American poets are to enclose old and new for America is the race of races. Of them a bard is to be commensurate with a people…. The greatest poet has less a marked style and is more the channel of thoughts and things without increase or diminution, and is the free channel of himself.[153]

Such was Whitman’s injunction to himself and his fellow “American poets” of the antebellum years in the Preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. True to his word, Whitman’s corpus contains some of the freest and most inventive, ingenious poetry of its time, and a flowing, long-lined style that has influenced practically every development in American literature over the last 150 years. From Whitman a direct line of thought and articulation can be traced through the writings of Hart Crane and e.e. cummings, the free verse of Beat poets like Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and O’Hara, and the more recent prose poetry of Raymond Carver and August Kleinzahler.

In many ways, the opening of Leaves of Grass, like the Preface quoted above, reads—and, just as importantly, looks—like a declaration of literary independence:


I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good as belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease… observing a spear of summer grass.[154]


From the very opening lines, the speaking persona of Leaves makes a radical assertion of his unique identity. As Ivan Marki puts it, “that identity, rather than any argument, is the true significance of the volume; that is what it means”:

The topics and themes taken up by the poems are components of the speaker’s personality, and the order in which they are arranged does not so much advance propositions leading toward a reasoned conclusion as it discloses the dynamism through which that personality is constituted.[155]

Opening the slightly tatty, stained and foxed British Library copy of Leaves, smelling its history and sensing the many hands through which it has passed, it nevertheless remains difficult to re-capture the sheer impact and thrill that this lazy, “loafing” statement of intent must have had in the volatile city of New York into which it was launched in 1855. Harder still to quantify is the effect that such a work—with its embattled belief in the power and potential of the American future—might have had in the heady atmosphere of literary London.

It was precisely this act of historical imagining that was required when Professor Folsom invited the British Library to participate in a census of 1855 editions of the text. According to Whitman scholar William White, 795 copies of the first Leaves were produced in the print-shop of James and Thomas Rome in Brooklyn, New Jersey. Of these, a very small number were distributed in the UK by William Horsell of London, and far fewer have survived into the 21st Century[156]. As the census questionnaire made clear, there were numerous differences among these 795 copies, from small typographical or grammatical changes to substantial extra materials tipped- or pasted-in to the inner covers. For obvious reasons, the most notable versions—and therefore among the most valuable works in the entire American canon—are those few which include a copy of the glowing review by Ralph Waldo Emerson, marked “Copy for the convenience of private reading only.” (Unfortunately, the BL copy is not one of these) Nevertheless, it is easy to see even from a cursory reading how the effect of lines like “The past is the push of you and me and all precisely the same, / And the night is for you and me and all” (as printed in the BL version), is amplified when the latter was amended to “And the day and night are for you and me and all”. It should be pointed out that the poet was also an unusually attentive and rigorous proof-reader who was involved at all stages in the preparation of the text. Indeed, for all his undoubted linguistic invention and free-wheeling exuberance, it is clear even from this tiny instance of close-reading that Whitman was in firm control of his material and of his poetic effects.

The Whitman we see here, tweaking and tinkering with his verse, re-thinking and re-writing, as in innumerable other variations and alterations, is in effect a junior apprentice to the ambitious architect who eventually overhauled and augmented Leaves beyond recognition a further six times throughout his life. Indeed, as Ivan Marki notes, the 1855 edition disappeared from view almost as soon as it was published, the poet having expanded the conception of his “experiment” within months of its publication. For this reason, the 1855 version came to be described by Malcolm Cowley as “the buried masterpiece of American writing”[157]. Maybe this is why the text has acquired the status of a fetish object over the years. It is perhaps for this reason that handling the volume in its (variant) original form, reading again the heavy, bold type, and marvelling at the flagrant insouciance of the engraving of Whitman on the frontispiece, is still an incomparably tactile experience.

“I sing the body electric”: Whitman in Cyberspace

If poring over the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass at the BL, with its curious stippled cover pattern, and ornate, floral lettering, is a distinctly tactile, “analogue” experience, its organic design reflecting the work’s linguistic fecundity, reading Whitman in cyberspace is stimulating in entirely different ways. Certainly, the Whitman Hypertext Archive is a fertile virtual environment. The product of over ten years’ development, and of academic careers in American literature that date back before that, the detailed work of Folsom and Price deliberately exploits the “extensibility” of the Internet. One of the major innovations of the site is that all six successive editions of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass can be consulted in parallel. This means that the evolution of a seminal poem like “Song of Myself” from originating sketch to various published incarnations can be tracked and evaluated by readers at the click of a mouse, and viewed side-by-side.

Likewise, the ever-emerging wealth of Whitman manuscript material coexists with published texts on the site, both in the form of facsimiles and transcripts. Among the most valuable manuscript materials are facsimiles of Whitman’s extensive notebooks, produced in the 1850-1860s. Long thought to have been lost for good, these priceless records have now been recovered and digitised in full by the Library of Congress[158]. Following their recovery by the Library in 1995, the next decade saw the preservation and digitisation of the entire collection, culminating in a grand exhibition in 2005 to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the publication of the 1855 edition of Leaves. As is increasingly the case at major institutions like the Library of Congress, this “artefactual” show was swiftly complemented by an online exhibition, which will remain part of the growing online Whitman heritage now available for students and researchers[159].

Elsewhere in the Whitman Hypertext Archive, scanned and transcribed versions of a huge number of known manuscripts and sketches can now be accessed thanks to the active participation of partner institutions like University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries, Boston University, Duke University, University of Texas, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, Princeton University Library, University of Virginia, and Library of Congress. Nor are primary literary documents the only resources available. In fact, the Archive compiles a huge wealth of secondary material including at least 100 scanned, annotated images of the poet, and—in a nod to the increasingly popular “Wiki” form of web community-building—an expanding, fully interactive body of critical and bibliographical commentary on Whitman, his work and legacy. A quick search of the Whitman Hypertext Archive’s bibliography (now the official Whitman bibliography) yields over 200 citations of articles published by scholars in 2005 alone. It is fair to say that, with the 150th anniversary just passed, critical interest in Whitman’s work has probably never been greater, and with it the need for a compendious repository to draw together the vast output of the poet and his scholars.

“The panorama of the sea”: Exploring Whitman Online

So is there, somewhere in this sea of text, the possibility of a greater appreciation of Whitman’s life and work? Undoubtedly, there is great pedagogical value in being able to quantify at a glance the difference between the raw fluency of the 1855 edition of Leaves, with all its ellipses and blind alleys and perverse primal power, and the calm, benign inclusiveness and controlled passion of the 1891 re-write. Add in the further ingredient of relevant supporting manuscripts and critical apparatus, all available for free and with minimum download time, and the Whitman Hypertext environment really does seem to provide the tools with which to ‘capture Whitman’s incessant alterations of his poetry’.[160] Certainly, the alterations, their effects line-by-line, and cumulatively on the total architecture of his work, are clear at every stage.

This means that the reader can, for instance, plot the evolution of Whitman’s characteristically emphatic, sensual language to describe both hetero- and homosexual love, from the rather cryptic allusions in the 1855 edition, through to the bold declarations of the Children of Adam and Calamus sequences[161] in the 1860 revision. In contrast to the growing radicalism of his personal, sexual politics, Whitman’s 1867 overhaul of the collection, produced at a time when America was emerging from, and seeking to heal some of the racial divisions heightened by the Civil War, might be seen to retreat somewhat from the 1855 version of ‘Song of Myself’. In the latter, one of the many voices ventriloquised by the narrating persona is that of a righteously indignant African-American slave, while in the later incarnation, the empathic anger is slightly dispersed and the effect displaced. This may be seen to reflect the contemporaneous social and political inclination towards healing and reconciliation as opposed to blame and recrimination.

That said, ‘The City Dead-House’, a new poem included in the 1867 version, is arguably a precursor of the ‘protest songs’ of political outrage and solidarity popular during the Depression of the 1930s, and the renewed militancy of the 1960s. One of the powerful themes that emerge from reading Whitman’s work in the Hypertext Archive—probably in part the result of the editorial apparatus which surrounds it—is the poet’s intense, and increasingly sophisticated engagement with the social and political forces that engulfed him. From the impassioned utopianism of new poems from this period like ‘Aboard At a Ship’s Helm’ and the Songs Before Parting cluster, a vision of the ‘ship of democracy’ with the poet-seer at the helm emerges which radically politicises the humanist individualism of that youthful declaration of independence in 1855. Thus, while early (pre-War) versions of Leaves seem indebted to rather diffuse and abstract ideals of ‘America’, ‘solidarity’, and ‘democracy’, it is clear from his constant re-ordering and re-writing of the material throughout the 1860s-1870s, as well as from contemporary notebooks and jottings, that his understanding of such concepts was brought into sharp relief by the trauma of Civil War.

“Roaming in thought”: Final Reflections

But does a recognition of this kind bring us any closer to Whitman himself, and the intent behind his habitual revisions? Certainly, debate around the value of authorial intentions refuses to subside. The theoretical gauntlet was thrown down “New Critics” W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley when they declared in The Verbal Icon (1954) that the intentions of an author for his work were neither available nor useful to the critic. In place of this “intentional fallacy”, they argues for a rigorous form close-reading which would direct attention to the text alone. It is undeniably true that the enormous flexibility and intuitive user-interface of the Whitman Hypertext Archive render the breadth and scope, and context, of the poet’s life-work more accessible than ever before. The precision of his craft, the density of his experiment, and the urgency of the social and political forces affecting it, all emerge clearly in this light. As for the question of intent, this arguably remains as challenging and cryptic as the expression on the poet’s face as he brazenly stares out from the frontispiece of the 1855 Leaves.

As Ed Folsom points out in the quotation at the head of this paper, Whitman’s work is undoubtedly “better understood in terms of process rather than product, fluidity rather than stability”. This paper has sought to highlight some aspects of this “process”. Needless to say, the paper-copy of the 1855 edition of Leaves is only one arbitrary point of entry into the vast panorama of Whitman-related material. To suggest that even this text—taken in isolation—represents a fixed, stable statement of intent, and to set it alongside the supposed breadth and fluidity of the hypertext environment, would be to set up a false opposition. In some ways, the two media do function differently, their contrasting properties reminiscent of Marshall McLuhan’s celebrated identification of “hot” and “cool” media; the “hot” immersive medium of the printed text contrasting with the “cool”, participatory, interactive experience of the Hypertext Archive. However, as I hope to have shown, reading Whitman on the page is, in and of itself, an elusive and mysterious process, and there is in fact considerable slippage in and around even the 1855 edition of Leaves. Ultimately, and for all the emphatic self-declaration and unflinching depiction of the working body and mind of the speaker, it is this sense of mercurial mystery and wonder that Whitman in hard copy shares with his hypertextual successor.

Further Reading

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Brooklyn, NJ: Rome, 1855.

Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Prose. Library of America Series. New York: Literary Classics of the United States . 1982.

Whitman, Walt. Whitman’s Manuscripts: Leaves of Grass, 1960, A Parallel Text. Ed. by Fredson Bowers. Chicago: University of Chicago. 1955.

Whitman, Walt. The Walt Whitman Archive. Vol. 1: Whitman Manuscripts at the Library of Congress. Vol. 2: Whitman Manuscripts at Duke University, and the Humanities Research Centre at the University of Texas, ed. by Joel Myerson. New York and London: Garland. 1993.

White, William “The First (1855) Leaves of Grass: How Many Copies?”. Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America . 57.1963.

Walt Whitman Hypertext Archive. University of Iowa. (h:ttp://

“Poet at Work: Walt Whitman Notebooks, 1850-1860”. Exhibition of Recovered Notebooks from the Thomas Biggs Harned Walt Whitman Collection. Library of Congress (“>

[150] An extended version of this article will be available in the electronic British Library Journal,

[151] Ed Folsom, quoted in ‘The Walt Whitman Project’, Obermann Centre for Advanced Studies, University of Iowa (

[152] Kenneth Price, ‘Dollars and Sense in Collaborative Digital Scholarship: The Example of Walt Whitman Hypertext Archive’ (2001), Walt Whitman Hypertext Archive (

[153] Walt Whitman, Preface, Leaves of Grass (Brooklyn, NJ: Rome, 1855), iv, vii.

6 Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1-5.

[155] Ivan Marki, ‘Leaves of Grass, 1855 edition’, Walt Whitman Hypertext Archive,

[156] White, ‘The First (1855) Leaves of Grass: How Many Copies?’, Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 57 (1963), 352-354. From the date-stamps on the frontispiece, it seems that the BL copy was either purchased by one of the British Museum’s American agents in the mid-19th Century, or was one of the American editions distributed by Horsell; see Folsom and Price, ‘British Editions of Leaves of Grass’,

[157] Cowley quoted in Marki ‘Leaves of Grass, 1855 edition’.

[158] The Library of Congress is one of the partner institutions in the Whitman Hypertext initiative.

[159] See The Whitman Hypertext Archive links directly to the full online facsimiles of the Whitman notebooks at Library of Congress.

[160] Ed Folsom, quotation in ‘The Walt Whitman Project’,

[161] The small, thematically-related cycles of poems scattered throughout Leaves are known, in Whitman circles, as ‘clusters’.


Readers’ Writes: Ch-ch-changes — a Bibliophile’s Path through Higher Education Resources

Lisa Rull, University of Nottingham, reflects

Whether you are an undergraduate with an enquiring mind, a postgraduate researcher keen to identify your research field, or an academic pursuing that next article or book topic, you are unlikely to own all the sources you need to consult. Consequently, libraries and resources are a key requirement, particularly for those of us in the humanities, the historically much-mocked academic faculty believed cheaply sustained by the provision of pencils, a library and access to archival documents.

Recently, both the nature and accessibility of our resources has started changing. Technology and practical issues of space now drive many transformations and there is an undeniable economic dimension to such changes for the caretakers of those resources. Here, I refer to the arrival of the digital age, the diminishment of paper-based archives and the impact of adopting previous technological advances in resource storage.[162] Whilst technology may not be cheap, physical space is always expensive, especially as student numbers and the demand for access grows; besides, the conservation and management of using archival material also incurs specific physical and human costs.

Yet both users’ experiences and their profile of the users are diversifying. Full time higher degree study has increased massively in the 10 years between 1994/5 and 2004/5 and both the academic backgrounds and economic circumstances of those students is correspondingly different.[163] We must therefore acknowledge that physical and technological expansion in the availability of resources simultaneously reflects, influences and yet can also fail to address changes in those who use resources. In practice, the evolution of resource provision, strategies for reading and researching, and changes in the student body, are often be playing catch-up with each other. This has a practical impact on our scholarship and on our changing relationship with books and resources.

Speaking personally, I am an avowed bibliophile, but despite jointly owning around 4000 books (and more than an alphabet’s worth of folders containing photocopies), over the years my relationship with archival institutions has altered. With great nervousness, I must confess to a problematic and nuanced relationship with libraries. Undoubtedly, I love their contents; I also love to make friends with their staff (note to all students and researchers – never underestimate the usefulness of befriending library employees and those who manage on-line access to resources). But a circuitous route into and through higher education has produced a rather strained relationship with these repositories of knowledge. Mature students often study part-time, at a distance, and nearly always have additional commitments. It is thus hardly surprising that my accessing resources never quite matched the expectations of institutional resource provisions.

Initially an Open University student in full-time office employment, my first HE experience provided no library beyond the excellent OU materials delivered by Royal Mail. Occasional forays to the Angel Row Central Library kept me going, but I hated the noise, the lights and the treatment other people gave to precious shared resources. Only partly satiated by scouring second-hand bookstores, I desperately wanted to read more. Addicted to the thrill of studying, I became a young, if technically mature (I was nearly 26), full-time undergraduate student at a 1992 midlands university. Suddenly, I had to travel to access resources that were erratically located across several library sites, the physical legacy of the institution’s historical and geographic expansion. I was an increasingly cranky library user, and ever aware of the physical damage carrying library books caused my back and posture.

I became more selective in my reading; photocopying extracts from magazines and journals, printing off pages from eye-numbing microfilmed newspapers, and befriending those who could provide access to obscure archives (gallery curators). Rationing my budget enabled me to buy texts as well, giving ample scope to my love of second-hand bookstores. Necessity also alerted me to my ‘resource butterfly’ mentality: I wanted to have everything to hand where I could land on it as required during the writing process. Whilst I appreciated visiting other institutions (especially the Arts Floor of Birmingham’s city-based Central Reference Library), such visits could become cumbersome journeys requiring the transportation of large amounts of existing materials as well as spreading across huge tables whilst there. Working from home kept the cackling noise of younger undergraduates amongst the library shelves at bay. I was accumulating my own personal ‘library’ and becoming adept at filleting both the bibliographies and narratives of existing texts for my information and sources: I wanted to do it in my own space.

After graduation, teaching and art gallery work provided a meagre income, including financing a part-time Masters’ student at a redbrick university that required a weekly 300-mile round trip for one day’s teaching. At the time online materials were still virtually non-existent (no pun intended). Moreover, echoing the historical model of HE this institution aspired to, most of the texts I needed to use were only available in a small – if beautifully stuffed to the rafters – specialist department reference library whose opening hours depended on an archetypal student profile that I could not match. I still treasure the postcard a fellow student from my course once sent me of a medieval chained library, with the comment that its predecessor could be found at our beloved institution. This was 1995-97, long before flexible loans and online resources. All I could do was retreat to Birmingham’s now seemingly paradisal spacious provision, and work copious underpaid hours as a temporary lecturer in order to access alternative libraries close to home.[164] Circumstances and provision thus forced me to be imaginative in choosing, locating and accessing sources.

Officially, my PhD studies at the University of Nottingham began in January 2000, but by then I had been ‘working’ on American art collector Peggy Guggenheim for six years and correspondingly had accumulated an annotated bibliography of sources that already ran to some 15 closely typed pages. When full-time AHRB funding came later that year, I wondered how my methods would change. There would be a shared carrel space in the University’s Humanities Graduate Centre, a location dominated by students from my PhD department of American and Canadian Studies. Extensive shelving was also available, and each carrel had a networked computer (at last, online resources, even if not everything could be accessed off-campus…). All this situated within walking distance of the central Hallward library and with the possibility of ordering up to 40 interlibrary loans per year (a revelatory concept and I soon got used to the delays). I looked at those around me and wondered if I would start using libraries differently, more traditionally, with notebook and pencil in hand, visiting the hallowed glories of British Library or the Smithsonian’s American Archives of Art.

In fact, little changed (although I did become adept at another non-traditional archival skill: the searching of on-line materials… and shouting at convoluted web-based interfaces). I still grumbled at stuff always being ‘in the other place’ wherever I tried to work, and my ageing back meant I had to resist the desire/need to haul large folders to and from home and university (still by public transport). The Smithsonian and Guggenheim Museum’s own archives were grand trips, but my particular research project rendered the British Library chiefly a supplier of inter-library loans. (Perhaps recognising my enthusiasm, people gave me access to their own extensive notes, photocopies and even books. Or maybe they were desperate for storage space once their own projects were complete…)

So ultimately, my PhD research proceeded in much the same way as previous study: slightly out of step with technology and addicted to my bibliophilic accumulating tendencies. But I never underestimated the power of libraries and resources at my disposal locally, nationally, internationally and virtually, however unconventional my points of access were. Search tools, catalogues and the availability of both physical and virtual archives have dramatically improved, and as long as both are maintained, eventually the mismatch between researchers and the location of their materials will be bridged. And if you do end up falling over your own bibliographic accumulations, just keep an eye out for the next generation of scholars: one will almost certainly give your archive a home.

[162] Nicholson Baker, Double Fold ( New York: Random House, 2001): an out-and-out polemic but, having seen first-hand the impact of previous efforts to reduce library storage via the adoption of technology, I’m utterly sympathetic.

[163] HESA statistics available at

[164] Another bad pun: Birmingham’s current Central Reference Library is located just off Paradise Circus.


Read All About It: Free online Newspaper sources for Nineteenth-Century

Donald Tait, Glasgow University Library, provides an above-the-fold guide to online resources

The 19th century saw America’s greatest period of economic growth, exploration and expansion, as well as some of its most significant and dramatic events such as the movement West; the Civil War; Slavery; Immigration; Urbanisation etc. The same period also saw the rise of the popular press in America, and historians and other scholars now recognise the value of newspapers in providing a first-hand, detailed insight into all aspects of national life. Traditionally, access to this wealth of information was difficult, as the newspapers themselves were fragile or else were often in microfilm with poor indexes and often with poor reproduction. The situation changed with the advent of the Web and development of digitisation and software searching tools, which now allow researchers to pose new questions of these newspaper collections, which Commager saw as representing “the raw material of history”.

Commercial organisations have been quick to respond with a range of very impressive products. Readex now have significant collections eg their Early American Newspapers Series 1 (1690–1876)’ which is in the process of being supplemented by Series 2 and 3. Proquest offer their ‘Historical Newspapers Programme’, an ongoing project that digitises key newspapers dating from the eighteenth century to the present day, including The New York Times; The Wall Street Journal; and The Washington Post. Thomson Gale have the ‘19th Century US Newspapers Digital Archive’ which has digitised content from the microfilm holdings of a wide range of newspapers, which were chosen with view to providing the greatest value to researchers and to give a detailed insight into all aspects of national life. However, such treasures come at a price and not all libraries are able to meet the asking price.

There are a now a number of freely accessible resources, and what follows below is a discussion of just a selection of these. This is not an exhaustive list, rather an attempt to give a flavour of what is out there, and to indicate how useful or otherwise I found them to be. (When using these sites it is worth noting that in many cases, due to way the site is built, using your browser’s [Back] button will not have the desired effect. Also, the response times can be slow.)

Brooklyn Daily Eagle (1841-1902)

Coverage and Usefulness: Spanning sixty-one years, the “Brooklyn Daily Eagle” covers a seminal period in the history of America . As well as what was happening in Brooklyn/New York, it also discusses national events, making this an excellent primary source for a range of topics in American history, e.g., the Civil War, immigration, race relations, etc. Approximately 147,000 pages of newspaper have been digitised, and both articles and advertisements are available. You can access the text either by date of issue or by keyword searching.

Colorado’s Historic Newspaper Collection and click on link [Search Newspaper collections]

Coverage and Usefulness: covers the early years of over 90 newspapers, including the “Rocky Mountain News”; “Boulder Camera”; and the” Colorado Chieftain”. There are over 150,000 pages covering 1859 – 1924, representing 30 Colorado cities and 20 counties. Researchers can leaf through an issue page by page; search the database by topic; look at an individual article by itself or as part of the full page; search through articles, graphics, letters to the editor and ads; search a single newspaper, a group of papers or all papers. The site is being kept up-to-date and the helpdesk are very responsive to any queries.

Georgia Historic Newspapers

Coverage and Usefulness: offers searchable issues of three important historic Georgia newspapers, the Cherokee Phoenix; the Dublin Post; and the Colored Tribune, taken from the microfilm holdings of the Georgia Newspaper Project. Currently, your search terms are not highlighted in the results pages, nor can you retrieve them using the search tool in Adobe Acrobat, which means this is not nearly as easy to use as it could be, as a fair amount of determination is required to scan through a page of text looking for particular words. This reflects the fact that this resource was one of the early attempts at digitisation and was completed at a time when there were few models to draw upon and little sense of how users might use such a resource. Georgia Historic Newspapers are in the process of exploring methods and sources of funding for a new newspaper digitisation project which would deliver additional functionality and content, although as yet there is no firm timeline for when this will happen

Coverage and Usefulness: allows you to look a small collection of advertisements from Harper’s Weekly, one of the leading illustrated American periodical during the nineteenth century. You can also register for free online access to the index of all the advertisements from 1857-1872

Historic Missouri Newspapers Project and click on link [Missouri Historic Newspapers]

Coverage and Usefulness: has digitised 14 newspapers from Missouri, with varying degrees of chronological coverage. Tiles include St Louis Christian Advocate 1857-1879; Phelps County New Era 1875-1880; and the Liberty Weekly Tribune 1846-1883. You can browse or search, but be aware that pages can be very slow to load, and can be of poor quality. However, there is interesting material here, e.g., a search in the periodical The Far West (1836) shows up some advertisements for the sale of slaves.

Historical New York Times

Coverage and Usefulness: coverage of the Civil War period from 1860-1866. Regrettably, there is no search facility and the text can be awkward to read. This particular project was halted by the New York Times themselves, so there is no possibility of the site being improved. Nonetheless, for anyone concerned with the Civil War, it remains worth a look. and click on the link marked [Online Newspaper Archives]

Coverage and Usefulness: offers a small collection of articles from a range of nineteenth-century publications, organised chronologically by decade. There is no searching and the actual number of available articles is quite small, so its usefulness is limited. Nevertheless, there is some interesting material, e.g. the New York Times coverage of the battle of Gettysburg. Another section of the site (under Primary Source Material) has coverage from the Columbia Centinel and the Massachusetts Federalist of the Louisiana Purchase.

Pennsylvania Civil War Newspapers

Coverage and Usefulness: offers access to 17 periodical titles from Pennsylvania, which although part of what is called the “Civil War Newspapers”, in some cases go back to 1855 and in others up to 1874. The site offers keyword searching; boolean logic; search limiting eg to articles, pictures or adverts, although your initial search terms are not highlighted in the retrieved document. You can also choose to browse by title to see what issues are available.

Utah digital newspapers

Coverage and Usefulness: this site has digitised around 40 Utah newspapers, covering both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, eg there is a complete run of the Salt Lake Tribune for the nineteenth century, so this is potentially very useful. Search results are listed in alphabetical order by newspaper title, and within that by date: you can’t change this. Again search terms are not highlighted in the retrieved documents.


Wyoming Newspaper Project

Coverage and Usefulness: this site aims to “make newspapers printed in Wyoming between 1849 and 1922 accessible in an easily searchable format”. As yet, there is no indication as to when this will be available.

Further Sources of Information

There is a useful directory, “US News Archives on the Web” at which details those American newspapers which have an online presence, and for each title gives the chronological coverage and the cost (where this applies) to access. The University of Washington have an online guide to Digital Newspaper Projects and Resources at which was used in the preparation of this article. There is another useful compilation from the British Columbia Digital Library at


As you would expect, the resources mentioned above do not in general offer the same functionality, scope, ease of use, and support as the commercial offerings from Readex, Proquest, and Thomson. They are perhaps best seen as “cheap and cheerful”, though not necessarily “cheap and nasty”. In general it is worth the effort of seeking out and exploring them, as they represent a vital collection of primary source material for all civic, political, social, and cultural events in American life in the nineteenth century. As Arthur Miller once observed, “A good newspaper is a nation talking to itself”; you can now freely eavesdrop on some of these conversations.


American Sheet Music

Jean Petrovic uncovers a visual, as well as a musical, resource

Sheet music was first published in America in 1788, and its publication was firmly established by the mid-1790s. In its early days it generally carried no type of illustration. Instead, the bars of music – and words, if it was a vocal piece – were simply cut on a metal plate and struck off, usually in quite limited numbers. The addition of any type of embellishment would seriously add to the cost and was, by and large, avoided.

With the development of lithography in the 1820s and the low cost and ease of reproduction that this process involved, a whole new world opened up for those who published music. Now, they could simply contact a lithographer, who would in turn contact an artist, and in next to no time an illustration was ready for the publisher’s use. Since an attractive cover would allow a publisher to add between ten and twenty-five cents to the cost of each new publication, it made good sense to use them.

The next half-century was a boom-time for such publishers, as the piano soared in popularity throughout the United States . By the 1860s some 110 American manufacturers were building twenty-five thousand pianos annually.[165] In addition, there were many hundreds of thousands of pianos already in homes across the land. Indeed, in his article “Publishing and Printing of Music” in the New Grove Dictionary of American Music, D.W. Krummel refers to this period as the “age of parlor music”.[166]

As the function of American music changed during this time from the sacred to the secular and from the timeless to the timely, so composers and songwriters began finding inspiration in every aspect of American life:

Wars: always a staple source of inspiration, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, and American involvement in World War I were no exception

Social movements: the abolition, temperance, women’s suffrage (pro- and anti-), and settlement house movements all had songs to commemorate their cause

Politics: every presidential candidate had his own campaign songs and marches

Inventions: trains, telephones, bicycles, and automobiles, all of these and so many more are celebrated in music and song

Discoveries: the discovery of oil prompted numerous ‘Petroleum Polkas’, for example, and the gold rushes in California and the Klondike did likewise

Public Institutions: the Sanitary Fairs of numerous municipalities caused local composers to put pen to paper

Disasters: not surprisingly, the sinking of the Titanic prompted an immediate response

Legislation: the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment provoked an outpouring of emotion and several ‘Prohibition Blues’

In responding to the nation’s seemingly insatiable thirst for music, the publishers of the latest topical songs, marches, waltzes, and schottisches realised that to maximise their profits they should invest in decent artists for the music’s title-pages. James McNeill Whistler and Winslow Homer were just two of the artists who tried their hand at this relatively lucrative type of illustration.

In time, the engagement of so many competent artists in this field ensured that the covers of American sheet music developed into an independent and compelling pictorial form. Indeed, just like American literature, which initially lacked an authentic voice, sheet music illustration slowly but surely emerged from the shadow of its British counterpart to become a truly indigenous art form.

In addition, perhaps more than anyone else at the time, these artists provided the American public with its images of everyday news, both local and national. They recorded, stylishly, the nation’s progress, and their work was used to decorate the walls of living rooms across the country.

In the early twentieth century, the publication of sheet music continued apace, centred around the area of Manhattan known as “Tin pan alley”. In fact sheet music was so popular at this time that it was also issued as supplements to newspapers.

Unfortunately for us today, the frequent handling of sheet music, and the way in which it gradually fell out of fashion, means that only a small fraction of the original output now survives in libraries or in private collections.

The British Library’s Music Collections contains a reasonable number of these works, and the Library’s Eccles Centre for American Studies is currently creating an online exhibition of sheet music covers. It will be mounted on the Library’s website ( by the autumn of 2006.

[165] Lester S. Levy, Picture the Songs: Lithographs from the Sheet Music of Nineteenth-Century America ( Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press), 1976, 1.

[166] D.W. Krummel, ‘Publishing and Printing of Music’, in New Grove Dictionary of American Music, eds., H. Wiley Hitchcock and Stanley Sadie (London: Macmillan, 1986), 653


Useful Web Resources

The Papers of Benjamin Franklin

Sponsored by The American Philosophical Society and Yale University. Digital Edition by The Packard Humanities Institute


Claims to define 400,000 slang words. Entries are posted by users, and visitors vote on their accuracy. Images and videos can be added to definitions, making for a controversial, uncensored site.

Andrews McMeel, Urban Dictionary (2005) – 2,000 of Urban Dictionary’s funniest, smartest definitions. A catalog of popular culture that users helped to write (2005). ISBN 0740751433.

Jonathan Hope, ‘Wimping It (review)’, Times Literary Supplement, 30 June 2006.


Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Matthew Shaw looks online

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2005) must be considered as the publishing event of the last decade, indeed the scholarly event of recent years. It will aid, and perhaps change, work in the humanities as much as the digital publication of resources such as Eighteenth Century Collections Online or the Readex Archive of Americana, offering a vast and growing panoply of lives, searchable in a variety of ways, such as occupation, gender or geography. One expects to see the march of prosopography in scholarly journals, the bloom of footnotes adding biographical detail to actors in historical and literary articles and, possibly, a postmodern interest in biography to match the experiments in narrative undertaken by historians such as Simon Schama (Dead Certainties). The range of lives, the inclusion and exclusions, the innovations, such as mythical figures and the biographies of groups, the complexity of the project and the quality of the publishing by Oxford University Press have all been commented upon by other reviews, as have debates over individual interpretation and the accuracy of modern scholarship. What has, however, been little noted, is the usefulness of the ODNB for American Studies, particularly students of the Colonial and Revolutionary Periods, who have over 700 lives to play with.

The editors have included not only those who were born in Britain or her colonies, but those who have ‘shaped British history worldwide’, from the Greek geographer Pytheas to the assassin Udham Singh (d. 1940). Britain ’s relationship with America has served Americanists well. Indeed, as Lawrence Goldman notes in his valuable online essay ‘America in the Oxford DNB’, ‘no set of interrelations is more notable and consistent in the Ox-ford DNB than those linking Britain and America ’. John Smith, the founder of Virginia, William Bradford, its governor, the dissident prophet Anne Hutchinson, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Allan Pinkerton, Goldwin Smith, the first professor of history at Cornell, Sam Wanamaker, Paul Robeson, Stanley Kubrick are just some of the Americans, or Britons who settled there, that are covered. The importance of the US for British lives, such as Charles Dickens, Charlie Chaplin, John Lennon or Sir Anthony Eden, is given full weight. Users of the online version can do full text searches for the US , or search for places such as New York or Chicago in the advanced search fields. Undergraduates, Postgraduates and their lecturers alike will undoubtedly find the ONDB to be a valuable resource to confirm a fact, discover the latest scholarly thinking, begin a bibliography or make startling connections. Best of all, these resources can be accessed, for free, by an estimated 48 million UK residents thanks to an MLA agreement.


American Legislative Intelligence

Arnie Thomas and Paul Jenks of GalleryWatch outline the legislative process and the difficulties of tracking the information flows that it creates

American Congressional research and monitoring has seen a major transformation over the past two decades, a transformation from personal relationships on Capitol Hill and volumes of printed books to online searching, notification and additional documents that previously were the most sought after documents in Washington, DC. The availability of information has been a revolution of access to the U.S. legislature and its process.

Online monitoring revolutionized the process not only of following legislation, but the process of legislating itself, enabling people and organizations either outside of the grounds of the Capitol or without personal relationships within it, to follow the activities of Congress. A vast increase in advocacy organisations, pressing their issues before Congress, has followed. A quick look at the number and type of organisations lobbying Congress in the 1970s compared with the same list today would clearly illustrate this point.

Bills and Amendments

The objective of a piece of legislation introduced in Congress is to get passed or, at the very least, to move an issue further in the public policy debate. Bills and Committee reports are not poetry or fine literary essays. They are ostensibly legal documents and they need help to move along in the legislative maze.

A Member or Senator that introduces a bill knows full well that in the interpersonal and partisan political world of Capitol Hill the legal text of the bill will not speak for itself. Some poetry, perhaps some science, some hype, and definitely some political cover will be needed for other Members to sign on and support the bill when and if it comes to a vote.

The “bill” is the primary vehicle for legislation and as a result a large part of Washington, DC will “track” the progress of bills in considerable detail. A bill will have an effect on someone, if not everyone, and those people will want to know the status of the bill as it moves. Also, many organisations in Washington, DC exist just to watch bills. Some people monitor specific actions, such as when someone attaches their name to a bill as a “cosponsor.” A new cosponsor to a bill could mean that someone was an effective lobbyist. Many others watch the language of the bill, what words have been changed, clauses deleted, sections added. A bill tracking mechanism will tell you of any new development on the bill: hearings scheduled in committee, committee passage, floor action, amendments, speeches and votes.

Tracking a bill requires some knowledge of the different types of bills – Simple Resolutions, Concurrent and Joint Resolutions, and Bills. Also, you should be aware of the various arcane procedures controlling the flow of the legislative process, the perennial favourite being the Senate’s cloture rules. Without denigrating all the procedures (any of which could tie up or end consideration of the bill) the critical step in the process is Amendments. They are the bane of the legislative monitor. No serious piece of legislation beyond the “Karl Malden Post Office” re-naming bill (S 1755) makes it through the process without being amended. Following these amendments will test all your skills and the capabilities of any computer and any online legislative monitoring service.

Amendments are certainly not new. The more you get into following a bill, the more you appreciate the role and impact of an amendment. They sneak in and destroy your precious bill or gut its impact. Congress can play pretty loose with amendments. This year I have seen amendments to bills that don’t exist! Amendments can be offered on the floor or in committee. Floor amendments are easy; they are usually printed in the Congressional Record. Of course, 2nd degree amendments made on the floor at 11:00pm will have to wait for their official printing. Committee amendments do not even have the certainty of the Congressional Record because they are generally not printed officially until long after a committee’s markup has been held. You need a good pair of shoes, a good Rolodex, or a good monitoring service for Committee amendments.

An amendment can be a little one-line change or it can substitute the entire text of the bill with a new bill, thus hi-jacking it for other purposes. A good mechanism is needed for keeping tabs on amendments. It can be time consuming, and a good service would save some time and effort. Anyway you do it, they are the part of the bill tracking process that you do not want to ignore. For it may not be a bill that interests you, it may be an amendment.

In the whole grand scheme of legislative bodies, Congress is not that bad. About 6% of all legislation introduced in Congress actually passes. Compared to many U.S. State legislatures, that is an impressive number. The percentage is in fact much better than it used to be, but this is probably due to rule changes that lifted the limit on the number of cosponsors of a bill (previously there was a limit, so many different versions of the same bill were introduced).

Sometimes bills are introduced knowing full well they have no chance, but a certain constituent or constituency needs the reassurance of a bill in Congress. There is a whole category of legislation called ‘Private Measures’ that are purely that, usually adjusting such things as citizenship status of a specific individual. (Private Measures are becoming less common in the modern era)

A stand-alone bill that passes Congress in most cases is purely ceremonial, technical or private in nature. The majority of bills pass by voice vote, often by unanimous consent. Some bills garner at least some controversy and some bills are rejected, though not many.

Congressional Floor Debate and Hearings

Congressional floor debate and speeches lie at the heart of the legislative process. It is a hallmark of a democracy to have the elected representatives give voice to the opinions of the voters, at least the voters who voted for him or her. Despite the very important and symbolic nature of things, No one would deny that it is not important, but it frequently gets put off to the back burner as more important things are sizzling on the stove that require more attention.

There is a drawback to US Congressional debate. In some respects it is a very cheap show, since few votes are ever changed based upon some wonderful speech; the action or give and take occurs elsewhere on talk shows, in back corridors, newspapers and blogs, etc. No-one to my knowledge has been defeated upon re-election because they were terrible floor speakers. While in House of Commons, for example, the questions and debate can unhinge a government, debate on the floor in Congress rarely makes a difference. Debate outside of the floor, in the cloakroom, in committee or elsewhere outside of the public view is more important in Washington, DC.

Most committees and subcommittees in Congress hold hearings on the issues or bills before their committee. The objective is to hear a variety of viewpoints on a particular topic, hopefully assisting Congress in their legislating. A hearing is distinctly different from a committee markup or business session, which is very influential and important. The public hearing is the markup session’s overly dramatic, less influential sibling, whose general purpose is informational.

I categorize hearings into three types: informational, oversight, and confirmation. Informational hearings on a specific topic or bill are hearings where anyone Congress chooses to invite can opine and answer questions on the topic. Witnesses can range from retired seniors unable to get prescription coverage under Medicare to baseball players testifying about steroid use. Advocacy groups, corporations, unions, local government officials, governors, even small children, testify on any topic imaginable before Congress. While this type of hearing is interesting to those who testify and maybe to the media eager to show pain and suffering, the most the hearing can do is to escalate an issue higher on the priority list. Therefore, the more heart-rending and dramatic the testimony, the better.

Another hearing type is the oversight or investigative hearing. An oversight hearing’s purpose is to keep an eye on the Executive Branch and it is one of the most important, and frequently abused or ignored, functions of Congress. Every single Cabinet Secretary will testify at least once a year before some committee in Congress. Undersecretaries and deputies who testify need to have clear and effective testimony skills on their resumes if they want to continue in the job. Usually, oversight hearings are mundane affairs reviewing that year’s budget priorities or are updates on specific projects. When things go wrong, hurricanes strike or war takes a grim turn, you can always count on Congress to hold a hearing. An agency chief, unfortunately on the job during a disaster, can only dread the committee investigation hearing that will undoubtedly follow. No one is immune; generals, admirals and titans of industry and labour have been brought down to human level at a Congressional hearing.

The third type of hearing, the confirmation hearing, is unique to the Senate. Ordinarily, this is the most boring of all hearings, unless it involves a nomination to the Supreme Court, in which case it is the most dramatic of them all. The Senate is charged of course with approving the nomination of high level executive department chiefs, military officers, ambassadors, and judges. Except for most military commissions, every one of them usually involves testimony and questions from the corresponding Senate committee or subcommittee.

Despite some highly visible hearings, most are quite technical and dry. Comments made in a committee hearing rarely change the debate and usually are a formality. Comments made on the floor of either Chamber, usually equally bland, actually have more weight. When a court reviews the legislative intent of a particular piece of legislation, the committee hearing is last on the list of official importance. It is first on the list, however, for most drama fans and probably the only Congressional event most people have ever seen.

Last year Congress had an interesting experience at a Congressional hearing. House of Commons Member George Galloway testified before a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs. The affair offered an example of the marked contrasted between the British and American styles of debate. Galloway is a product of a much more rhetorically combative legislature than the Subcommittee Chairman, Senator Norm Coleman. The level of debate at the hearing was definitely one-sided and Galloway’s rough and tumble background allowed him to keep Coleman off-balance. Senator Coleman on the other hand was not interested in the banter, he was just interested recording specific Galloway responses into the record.

Additional Primary Source Materials

Additional legislative materials are more readily available than before. These additional documents provide a different perspective on legislation. A bill at face value in official documents may look like it is languishing in Committee while it may actually be moving along in other ways. Congressional letters, Agency reports, Committee analysis, draft amendments, and press releases may signal life in an issue that appears stalled. These additional materials have made the real difference in monitoring Congress and have also changed the process of how Congress operates.

Much has been written about the divided state of the American electorate, driven by sharp partisan bickering and attacks. I have heard a number of explanations, ranging from the increasing number of media outlets and bloggers to the ineffective role of political parties. From my perspective, all of them may be a cause, but I would also add the ever-increasing volume of additional primary source Congressional documents.

Partisan bickering and invective is not new. Media interference in shaping of the political world is not new. Congressional documents have been produced since Congress existed. Government documents since Babylon are not new either. What is new is the technology. This new technology has pried loose many Congressional documents from their dusty files and has created documents that never existed. A Congressional staffer during the Carter administration would have typed something up on his or her trusty IBM typewriter and gone to some common location and made photocopies of it. A staffer during the Nixon administration could have made a copy somewhere, but probably used carbon paper. This is not the world for distributing documents broadly, let alone creating new ones.

American history is full of purloined letters and documents, making it into the newspapers or public domain. Congress has been producing reports since at least 1789. But access to these has always been limited to small groups even within Congress itself and a few well-placed Congressional reporters. Only occasionally did they filter out with much controversy and publicity. The historical rarity and secrecy of these documents, now increasing available, is part of their allure today.

You now see several hundred seemingly private letters from Members of Congress every month. You can read an equal number of reports. You may see many bills in their draft form, continuously, every day. You can read Congressional staff analysis; they even summarize bills and committee reports. You can read the Congressional Research Service’s reports like they were box scores in the morning newspaper. Twenty years ago I was amazed that I could read a bill online; today you can follow the details of decision making in the U.S. Congress while you lie on the beach in Miami. Now think about the implications of this sea-change.

Civil liberties groups, librarians and “open government” advocates are rejoicing: everything is in the open, open for debate and critique. Elected representatives are watched, corrected, chastised, and supported continuously. The smoke filled rooms are now smoke-free. Cronyism, corruption, back room deals are exposed to the sunlight of public inspection. Mainline media groups are no longer the arbiters of news; anyone, whether on Pennsylvania Avenue or Boise, can see what is really happening. The American Republic is moving into one giant New England Town Meeting. Everyone knows the other’s little secrets, little is private, and all is seemingly known.

The other side of this coin is gridlock. Political and ideological positions are monitored and anyone, no matter how well informed or ill-informed plays a role. The curmudgeons of yesterday now are the arbiters of the debate today. Decision-making in a closed document world depended strongly on interpersonal relationships, trade-offs and even persuasion. I watched a group of Senators debating John Bolton’s UN Ambassador nomination react in amazement when debate in Committee actually changed a few Senator’s minds. That doesn’t happen much now days.

The American Republic is becoming more democratic, perhaps more truly democratic. The critique of democracy going back to Plato is coming closer to relevance than it has ever been in the past. The representative democracy in Washington is all about trading, one vote on one topic in exchange for support on another; the individual representatives determine the priorities. With the new openness, these priorities are more closely and much more quickly examined. Documents, drafts, and reports put the representative in the middle of whirlwind. The individual citizen, particularly represented on issues by a several thousand groups, is now the representative. It used to be we hoped our elected representatives used wisdom and judgment when reading the documents. Will the new citizen representatives do the same?

Primary source documents provide a view of the legislative process to an audience for whom they were originally not intended. As a result, the documents themselves have changed. In some cases, the new recipients have a better perspective than the old guard in Washington, DC, while in other cases they mobilize forces that can tie the Republic into knots. The American Republic has been transformed and monitoring what is happening in Congress is an effective way of measuring policy making in Washington, DC.

This article is based on a talk by Arnie Thomas of GalleryWatch at the British Library, February 2006.

GalleryWatch, located in Washington DC, is an online service providing advanced legislative intelligence. In the United Kingdom , GalleryWatch is available from Books Express, the exclusive reseller of GalleryWatch services:

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