Thursday, December 2, 2010

Camelot at Your Fingertips

President Kennedy [above during his June 11, 1963, address to the nation on Civil Rights, from the Oval Office at the White House] responded prophetically to a reporter's question about his future Presidential library during a 1962 press conference.

For all of the philandering, the pill-popping, the injections of God-knows-what, and all of the other secrets no one knew about at the time, President John F. Kennedy continues to hold great influence over Americans, even those like myself born after his assassination. There's just something about the Kennedy's - particularly the White House years - that make for some of the most fascinating history. This is particularly true because - as President Nixon tried to use as a defense after Watergate - Kennedy had an intricate taping system in the Oval Office and on his phones, capturing many gems. Perhaps my favorite was from Bobby Kennedy in the Oval Office in October 1962. Fresh off many sleepless and tension-filled nights getting James Meredith enrolled at the University of Mississippi, JFK and Bobby are briefed for the first time on the missiles found in Cuba. Not missing a beat, Bobby says, "Do you think they can reach Oxford [Mississippi, home of Ole Miss]?"

The treasure-trove of data at the Kennedy Library has always been a destination I wanted to visit but never did. Soon, I may still be able to delve into some of these pieces of history without leaving my Archie Bunker-like chair. The reason is a massive digitization of some of the Kennedy documents which will allow them to be online at the Kennedy Library's website.

The Boston Globe had a really neat clip of JFK from 1962, where the President eerily posits what future Presidential Libraries will look like and who will have access to them. At the news conference that day, a reporter asked Kennedy if he’d consider locating his Presidential Library in Washington, D.C., after leaving the White House so scholars and historians would have the broadest possible access to it. Pretending to have ignored the point of her question, he replied mischievously, “I’m going to put it in Cambridge, Massachusetts.”

After the laughter died down Kennedy - with uncanny foresight - went into a discourse, about the future preservation and dissemination of his White House archives. “Through scientific means of reproduction, microfilms and all the rest,” he said, “it’s possible to make documents available” not only to scholars visiting his library but to anyone interested in presidential history.

Although certainly in a way Kennedy could have never imagined, his words were prescient. That's because a four-year, $10 million effort to digitize the JFK Library and Museum’s archives - making hundreds of thousands of documents, photographs, and recordings available online - is nearing completion of its first phase. A formal announcement will come January 13,2011, one week before the 50th anniversary of JFK’s inauguration, at a press conference in Washington.

“Access to a Legacy,” as the project is called, marks the first time a Presidential Library established in the paper age has fully committed itself to the digital era. And this is no small offering of archives. The amount of material to be posted online in January includes 200,000 pages of text, 1,500 photos, 1,250 files of audio recordings and moving images, and 340 phone conversations totaling 17 1/2 hours. Here's the kicker: that represents just a small portion of the collection that will eventually be released. Users will be able to print and copy material directly off the website, so they could download a personal note to JFK and make a copy for themselves.

The project is the result of a fortunate collaboration between library staffers and a group of corporate sponsors. While it is obviously generating excitement among archivists and historians, it has also grabbed the attention of some of the other presidential libraries, who are now contemplating their own digital futures.

The man who would have been JFK's son-in-law had he lived, Ed Schlossberg, helped initiate the massive project. Schlossberg, husband of JFK's daughter Caroline, whose company oversaw a huge digitization project (22 million documents) for the Ellis Island visitors’ museum, urged Kennedy Library officials to look into similar systems for the Kennedy archives. Their search led to a subsidiary of Massachusetts-based EMC Corp., which soon signed on as a major supporting player.

As part of the project, the entire Library website will be revamped. A new search engine will allow visitors to enter the word “moon,” for example, and pull up virtually every document, tape, and speech related to JFK’s mission to land men on the moon.

Even as this first phase is ready to be launched, the Library houses sufficient materials to keep scanners and catalogers busy for years: 8.4 million pages of JFK’s personal papers, 40 million additional documents, 400,000 photos, 9,000 hours of audio recordings, 7.5 million feet of movie film, and 1,200 hours of video. The first phase focuses on categories including presidential office files, JFK’s personal papers and correspondence, and the White House photograph and audio collections. Phase two, when funded, will [under the guidance of Schlossberg] likely concentrate on movie footage.

This digitization will not just include 'JFK's Greatest Hits', or documents and audio that you've already scene. It will also include items seldom - if ever - seen by the public. JFK’s personal notes from the missile crisis, for example, include Caroline Kennedy’s prekindergarten handwriting, scrawled on the back. There's a bizarre telegram JFK received from Harpo Marx after winning the election that read simply, "Do you need a harp player in your Cabinet?” There's a pronunciation guide Kennedy used for his 1963 West Berlin speech, including the famous “Ish bin ein Bearleener”. The cache also includes a March 1961 personal letter from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., requesting a meeting to discuss civil rights. For me, though, the 'can't-miss' item is the bar tab from Robert F. Kennedy’s bachelor party. Can you imagine?

The journey taken by Kennedy's materials has been strange and not always smart. After his murder, files from the Kennedy White House were moved to the nearby Executive Office Building, where the long phase of sorting and processing first began. In 1965 they were shipped from the Executive Office Building to Waltham, Massachusetts - file cabinets and all. They remained there until the Library opened in 1979. It now draws 200,000 visitors annually to its Columbia Point location in Boston.

Scanning and cataloging of the JFK materials began three years ago, after the Library had assembled a staff dedicated to that task. Every document and image has been scanned by hand, to protect the originals, at high resolution (600 dots per inch) to ensure that even pencil notes would be legible.

Perhaps the most difficult work was conducted by Rachel Searcy and Kelly Francis. With the new search engine feature, metatags had to be added to each document so that the search engine could find them. So, much of the work by Searcy and Francis involved adding descriptive material to the documents. Each has been working on the project for more than two years, going through as many as 30 folders per day. Searcy noted the importance of appending relevant data to each document. In JFK’s day, for instance, no staffer used the term “Cuban Missile Crisis.” That phrase must be embedded retroactively to make the relevant documents searchable.

The work at the Kennedy Library may have a a ripple effect on the 12 other Presidential Libraries. For instance, archivists at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library have already undertaken three major digitization projects, including posting 14,000 pages of LBJ’s diary online this September. The Ronald Reagan Library “hasn’t dived deeply into digitization,” said supervisory archivist Michael Duggan, but will look at the Kennedy Library as a potential model. George H.W. Bush’s Presidential Library has digitized only about 1% of its assets, according to supervisory archivist Robert Holzweiss, but hopes to expand those efforts soon.

The importance of this replication and preservation should not be taken for granted. An example of that can be found in one of the unknown tales about 9/11. For years, JFK White House photographer Jacques Lowe stored almost all of his 40,000 negatives in a bank vault below New York’s World Trade Center. Virtually all were destroyed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Had Lowe not put his prints on file at the JFK Library, they would have been lost forever.

Which is about as long, I suspect, as people will be interested in the Kennedys.

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