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February 19, 2014

Grant helps put Seward Family Archives online

A $360,000 grant from the Fred L. Emerson Foundation will help the University digitize the Seward Family Archive, one of the most comprehensive and extensive firsthand accounts of 19th-century American political and social life.

The user-friendly online archive, a free public website for research and educational use, will provide access to photographs, diaries, letters, and other papers from the family of William Henry Seward (1801–72), a noted trial attorney, governor of New York, U.S. senator, and secretary of state under presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson.

Spanning the years 1730 to 1917, the collection includes insights into the central issues that have shaped the identity of America, including abolitionism, universal suffrage, access to education, race relations, medical practice, and the rights of the accused in the criminal justice system, says Thomas Slaughter, the Arthur R. Miller Professor of History.

With more than 150,000 items, including journals, pamphlets, household accounts, estate records, and library inventories, the archive also provides a portal to 19th-century family life, Slaughter says.

The William Henry Seward Collection is the largest and most-consulted special collection in Rush Rhees Library, says Mary Ann Mavrinac, vice provost and Andrew H. and Janet Dayton Neilly Dean of River Campus Libraries. “This is a remarkably vast collection, the bulk of which was given to the library by Seward’s grandson, William Henry Seward III, between 1945 and 1951,” says Mavrinac.

In addition, the Emerson Foundation donated to the library in 1987 a significant collection of President Lincoln’s letters to William Seward that had been acquired from the Seward family, adding to the historical importance of the broader collection. “We are honored at River Campus Libraries to be the continuing recipients of the generosity of the Fred L. Emerson Foundation for such an important project,” Mavrinac says.

In the past, given the work involved in organizing, transcribing, annotating, and reproducing documents, it would have taken decades to create a print publication for a project of this size and complexity. New scanning and web technologies, along with the three-year Emerson grant to support additional staff and student assistants, will accelerate that process and make the archive accessible to schools, libraries, and private citizens interested in state and national history. In the next three years, the project collaborators expect to digitize almost half of the collection and to update the archive’s finding aid.

“Our students were the catalyst for this project,” Slaughter says. “They were its inspiration, provided its creative energy, and have designed and are implementing the project. This collection has connected them to the past in ways that I have never seen in my 30 years of teaching. The collaboration among the Department of History and the River Campus Library’s Digital Humanities Center, and Department of Rare Books and Special Collections also is unique in my experience in universities.”

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