University of Rochester

Library to Share Abraham Lincoln Documents Online

February 15, 2008

The University of Rochester will soon share original papers from the pen of Abraham Lincoln online, through an innovative program that puts students in touch様iterally謡ith history.

Through the program, letters and other Lincoln documents will be scanned and posted online with typed transcriptions for easier reading. For some documents, graduate students will write contextual essays and lesson plans for teachers to facilitate the use of the documents as learning tools in their classrooms.

The collection of roughly 287 historical documents (72 letters written by Lincoln, 218 written to Lincoln)末most of which are part of the William Henry Seward Papers末will begin appearing on the University's library Web site ( on Monday末Presidents' Day.

The Lincoln project is modeled after an online cataloguing of Frederick Douglass materials, said Melissa Mead, manager of the project and digital and visual resources librarian for Rare Books and Special Collections. The Douglass Project (, which began in 2001 and is ongoing, also features images of the famous abolitionist and some of the people with whom he corresponded, essays, lesson plans for elementary and high school students, and links to other Douglass related Web sites.

Students studying history and other majors at the University will have the opportunity to transcribe the Lincoln documents and write the accompanying essays as they do for the Douglass project. Mead said the undertaking serves a dual purpose. It gives the outside world access to valuable documents in the University's collection, but more importantly, it gives the students a first hand experience with primary documents from some of the nation's most important figures.

"It's really a research project since we usually have the letters written (by Douglass and Lincoln) and not the responses; we only have half the conversation. The letters are really a jumping off point," Mead said. "They need to use other primary and secondary sources to fill in the blanks."

She said working with the Lincoln documents is an especially rare treat末afforded by the Seward Collection末because first-hand presidential documents are often out of reach. William Henry Seward was Lincoln's Secretary of State and the Seward Collection, which was bequeathed largely to the University by his grandson, William Henry Seward III, contains many family letters and documents including rare correspondence with Lincoln. Seward III bequeathed the letters sent to his grandfather by Lincoln to his family, but they later rejoined the rest of the collection at the University through a gift from Fred L. Emerson Foundation of Auburn, NY.

In some cases, the library holds the original drafts of Lincoln's papers while the U.S. Library of Congress holds copies made by his secretary and others, Mead said.

Some of the letters and writings provide insight to Lincoln's attitudes toward slavery and the Civil War. In one document, Lincoln writes to a senator about gradual emancipation of slaves with financial compensation for slave owners, said Brian Fleming, the librarian who is heading the Lincoln project.

"To be given a document that plunks you right into a situation that Lincoln was facing, it's very compelling," Fleming said.

The Douglass documents have the same feel. A handwritten note from Douglass guiding a fugitive slave to safety through the Underground Railroad conveys the drama of the situation.

"My Dear Mrs. Post:

Please shelter this sister from the house of bondage till five O'Clock - this afternoon - She will then be sent on to the land of freedom.

Yours Truly


You can still see stains on the paper and it's easy to imagine it pressed in the palm of the hand of someone pursued and afraid末someone seeking shelter. Mead says making these documents widely available for public viewing adds a whole new dimension to history.

"And for the students who work with them in person, the documents offer an authenticity, a realness, that you can't find anywhere else," she said.