Digitizing Camelot

Posted Monday, November 18, 2013 - 15:14
Archive staff at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum have been working feverishly for eight years to provide digital content for historic events leading up to the 50th anniversary of the president’s assassination in November. Now it’s their time to shine.
President John F. Kennedy aboard his yacht off Hyannis Port, Massachusetts

The anger, frustration, and worry that the situation could turn out very badly were evident in the president’s voice.

It was September 1962 and pro-segregation forces were readying for a violent clash with US troops over a court order entitling James Meredith, an African-American student, to enroll at the all-white University of Mississippi. Days before riots erupted that left two dead and hundreds wounded, President John F. Kennedy spoke on a recorded phone call with Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett, at times almost pleading with him to maintain law and order.

“You just don’t understand the situation down here,” Barnett snaps at Kennedy.

Kennedy cuts him off, his voice terse and unwavering. “Well, the only thing is I got my responsibility,” he says, referring to the court order.

Barnett implores Kennedy to postpone enrolling Meredith and to tell the public that "under the [potentially violent] circumstances at this time, it just wouldn’t be fair to [Meredith] or others, uh, to try to register him.”

“Well, then at what time would it be fair?” Kennedy retorts.

President Kennedy and the First Lady exit Air Force One.The “Integrating Ole Miss” audio recordings and hundreds of others are available online through the vast digital archive at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. The library has been building the “Access to a Legacy” digital archive since 2006 and made it public in January 2011, marking the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s inauguration. Through its website the library provides access to 150 terabytes of information, including approximately 593,500 paper documents, 22,642 photographs, 1,436 sound recordings, and 121 moving images, according to James Roth, library deputy director. It is the most extensive digitization effort in the presidential library system, and the archive is growing every year.

The website gives visitors an insider’s view of the Kennedy White House, allowing them to listen to tape-recorded phone calls and closed-door meetings, read handwritten notes by the president in the margins of official documents, and view never-before-seen pictures of Kennedy and his staff. Visitors can pore over unabridged folders of information and tour interactive exhibits that highlight documents, television newscasts, presidential speeches, and other information associated with the JFK administration.

Archivists have already finished digitizing Kennedy’s personal papers, documents related to the 1960 election, and the president’s speeches. Roth says they’re now working to complete the White House photographs collection, which includes thousands of images taken by the president’s photography staff. Archivists are also working to declassify documents in the president’s national security files and put them online, Roth says.

Online visitors will soon have access to speeches, public events, and other moving images that are being digitally remastered by Deluxe Entertainment Services Group, whose clients include top Hollywood studios. For instance, Kennedy's speech for his inaugural address was recently digitally remastered, Roth says, and the archive is looking to remaster additional speeches, televised press conferences, and Kennedy’s home movies.

Eight years in the making, the digitization effort has paid dividends, technologically speaking. The library has doubled traffic to its site to more than 2 million visitors a year since the archive went live.

Library staffers—made up of employees from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and the National Archives and Records Administration—have been working in high gear in preparation for the 50th anniversary of a number of historic events leading up to Kennedy’s assassination on November 22.

Library Director Tom Putnam says that while thousands of documents from Kennedy’s presidency have yet to be digitized, archivists have more recently focused their efforts on Kennedy-related events from 1963, such as the signing of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, to name a few.

“It’s getting toward November, so people are getting a little frantic,” archivist Erica Boudreau told American Libraries this summer.

Putting JFK in context

The digitization project also has helped bolster the library’s education outreach efforts using interactive content from the website. In the “Integrating Ole Miss” interactive exhibit, for instance, students are challenged to review documents and other media to understand the event and its place in history.

Putnam says the digitization effort has made it easier for the library’s education department to assemble new lesson plans and teaching materials as more information is made available online. “Our director of education used to, like the others, have to go down to the reference room and spend hours going through files,” Putnam says. Now the documents are just a few keystrokes away.

Nancy McCoy, director of education and public programs, says the library develops lesson plans and curriculum guides for teachers—elementary through high school—on an ongoing basis. Most recently, the library launched its "1963 Civil Rights Movement" interactive exhibit, which includes 10 lesson plans, she says.

A John F> Kennedy campaign pin.The civil rights movement was also the focus this year of the library’s annual spring conference for librarians and 3rd- to 8th-grade educators. Breakout sessions included workshops on selecting books on the civil rights movement for library displays and gave attendees the chance to meet with authors and historians. Past topics have included science and technology, the Peace Corps, and photography and illustration used in education.

The digital archive and education outreach work at the library is in addition to the hundreds of requests for documents the museum receives every year. Requests have spiked in recent months because of the anniversaries, but library staffers are using the museum’s digitization infrastructure to their advantage, encouraging researchers to order digital prints instead of photocopies by charging slightly less for the digital option.

Kelly Francis, assistant digital archivist for textual collections, says when the museum receives an order for digitized copies of a document, the archive staff will scan the entire folder containing the information. “Once the folder is done and we can publish it to the website, then it’s done and available to everyone,” she says.

Maura Porter, the library’s declassification archivist, says that as time goes on, digitization is going to “save a lot of time and money.”

Publishing information in its entirety is a guiding principle at the library. The website notes that providing “file level” access to data has the advantage of making digital archiving more efficient for archivists—who make the information discoverable through metadata. An added benefit: Providing access to unabridged folders also mirrors the research room experience.

Porter says maintaining the integrity of a folder’s contents is important because it creates a context for “what was happening in the White House that day.”

“I think people don’t understand that these [folders] were created at the White House level,” she says. “You can put yourself right in the Oval Office.”

Treasures in the vault

While the library’s interactive exhibits provide context for important historical events, the data available at the file level is abundant with hidden gems of information about Kennedy.

Francis says she discovered one of these hidden treasures when she came across a letter from author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. when he was volunteering for Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign. It would still be another nine years before he would publish his seminal novel, Slaughterhouse-Five.

“I’ve published two novels and am a regular contributor of fiction to the Saturday Evening Post, Ladies’ Home Journal, McCall’s, and so on. On occasion, I write pretty well,” Vonnegut wrote in 1960.

Not all discoveries are so obvious, says Lindsay Closterman, the library’s audio/visual metadata cataloger. Closterman often has to play history detective as part of her duty scanning and providing information about photographs from the Kennedy White House. About a third of the 30,000 images in the White House photograph archive are available online, according to Closterman. She says “shot cards” by the president’s photographers, which include information about the photos, are sometimes vague or incomplete. It’s her job to fill in the blanks.

John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy on their wedding day.Closterman says she was recently reminded of a discovery she made about two years ago when trying to identify a White House staff member serving food at a luncheon for First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. She finally identified the man by cross-referencing the photo with another picture of White House staff from a 1967 issue of Ebony magazine. In that photograph, Sammy Davis Jr. was pictured with three White House staff members, one of whom was identified as Eugene Allen. Allen served as a butler at the White House through several administrations and was memorialized in the 2013 film The Butler starring Forest Whitaker (as Allen) and Oprah Winfrey.

“A few months ago I found out about the movie and I thought, ‘I know who that is,’” Closterman says.

Porter says the digital archive allows anyone to play history detective.

“I tell people, ‘Do some research, spend an afternoon,’” she says. “It’s not just for scholars; it’s for everyone. Pick a subject and spend four hours and review the files. You won’t regret it.”

Honoring JFK’s legacy

While the digital archive has a seemingly endless supply of information about Kennedy, it is short on documents concerning his assassination. That’s because the information is stored at the National Archives and Records Administration. Putnam says the library primarily focuses on Kennedy’s life and accomplishments in office rather than the way in which he died. But the library will hold a “simple ceremony” on the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s death, he says.

The digital archive honors Kennedy’s legacy as a champion of technology, he says, noting that the president had the foresight to realize that technology would allow scholars remote access to his papers. He says Kennedy summed it up best during a 1962 press conference: “Through scientific means of reproduction, microfilms, and all the rest, it is possible to make documents available generally here in Washington, and through the Archives, the Library of Congress, and at the libraries.… As time goes on, we will find it possible to reproduce the key documents so that they will be commonly available.”

TIMOTHY INKLEBARGER is a freelance reporter in Chicago. He has written for the Associated Press, Consumers Digest, Chicago Journal and Pensions & Investments.

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Online Interaction Exhibits

Visitors to the Kennedy Library website can use the library’s internal search engine to dig through unabridged files. Library staffers suggest picking a topic and spending a few hours putting the pieces together yourself. American Libraries recommends visiting these interactive exhibits and historic archives to jump-start your journey.

  • Civil Rights Timeline: This interactive exhibit draws from 230 primary sources, including paper, film, and audio files, to explore milestones in the civil rights movement.
  • World on the Brink—JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis: The 13-day standoff between the US and the Soviet Union comes to life in this exhibit that gives a day-by-day account of the crisis. Listen to secretly recorded meetings with the president, review formerly classified documents, and much more.
  • We Choose the Moon: Blast off virtually with the crew of Apollo 11 in the historic 1969 moon landing. This computer-animated tour of the flight features historic audio and video footage of the launch and Kennedy’s call to action.
  • The President’s Desk: This virtual tour allows visitors to sit at the president’s desk, read his daily calendar, look at his personal photographs, and listen to his phone calls
  • JFK50: The library’s award-winning site uses a graphic novel–style approach to educate visitors about historical events from JFK’s presidency, from the Bay of Pigs to the moon landing to his work in the civil rights movement.
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