War remnants: Penn State archivists welcome public’s input to preserve Civil War history

James Beaver, Camp Anthony Wayne, Philadelphia, 1876.
James Beaver, Camp Anthony Wayne, Philadelphia, 1876. Photo provided

Visitors to Penn State’s Pattee Library will have the opportunity to view several exhibits that highlight the library’s ongoing effort to collect, preserve and digitize Civil War-era documents.

One of these exhibits, “Pennsylvania Civil War Newspapers: Civil War Collection at Penn State,” features two Centre County newspapers from Oct. 14, 1864. These papers represent viewpoints from both sides of the conflict, which is an important aspect of the project according to Suzanne Kellerman, the library’s Judith O. Sieg Chair for Preservation.

“We wanted to make sure that we were collecting Republican papers, Democratic papers and independent papers so that we had a nice cross section of the content that was being published at the time,” Kellerman said. “We also wanted to make sure we had good representation from across Pennsylvania.”

The exhibit features just a small sample of the Civil War-era newspapers collected by the library’s digitization and preservation department. On the library’s website, visitors can browse digital newspapers from dozens of Pennsylvanian publishers. In 2006, Kellerman and her team began acquiring the papers from their own archives, as well as other libraries and universities, and they continue to update the online database with new additions.

A second exhibit, “Discovering the U.S. Civil War: Highlights from the Civil War Collection at Penn State,” features a variety of photo albums and essays that cover several aspects of the era. Also on display are samples from Emilie Davis’ diary, who was a free black woman living in Philadelphia during the conflict.

“Experiencing what she is seeing by reading her daily journal just brings all of this to life for us today,” Kellerman said.

Most of the content included in this exhibit comes from “The People’s Contest, A Civil War Era Digital Archiving Project,” an interactive website and archiving project created as a joint effort between the Penn State University Libraries and the university’s George and Ann Richards Civil War Center. One of the main goals of the project was to provide people with more information regarding daily life in Pennsylvania during the war.

“There had been very little scholarly research done on the experience of northerners during the Civil War, in particularly related to the non-military aspect,” said Sabra Statham, project coordinator for The People’s Contest.

The researchers hoped to correct this by digitizing an array of documents dealing with race, gender, politics and other issues from the point of view of Pennsylvanians who weren’t on the front lines. Not only can visitors of the site browse a large collection of essays and manuscripts, but they can also assist with the ongoing preservation efforts.

“We want to have typed, searchable versions of all of our (content),” Statham said. “We just introduced a transcription tool that allows volunteers to log on and transcribe documents.”

This transcription tool is an example of how the library’s preservation team wants to use crowdsourcing in order to acquire and offer more historical documents in the future. Like the newspaper archiving project, The People’s Contest is continuing to expand.

“We have yet to cover the entirety of the state, so we don’t see the end of it at this point,” Statham said.