Last December, Fort Wayne proudly beat the odds and 30 other suitors by keeping its hands on much of the defunct Lincoln Museum's 230,000-piece collection.
Now, with little fanfare, a handful of employees in the basement of the Allen County Public Library are working on a project of equal importance: The task of converting those priceless photographs, letters, pamphlets, books and other items into digital images that will not only help preserve the original, but make the history of America's 16th president more accessible to browsers and scholars, alike.
“We've got 75 images on our Web site so far,” explained librarian Jane Gastineau, who came with the collection from the Lincoln Museum, which was located in the Renaissance Square Building at 200 E. Berry St. - the apparent future home of city government - until closing in June 2008. The scanning of photographs and written materials in order to convert them into digital images is only a small part of the job. Far more laborious is the task of matching the images to other historical facts so that all are available simultaneously using a standard computer search engine.
Although much of the vital information was in the defunct museum's archives, it was not always in one place, turning Gastineau and fellow Lincoln librarian Cindy VanHorn into sleuths who must scour the collection - and sometimes outside sources - for the information needed to provide context and background.
It was the library's on-site digital capability, in fact, that helped keep the collection in Fort Wayne. Although the Indiana State Museum owns the entire Lincoln collection and will keep and display its three-dimensional artifacts, the library is the long-term custodian of the photographs, books and other two-dimensional photographs which until now had mostly been accessible only in person. Once the digital conversion process is complete - and nobody's sure exactly when that will be - a simple click of a computer mouse will open the collection to people anywhere in the world.
But won't that in some way diminish the collection's importance and appeal - not to mention its potential benefit to the local economy? Why visit Fort Wayne when you can peruse thousands of documents from the comfort of home?
Gastineau and Special Collections Manager Curt Witcher don't think that will be a problem.
Witcher, who also manages the library's world-class genealogy center, said the 10,000 genealogical documents on the Internet have only whetted people's thirst for even more information, especially original documents that provide not only information, but a real-world inspirational and emotional connection with people and events of the past.
“(On the Internet), you don't have a sense that the envelope for that Civil-War letter was only this big,” Gastineau said, holding her fingers a few inches apart.
For that reason, the Lincoln collection should be a “magnet” for library business, predicted library spokeswoman Cheryl Ferverda, who admitted to being pleasantly surprised when the library was chosen to host the collection - an arrangement she believes will ultimately benefit the artifacts, the city and the public despite the initial disappointment over the loss of the Lincoln Museum.
But all that will cost money, which is why former Lincoln National Corp. head Ian Rolland - who was instrumental in keeping the collection in Indiana - is heading a fundraising effort to amass an endowment of up to $14 million. About $2.5 million in cash and pledges has been raised so far, but Ferverda said response to Rolland's appeals has been enthusiastic.
When they're not being scanned or reviewed, the Lincoln collection is stored in secured rooms where temperature and humidity are controlled to protect the precious artifacts in what Ferverda called the library's “Fort Knox.” The library is working with the Indianapolis museum to coordinate exhibits, and will work with schools and, perhaps, artists-in-residence to make the items - insured at more than $18 million - as accessible to the public as possible.
Ferverda is right: For all the local consternation that greeted the Lincoln Museum's closing, the library's involvement will prove to be a blessing in disguise. We've lost a marginal museum that gave casual visitors few reasons to return, but have gained a first-class, world-accessible repository of items that will soon receive the broader exposure they deserve.
And it's all happening in the basement.
E-mail Kevin Leininger at email@example.com, or call him at 461-8355.