Four years after the Allen County Public Library prevailed against 30 competitors and acquired most of the defunct Lincoln Museum's 230,000-piece collection, Fort Wayne's distinction as a leading repository of Lincoln lore remains a near-secret library officials are eager to expose.
That mission has just been made a lot easier, thanks to the collection's role in one of the most popular movies in America and the acknowledgement of that involvement by one of the country's best-known and successful directors.
“Obviously, there's a lot of pride (at being included in the credits of Steven Spielberg's 'Lincoln'),” said Curt Witcher, manager of the library's special collections and renowned genealogical department. “History doesn't have to be old and dusty. It can be fun, and I'm 'geeked' when a good, historically accurate picture comes along."
That accuracy was aided by the collection itself, of course, but also by the technology that helped keep it in Fort Wayne. So far as anybody can tell, nobody associated with the film actually visited the library. The Lincoln family photos seen in the film appear to have been taken from the images on the library's web site – a site that by the end of 2015 should contain digital reproductions of all of the books, photographs, newspaper clippings, personal letters and other items that could have gone elsewhere if not for the universal access the Internet provides.
“The promise to put everything on line is why (the library) won the competition for the two-dimensional pieces of Lincoln Library collection,” library spokeswoman Cheryl Ferverda said. Although the Indiana State Museum owns the artifacts in Fort Wayne as well as the former museum's three-dimensional pieces now kept in Indianapolis, the Allen County Public Library's reputation, its facility, world-renowned genealogy resources and the intervention of former Lincoln Financial Corp. CEO Ian Rolland convinced the Lincoln Financial Foundation to keep the bulk of the collection in what had been the company's home town until corporate offices moved o Philadelphia in 1999.
Despite that ongoing conversion of precious documents and photographs into electronic images, however, Witcher said much of the public and even some scholars don't appreciate Fort Wayne's wealth of information about the 16th president. “People still wonder where everything is.”
Thanks to the film and its prominent acknowledgement of the library's collection (living in a county starting with “A” has its advantages), a lot of people have had the opportunity to discover just that.
“Lincoln's” $21 million opening weekend earlier this month was the best ever for a narrative film about a real-life president. Among those viewers was Sara Gabbard, executive director of the Friends of the Lincoln Collection of Indiana. A scholar in her own right, she said Spielberg portrayed Lincoln not as a saint but as very human and even “modern” politician willing to use questionable means in the pursuit of noble ends.
“It showed how politically astute Lincoln was, offering patronage (jobs in exchange for support for the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery once and for all),” she said. “Think of what happened with Obamacare (which passed only after certain members of Congress received benefits for their states).”
In fact, Lincoln's battle to pass the amendment dominates the film. Although the symbolically important but legally dubious Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 had freed slaves in the Confederacy, slavery was not eliminated in the United States until Georgia became the 27th state to ratify the 13th Amendment on Dec. 6, 1865 – eight months after Lincoln's assassination.
Significantly, the film draws heavily from the final chapters of Doris Kearns Goodwin's 2005 book, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” – a work in which Goodwin also acknowledged her debt to the materials found in Fort Wayne.
“(The movie) fulfills the collection's purpose: We want to get this information out there,” Gabbard said.
As Witcher noted, state-mandated tests have caused schools to scale back the study of history just as budget cuts have curtailed field trips that might have exposed children to the Lincoln collection and other treasures. That's one reason the library offers periodic seminars on Lincoln and offers tours of the collection. But the web site – which receives about 30,000 visitors each month – remains the collection's window to the world.
“We hope the movie has 'legs,' ” Witcher said: The longer it remains in theaters, the more people may be inspired to learn more.
If so, Witcher, Gabbard and Ferverda hope they'll go where scholars and Hollywood have gone before.