Chronicling Illinois… chronicling us.

What is the legacy of a President of the United States? It’s measured in the effects of his (or, in the future) her administration’s management of their time in power, but also the way that decisions made in those corridors of power resonate through the years afterwards… and even further back into history, as the decades pass.

In recent years, the National Archives and Records Administration has established a national network of thirteen 20th-21st century Presidential libraries in the home states of each President, starting with that of Herbert Hoover. However, over the sweep of more than two centuries, earlier libraries – often run by private foundations – have established an archive of individual Presidential legacies; so perhaps it’s no surprise that the state of Illinois established the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (ALPLM).

Lincoln may have been born, technically, in Kentucky, but he made his ‘bones’ in Illinois as the lawyer who would eventually – as the 16th President of the United States – abolish slavery, safeguard the federal government, and save a devastated economy.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum contains thousands of primary documents, books, pamphlets, photographs, broadsides, ephemera, and artifacts related to the life and times of Abraham Lincoln.

For the use of the general public, students, and scholars, Chronicling Illinois provides digital access holdings that include more than 6,000 individual manuscript collections, hundreds of newspapers, and tens of thousands of photographic and audiovisual materials pertaining to significant aspects of Illinois history. Chronicling Illinois showcases digitized collections and exhibits from the ALPLM’s diverse holdings.

In between a treasure trove of papers and documents – ranging from Lincoln’s sheet music; letters of condolence from world leaders after Lincoln’s assassination; and Civil War song sheet music collections – perhaps the most interesting artifacts to researchers would be those located in The Illinois Photographic Collection; which contains images from the more than 400,000 photographs and 5,000 broadsides.

The images represent aspects of the social, cultural, educational, economic, political, and military experience in Illinois during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Types of photographic technology in the collection include daguerreotype (the earliest commercial photographic process), ambrotype, tintype, glass negatives, albumen prints, stereograph, safety, and polyester film.

It’s fair to say that the research behind these images is exhaustive; within one picture from the “American Civil War Collection” subsection, and amazing photograph identifies the following in a photograph of Grant and his nine officers sit or stand under a tent during the American Civil War. The men are: Ulysses S. Grant, Adam Badeau, Cyrus Comstock, Frederick T. Dent, William L. Duff, John A. Rawlings, Henry Robinett, Ely S. Parker, and Horace Porter. There is only one unrecognized officer… which is pretty good going after 150+, or so, years…

However, the core beauty of the collection – both in terms of the images themselves, but also as a meditation on Lincoln’s legacy – is how the years after his passing, in Illinois, have become increasingly recorded… and how his era and then subsequent ones, up until the present, have melded into a continuous – if abstract – skein of events. A skein that passes through Lincolns’ time up until now: through our leisure times, our incarceration of those who would commit criminal acts; the portraits of children of both races playing baseball in a world that Lincoln might not even have imagined (but would probably have been proud of).

Other subsection collections include a host of images from other eras in Illinois life, and whether it’s a document the aftermath of the 1937 Ohio River flood (the Dan Reeves Collection); the political cartoons of Harold H. Heaton from 1885-1924; churches being built as recorded by the Great River Region Collection; or even back to the portraits of the men who tried to steal the body of Abraham Lincoln (on the night of November 7, 1876), we can see the time and tide of history and our place within it.

What would Lincoln make of photography now: of the prevalence of it? The ubiquity of both pool parties and transgressions recorded – as still images and videos – on a volume that he could never have comprehended? It’s fair to say that he would have approved of emancipation images of black workers in factories standing side by side with white people….

That is speculation, of course, but whatever his thoughts might have been, he would probably have approved, overall, of the sheer accreted range of human endeavor, in the contents of the Illinois Photographic Collection.

For image reproduction requests:

Many thanks to writer Simon Herbert for contributing to this piece.

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