Special Report

Woodrow Wilson’s Papers Go Digital, Leaving Microfiche Behind

This increased accessibility of Wilson’s papers coincides with a new wave of interest in the 28th president

Woodrow Wilson at his desk in the Oval Office c. 1913. (Library of Congress)
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Woodrow Wilson, diligent self-archivist that he was, likely would have been delighted to learn of the Library of Congress’s recent digitization of his presidential papers. In addition to directing significant legislative reforms and entering the United States into world war, the Progressive-era president wrote prolifically throughout his eight years in office. Now, thanks to work by Library of Congress archivists, the almost 300,000 documents in his official papers are now available online. As new debates continue to arise about Wilson’s legacy, scholars hope that this digitization project will encourage new generations to learn more about the 28th president.

The digitization comes at a time of reinvigorated controversy and interest in Wilson. A Democrat who was also part of the Progressive movement of the early 20th century, Wilson and his administration oversaw significant expansions of the federal government, with the authorization of the income tax, the establishment of the Federal Reserve, and the passage of various labor reforms. Combined with his subsequent campaign for a world without war, Wilson would seemingly be ripe for hero status among modern-day liberals. But his troubling views on race have brought forth denunciations from the left andattempts to distance their own “progressivism” from the 20th-century movement marred today for enduring white supremacy. From the right, his big-government legacy has drawn criticism from conservatives like Glenn Beck, who called his political beliefs an “insatiable thirst for control.”

David Greenberg, a presidential historian at Rutgers University, says that now is a “fortuitous moment to have these archives being digitized.”

Even though the Wilson papers have been accessible to historians for years, they can still be mined for new revelations, says Greenberg. The connections between Wilson’s era and today, when Americans are still struggling to resolve issues race relations, can lead those seeking answers to historical record. “Archives are important in furnishing information, but they only do so when you come to them asking new questions,” he says.

The timing of the papers’ digitization with the resurgence of Woodrow Wilson interest was expedient, if a bit coincidental. As Ryan Reft, a historian with the Library, explains, Wilson’s papers were technically under his own posthumous copyright for 70 years after his death in 1924. Though according to that standard, the papers would have been available sooner, the collection contains correspondence from individuals who outlived the President and whose copyrights therefore ended more recently.

“We’re just getting to the stage when we can start digitizing 20th-century collections without worrying about some of these legal issues,” says Reft. He explains that the digitization of Wilson’s papers came alongside the Library of Congress’s recent completion of the Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft digital collections, which he says work to support the historical scholarship that the new accessibility of Wilson’s papers will bring.

“With the three of them together you’re getting the three Progressive presidents online, which can only help scholars,” he says. “Progressivism is such a big umbrella, representing a broader view of things than people understand. With the three of them, you get a much more coherent grasp of how diverse – and also overlapping – that movement was in terms of political leadership.”

According to Reft, Wilson’s digital collection also will play an integral role in inspiring the next generation of history research.

“Come next year, when [teachers are] talking about free speech in World War I or the impact of the Versailles Treaty, they can actually pull up documents in Wilson’s own shorthand.” Though Wilson used abbreviations in his papers that are at times indecipherable even to historians, Reft emphasizes the educational value of such primary sources. “Even if the students can’t read it, it plants the seed in their head – you get them to connect the visual with the more important aspect of it,” he says.

The Library of Congress has long used their archives to help educators engage their students, offering grants to schools through their Teaching with Primary Sources program. Primary sources have become key in K-12 education, as a growing body of literature indicates that reading primary sources aids in students’ historical research and critique skills. Thanks to archivists’ digitization work, the Wilson Papers now can become a part of that LOC tradition.

Reft emphasizes the current importance of using primary sources in education given their minimal risk for bias. “Especially in an era when it’s unclear where sources and information come from, it’s advantageous to have this ability to clearly document facts about history, about Wilson, about movements in history,” he says. “This establishes an ability to identify what’s true, at least in terms of historical evidence.”

The papers proved to be especially labor-intensive and expensive to digitize, given the extent to which he wrote throughout his presidency. The presidential collection is one of the largest at the Library of Congress, containing about 280,000 documents.

Greenberg says that the size of Wilson’s collection reflects the president’s erudite and literary background that he brought to the White House as an academic and former president of Princeton University. “Wilson was a man of letters – the last of the literary giants of the presidents. He wrote his own speeches, and had a typewriter at his desk,” he says. Since Wilson’s administration narrowly preceded the advent of presidential speechwriters and press offices, Greenberg says that in his papers“you still really get Wilson’s own words and ideas on the page in a way that is direct and therefore revealing.”

Not only was Wilson a prolific writer, but he also was very methodical in keeping his own records. He organized his files by subject, instead of just chronologically: an unusual move that historians say is incredibly helpful in studying his administration. “Whether it’s the Versailles peace conference, race, women’s suffrage: you can get a full breadth over the eight years of his administration by using the subject files, says Eric Yellin, author of Racism in the Nation’s Service: Government Workers and the Color Line in Woodrow Wilson's America, who worked extensively in Wilson’s files prior to their digitization.

Yellin’s research centered on a Wilson subject file titled “Colored Affairs,” which reveals the administration’s eight-year long fight with civil rights activists who demanded that Wilson establish military equality for African-Americans during the war and resegregate the federal workforce. Yellin says that in reading chronological accounts of Wilson’s presidency the race issue can get swept aside, but reading the subject file shows the disturbing intensity of Wilson’s segregationist views.

Wilson’s unwavering belief in racial segregation has drawn more scrutiny in recent years, as students at Princeton demanded (to no avail) that his name be removed from their school of foreign policy. And in academic circles, many modern historians – Yellin included – have reopened the debate about the president’s social justice legacy.

“In the papers, you can see the moments when Wilson is standing up for democracy, supporting labor, and changing his mind on women’s suffrage. But you also see the moments when Wilson did not care about African-Americans and had no interest in supporting their rights as citizens,” Yellin says. “The papers allow you to see both of those, and force us as Americans to deal with this legacy that is very American: ambiguous and not easy to swallow in simple conservative-liberal terms.”

There are still more questions that historians continue to grapple with. The question of why Wilson decided to enter World War I in 1917, for example, continues to stir debate. Wilson’s desire to focus his presidency on domestic affairs and his long-held belief in neutrality made his decision to enter one of the world’s bloodiest wars surprising, and many still search for a historical window into his thought process.

“Historians go back and forth over why Wilson decided to declare war, but there’s no agreed-upon central thrust to it,” says Reft. “Whether or not the papers will help, that depends. I kind of doubt it, because they’ve been there for a while, but who knows?”

Sahr Conway-Lanz, the Library of Congress historian who oversaw the digitization project, says that this persistent question about Wilson reflects a significant gap in the president’s otherwise extensive collection: Wilson’s internal musings and personal voice. “Wilson really held his cards close to his chest and didn’t put a lot of his personal perspective down on paper,” he says. “Almost all of [Wilson’s documents] were public facing – a lot of his writing was drafting his own speeches and drafting public documents. He didn’t do a lot of explaining in his writing of himself.”

Conway-Lanz explains that this privacy reflects Wilson’s guarded personality and expertise in navigating the public eye. “But it could also be his political savvy. Wilson had studied politics for years before embarking on a political career, so he understood the perils of putting things down on paper.”

Thanks to Wilson’s circumspection, historians may never agree on the answers to some of these lingering questions about his presidency. However, debates about his extensive legacy –enlivened by his deep archive of papers – are far from over and will likely intensify in years to come.

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