A house divided and crumbling

Lincoln papers, presidential library in critical condition

click to enlarge Steven Beckett - UIUC.EDU
Steven Beckett
Steven Beckett
The Papers of Abraham Lincoln Project, which aims to digitize every document written by or read by the Great Emancipator, is in an existential crisis, the project’s director Thursday told an advisory board to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, where the project is headquartered.

On orders from the governor’s office, the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency that sponsors the project has refused to renew a contract with the University of Illinois Springfield that last year provided $243,000 in state money to pay employees. Except for Daniel Stowell, the project’s director, the project’s employees are university employees, but salaries come largely from the state as well as federal grants that require matching funds and private gifts.

In the past, matching money to obtain federal grants has come from the state, Stowell told the advisory board. Without state money, Stowell told the board that as much as $200,000 per year in federal grants could be lost for the project that began in the 1980s.

For now, employees remain on the job, Stowell said, with salaries coming from a UIS private foundation account that is rapidly being depleted.

“Ultimately, it (the lack of state money) means that there will be layoffs and there would likely be rolling layoffs to the point that I would be the staff of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, alone,” Stowell said at the board meeting held at the James R. Thompson Center in Chicago.

Joseph Beyer, a policy advisor to Gov. Bruce Rauner, blamed the lack of a state budget for the governor’s refusal to renew the funding contract with UIS.

“Until a balanced budget is passed (by the general assembly), the belief is the agency cannot in good faith enter into a new contract,” Beyer said.

Beyer questioned whether funds to replace state dollars could be found elsewhere, perhaps from UIS or the Abraham Lincoln Association, a private non-profit group that has helped pay for the project. Stowell said that there is less than $20,000 in the ALA account used to fund the project. There is more than $300,000 in a UIS account for the project, Stowell said, but that money has been allocated for things other than matches to obtain federal dollars.

The project is facing an Oct. 8 deadline to apply for a federal grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, which has funded the project in the past, Stowell said. The grant was expected to help pay for the project next year. Stowell said that it could well take “a few years” to again land a NHPRC grant if the state doesn’t apply for a grant next month.

“It would be my professional opinion that it would be difficult to get back into it,” Stowell said.

Board members voted unanimously to issue a resolution urging the governor and “if appropriate” general assembly to provide sufficient funding to leverage federal grant dollars.

“We’re talking about a project that is digitizing every piece of paper that Abraham Lincoln either wrote or read in his life,” said Steven Beckett, board chairman. “We’re about to close it down and call it quits. We’re rapidly about to come the land of not-Lincoln. That’s just wrong, in my opinion.”

After the meeting, Beckett said that he asked Chris Wills, IHPA spokesman, to distribute the resolution to the media, but Wills refused. The IHPA has also balked at releasing the contract between the agency and UIS. When Illinois Times asked for a copy of the contract last week, a spokesperson for the governor’s office demanded a formal request under the state Freedom of Information Act. The paper subsequently obtained a copy from UIS. Illinois Times last week reminded the governor’s staff that a Sept. 8 email to IHPA requesting the contract qualifies as a FOIA request under state law, but has received no response from the agency. Under state law, the deadline for a response was Tuesday.

Via email, Wills denied that he had refused to distribute the resolution.

"That implies there's some automatic requirement to send news releases whenever someone affiliated with the agency wants to make an announcement," Wills wrote. "In this case, after consulting with the governor's office, we have chosen not to distribute the resolution because it does not represent the ALPLM's or the IHPA's official position."

One advisory board member – it wasn’t clear whom from a teleconference broadcast of the meeting – said that the project should find a new home if the state won’t pay for it.

“We have not made those inquiries yet,” Stowell responded. “As you say, this is the land of Lincoln. It seems to belong in Illinois, with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.”

Board member Patrick Reardon called the project a “treasure.”

“It’s like giving away the crown jewels,” Reardon said. “We have to take care of our important stuff.”

Advisory board members at Thursday’s meeting also discussed the deterioration of the library division of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, which was recently chronicled by Illinois Times (“Ghost of a Library,” Sept. 10). Staff shortages have become so acute that departments are closing earlier in the day than scheduled due lack of staff.

Board members discussed the possibility of requiring researchers to schedule appointments 48 hours in advance. Patrons now can simply walk in unannounced to conduct research. The notion of research-by-appointment didn’t sit well with Sam Wheeler, a research historian for ALPLM. He called such an idea “reckless.”

“I think the conversation should not be about restricting hours at all at this presidential library,” Wheeler told the advisory board. “I think we should be talking about the appropriate people to hire so that we can begin rebuilding our library.”

The library lacks a cataloguer and an acquisitions specialist. Kathryn Harris, the former director, has not been replaced since her retirement last spring. The library recently hired an audio-visual specialist, but he is working on a contract basis and is not a full-fledged state employee.

Wheeler said that the library needs employees, not contract workers.

“We need fulltime staff,” Wheeler said. “We need folks who are young, ambitious, who have good educations who want to participate in rebuilding this wonderful institution. In my opinion, we don’t get there with short-term workers that we don’t pay health insurance for.”

Harris in a recent interview said that the library’s staff has been reduced by more than 50 percent since opening day in 2004, largely through attrition. Wheeler and Gwenith Podeschi, the institution’s last remaining research librarian, told the board that hiring a new library director is critical.

Beckett agreed that it’s important to hire a new director and permanent employees instead of contract workers.

“I’m hearing this is essential to keep this place open and functioning,” Beckett said. “But I don’t see that happening.”

Nadine O’Leary, ALPLM chief of staff, said that IHPA can’t hire for any job that falls under collective bargaining agreements.

“Currently, there is a freeze on posting all positions and hiring at this point, so we are unable to post any positions,” O’Leary said.

O’Leary said that the freeze doesn’t apply to a library director, who would not be a union member. When Beckett asked wither the director’s job has been posted to attract candidates, Eileen Mackevich, ALPLM director, said that she has spent “a great deal of time talking to potential directors of library services.”

“Is there money for it?” Beckett asked.

“If the (state) budget is passed, yes,” Mackevich answered.

Here’s a copy of the resolution approved yesterday: PDF

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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