Virtual life for Main Library’s Lincoln collection


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More than 1,000 rare artifacts documenting the life of Abraham Lincoln have moved beyond display cases and are now available online.

In conjunction with the bicentennial celebration of Lincoln’s birth, the UI Main Library’s collection of original documents was digitized for the Iowa Digital Library.

The project began last semester, and with the help of graduate student fellows in Special Collections, the new resource was made available to the public last week for free, online viewing of the historical documents.

“You learn more about these historical figures than just what the history books are saying when you get to see the actual writings for yourself,” said Kristi Bontrager, the coordinator of public relations for the UI Libraries. “With these documents, you get a real inside look into someone’s life.”

A wide variety of documents illustrate the history of the nation’s 16th president on the university website, including personal letters, postcards, and portraits. The collection features more than 800 pieces from the James W. Bollinger collection. Bollinger — a lawyer and judge from Davenport who spent his life collecting Lincoln books, journals, and memorabilia — left the collection to the UI after his death in 1951.

“This digital collection allows us to bring some of the many fascinating pieces collected by Judge Bollinger to a much wider audience,” Greg Prickman, the assistant head of the libraries’ Special Collections, said in a UI news release.

Images of playbills for productions starring John Wilkes Booth, a pamphlet of Lincoln’s favorite poem, and railroad photos from the late 1800s decorate the site. Handwritten letters from the president are high-valued glimpses at lesser-known, historic conversations.

“Many professors are really starting to emphasize teaching with primary documents,” said UI history Associate Professor Leslie Schwalm, who studies Civil War era history. “It involves a much closer examination of the subject, and it’s always a little more exciting for students than a textbook would be.”

The UI’s digital library is growing fast, Bontrager said. With more than 225,000 artifacts, including the newly added Lincoln collection, the online source has more than doubled in size since last year.

And just four years ago, the concept was only getting started, Bontrager said.

Another digitized addition is launching on Tuesday with a collection documenting a 1930s UI television station, the first educational TV station in the country, according to the UI Special Collections website.

“The online collections are a really wonderful way in which the university library is bringing its resources to all of the state,” Schwalm said.

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