Archivist of the United States on altered Lincoln document

Jan 27, 2011

David S. Ferriero, archivist of the United States, will be online Thursday, Jan. 27, at noon, to discuss the removal of a pardon issued by President Abraham Lincoln, in which dates were changed by a Woodbridge historian to amplify its significance and promote the historian's career.

Civil War 150

Welcome from the National Archives!  I am here with Trevor Plante, the archivist who made the discovery of the altered date.

David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States 

When people review documents from archives, how often is there a camera recording their actions? Is it time to require more photographic oversight, not just to prevent alterations, but removals?

The incident occurred in 1997 before security cameras were in place in all of the Archives research facilities.  "Photographic oversight" is now in place. 

In these days of the Internet, why not copy the archives and put all the records online? That way, people won't have to come to the archives to look at documents except in extreme cases, and they would be available 24/7 rather than when the archives is operating. Furthermore, Internet documents are generally searchable electronic records so people looking for ancestors will have a much easier job. This certainly would solve the issue of people altering or removing documents, an issue both the archives and the Library of Congress have faced. I also doubt there is any legal issue involved, since documents lose their copyright when they are over 70 years old.

My dream exactly!  The problem is that we have more than 10 billion pages at the moment.  We have a number of scanning projects underway, however.  It will be many years before everything is available digitally.

I was surprised to learn that amateur historians were given access to priceless original archives that included Lincoln material. What, if any, are the minimum qualifications needed to access this material?

One of the great things about the National Archives is that we are open to the public.  Researchers (14 years of age)need to register.  Access to certain "priceless original" materials may be available in an alternate format to cut down on wear and tear on original records. 

How widely has the story of this assassination-day pardon been disseminated? Is it in most modern scholarly and popular accounts of the assassination? Has it influenced scholarly theory about military justice or about Lincoln or the war, or just been a random anecdote without much impact? I'm assuming that with the recent Lincoln anniversary a few years ago, the story must have been repeated many times in books and articles. How best to retract it? Have you considered a talk or seminar at some annual Lincoln history conference?

Historians have used this story since it was first brought to light.

I have three books by Lowry on my shelves at home, each one of which supports his reputation as a historian. One of the most popular of them, "The Story the Soldiers Wouldn't Tell" was published in 1994 -- four years before the alteration that allegedly "jump-started" his career. Apart from the confession that Lowry now claims was forced, what evidence does the Archives have that he is in fact the guilty party? How many of its own employees had access to this document?

Mr.Ferriero, I don't mean to be disrespectful, but to many of us lay people this does not seem to be terribly important. We realize changing the date was wrong, but front page coverage on the Washington Post? Can you please explain? Thank you.

The Archivist of the United States has no control over where the Washington Post places a report! 

As both a historian and a young archival professional, I am wondering how much more restriction you will see being placed upon both researchers and archivists in reading room settings? Are additional cameras and biometrics the next step in archives for security?

Security is an ongoing and continually changing process as we learn more about human nature and new tools at our disposal to ensure that the records are protected.  Eternal vigilance is our mantra. 

Mr. Ferriero, thank you for addressing the public on this matter. Was the alteration physically done in the Woodbridge man's own hand, or, did he enlist a forger? Was the alteration readily noticeable? A history museum educator in Prince William County

His written and signed confession makes clear that he altered the document himself.

Why are you so sure Mr. Lowry did this? Do you question the methods used by the NARA IG?

Because he confessed (in writing) to the crime.

Mr. Ferriero, -- As someone who is an amateur in the archiving area - and a consumer - where could one find specifications and or standards (inquire with an archivist?) for archiving personal documents and photographs? Does the National Archives provide resources for personal archiving? Are there special scanners/hardware used at the National Archives, L.O.C., etc., and not typical consumer-based scanners? This is not a question in regards to the Lincoln Date Change story, but any thoughts would be much appreciated! Thank you.

The National Archives homepage (www.archives.gov/preservation/family-archives) has great information to get you started.  

I'm involved in preservation at another government agency. Why weren't the staff in your conservation department involved with examining this letter? Seems a bit odd not to have consulted your experts first.

The Conservation staff is currently examing the letter.

Years ago, at the Archives, I helped a sibling pore through microfiche copies of ships logs to find exactly when and how our ancestors emigrated from Germany. It was amazing to have this resource available to us--not scholars, not experts--just citizens, a combination of boredom and thrills when we found our great great grandparents' name on a ship bound to Baltimore. This is a wonderful national treasure, thank you for making it available to all.

Thanks!  I agree.  I was able to find the records of my own grandparents' arrival.  

Does the National Archives have facilities in other cities besides Washington? If so, what sort of documents are housed there? Thanks.

We have 44 facilities around the country, including regional records facilities and 13 Presidential Libraries.  Check out www.archives.gov for more information.

How do you decide which of those billion pages to put online?

We have staff here who have identified those records which are in most demand to the users and which have historic or intrinsic value.

The National Archives has to both make accessible and protect material. You mentioned cameras recording actions and the scanning of important documents. What other initiatives are underway or planned to balance those competing needs?

We have upgraded entrance and exit requirements and other new procedures to enhance security.

What kind of analysis has been done so far on the document and inks? Microscopic? Chemical?

We'll have more to say about this when the analysis is completed.

My disabled mother lives with me and enjoys all those court TV shows. Often a person will claim to have pled guilty to something or other on the advice of his lawyer" or to avoid a trial and possible long term of imprisonment. I've never really bought into this, but then I've never been in this situation. Which law enforcement agency was involved in obtaining the confession?

The National Archives Office of Inspector General who worked closely with the Department of Justice and National Archives Office of General Counsel.

If we know Lowry is capable of altering one document, this puts any document he's come in contact with under suspicion of being tampered with. Will the Archives make an effort to examine other documents Mr. Lowry used in his published works?

Archives staff will be reviewing other documents examined by Mr. Lowry.

Is there any chance that NARA or the Washington Post will look into the methods used by the current IG? This isn't the first time readers get the impression that his motives are more to ruin reputations than anything else.

The IG was doing his job.  Trevor Plante discovered the alteration based upon other records which contradicted the date and brought the situation to the attention of the IG.

The recently discovered altered date on the Lincoln Document - does this happen more often than we think? I never gave it much thought, since I do not understand any possible motivation for doing such a thing.

I hope not!  This is the first instance which we have discovered.

Thanks for joining our chat today. David only had time to chat for 30 minutes, so we're sorry to cut this short. Check out Lisa Rein's article for more details and information.

In This Chat
David S. Ferriero
David S. Ferriero was confirmed as 10th Archivist of the United States on November 6, 2009.

Previously, Mr. Ferriero served as the Andrew W. Mellon Director of the New York Public Libraries (NYPL). He was part of the leadership team responsible for integrating the four research libraries and 87 branch libraries into one seamless service for users, creating the largest public library system in the United States and one of the largest research libraries in the world. Mr. Ferriero was in charge of collection strategy; conservation; digital experience; reference and research services; and education, programming, and exhibitions.
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