This is the last post in a two-part series in which Clay Jenkinson, Theodore Roosevelt Humanities Scholar, reflects on a recent visit to Theodore Roosevelt Island.
We walked around for about an hour, talking about TR together in several ways. We could not help but talk about our work in creating a national Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library, of course, and the uses we were making of our digitization budgets. Like all project coordinators, we were talking shop, exploring how we could use the imagery of the place, how the designs we were experiencing for the first time might inform the TR Center we intend to build. But we also found ourselves just talking TR—the man, his character, his energy, his leadership, the range of his interests, his enormous reading, whether he would like the memorial, how he might quibble with the quotations, whether he would feel that the statue by Manship captured him or missed his essence, whether he would think the TR Memorial too grand or (more likely) insufficiently grand.
At one point, I wanted to know something about the origins of the memorial. So Sharon pulled out her cell phone and actually pulled up our fabulous new website. She searched for documents we have received and cataloged from the TR Island folks, and (after a couple of minutes of touchscreen activity) pulled up precisely the documents we needed to deepen our experience of TR Island. When she had done so, we looked up at the same moment and made eye contact. THIS is why we are doing this; this is why the electronic revolution is so important. Here we are 1,500 miles from the TR Center, searching the 8,000 or so documents we already have cataloged, on a tiny handheld device, finding what we need to understand TR better and increase the satisfaction of our journey. It was overwhelming to think of what a fundamental revolution in research, travel, tourism, and historical understanding the digitization of culture represents. First, we had initiated this vast project. Then we had, thanks to our friend Valerie Naylor, the superintendent of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, entered into a partnership with six National Park Service properties, including TR Island. They had digitized their holdings at our request and working with protocols we agreed upon. Then they had sent us those materials. Our staff had cataloged the TR Island documents and applied the essential metadata to each “image.” We had put them on our site. Now we were in the field somewhere, wanting to know about the very place we were standing, and we used a handheld device to travel electronically to Dickinson, ND, and to thumb through the documents, documents which were digitized not more than a couple of miles from where we were now standing.
It’s little short of an electronic miracle. And we are just getting started.
Eventually, we had to walk back to the parking lot in search of our taxi driver, who had assured us he would return to pick us up. Miraculously, he was actually there waiting. And later he took me to the airport.
It was a perfect capstone to our trip to Washington. I am extremely glad that I had the chance to visit the Memorial for the first time. I am even gladder that I got to experience it with Sharon Kilzer, who has done so much to further the work of the Theodore Roosevelt Center. It would have been a much less interesting moment had she gone one morning and I the next. It was being there together that made it so lovely for us. As we walked back along the trail to the parking lot, Sharon, in her usual up-beat way, smiled and said, “What did you think?”
I said, “I’m going to come spend some time just sitting here every time I come to Washington, DC, hereafter. Before this project began I had no idea there WAS a Theodore Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, DC, and even when I knew of its existence I was completely off the mark about its scale and its magic. I came expecting something very low key, perhaps merely a statue on a pedestal and a single quotation by our hero. Now I realize that this is one of the great DC monuments, tucked away (TR wouldn’t like that very much!), but more impressive when you get to it because it WAS tucked away. There is something appropriate about TR’s monument being erected in the woods; his cousin FDR’s memorial would inevitably be urban. Jefferson is probably a little jealous of TR, and probably would prefer to swap locations.”
You know you have been to a great memorial when it lingers with you later, and inspires you to work harder at your mission, to take your life more seriously, and to do honor to those who have shaped civilization so profoundly.
We will be back—again and again. I hope, sometimes, together.
Photo courtesy of Clay Jenkinson