What struck me most about my experience working with the digital collection at the Theodore Roosevelt Center was the humanizing effect it had on my perspective of Roosevelt.
Honestly, I expected the experience, which was conducted entirely online, to be a bit more clinical. I never met any of my fellow interns or TRC staff in person, and I never traveled any further than to a coffee shop or my living room to do my work. I figured that working with digital information would be a bit like doing data entry. There were moments where it was occasionally repetitive or simplistic, but otherwise, I could have almost been in the archives. Fortunately, I never had to make a trip to Harvard or to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, or the Library of Congress to see and interact with the documents on which I worked. Ok, truthfully, I would really love to visit those places, but it’s not very feasible for me. Plus, bringing their resources together across such great distances and having them accessible at any time is an impressive feat.
As I began my work, I read through Roosevelt’s personal letters, public speeches, and pored over political cartoons and gorgeous images of the Dakota Badlands. I imagined what pages of sheet music written in Roosevelt’s honor would sound like, if they were to be performed. All of these elements, though they were from various collections, came together to create a holistic, realistic, human picture of Roosevelt.
Now, in my view, Theodore Roosevelt is one of the more well-known and widely admired presidents of the United States. However, it’s easy to get caught up in what we are simply taught in school. As a teacher of United States history, I should know. I use these interesting stories to help my students remember what they need to know about him, his presidency, and the time in which he lived. But, Theodore Roosevelt is more than “Teddy,” or a Rough Rider, or a conservationist, or a man who spearheaded a third political party and survived an assassination attempt.
Roosevelt was a man who wrote heartfelt letters to his son, Quentin, while he was an airman in France during The Great War, urging Quentin to marry his dear fiancée as soon as possible. Roosevelt was a doting grandfather who loved to take walks with his wife and made impassioned speeches about his views on what the government should really be doing in regard to The Great War. He so greatly loved the outdoors and did so much to preserve them that there is now a national park bearing his name. The Theodore Roosevelt Center would not be located where it is without his love of hunting and ranching. He was the type of person who touched others and was greatly admired in his day, well beyond the terms of his presidency. So many of the letters I read were written by Roosevelt in response to requests from people across the country, asking for support, advice, and of course, asking him to make a speech. Often times he would not be able to contribute any advice, and was not able to accept the massive amount of requests for speechmaking. However, he did not blindly turn down requests. I recall one case in which a girl with seven siblings had written to him, asking for help since her father had been fired from his job at the post office. The father’s income was the only support for this family, and Roosevelt, though unable to vouch for the man personally since he did not know him, still sent word to the postmaster to look into the matter in the hopes that the father could regain his job. Roosevelt even told the girl to take his letter to the postmaster herself, as corroborating evidence to ensure that the matter was called to attention. Really, it seems that Roosevelt was a kind, family man, with the best interests of the American people at heart.
It is so wonderfully surprising and pleasing that we today should be able to know such an incredible man as Roosevelt. Though we may learn of him through the use of technology that is beyond the wildest imagination of someone living in his time, it is no less real, no less heartfelt or intriguing or complex, and no less human than if we had known him ourselves.
Katie Sipps is an online distance student with the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. She is working toward her Masters of Library and Information Science with a concentration in archives. She lives in San Antonio, Texas, where she teaches high school history.