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Seeing Modern Connections in the Digital Library

Oct 06, 2010

Over the summer, the Theodore Roosevelt Center had four remote interns who worked primarily on cataloging parts of the collection. At the end of the summer, we asked them to write a blog entry about their experience. This is the fourth and final installment of the series. We hope you enjoyed!

For me, the process of cataloging was enlivened by the fact that after working through numerous letters about political appointees, government scandals and party politics I would happen upon a letter whose topic would give me something to think about that I found still relevant to society and policy a century later.

Sometimes these insights were related to issues close to home. For example, as a Montanan I enjoyed reading correspondence related to Yellowstone National Park, particularly President Roosevelt’s trip there in the spring of 1903. I found it surprising that the President originally intended to hunt mountain lions while in the park, but eventually gave up the idea of hunting during his trip. This decision was due in part to criticisms such as that reflected in a cartoon sent to the President depicting the departure of wildlife from the West in anticipation of the President’s heavily armed arrival (seen at the left). I also found it interesting to run across comments related to the extension of park boundaries to include the winter migration areas of park wildlife. Major Pitcher, park superintendent, noted in 1903 that “the question is still unsettled” and, 107 years later, the issues over management of bison and elk winter ranges surrounding the park remain highly contentious.

Other letter topics, though further removed geographically, are also connected to modern debates. I was particularly struck by the relevance of the American experience in the Philippines to current events in Iraq and Afghanistan. Detailed letters from Governor Taft covered topics ranging from American military campaigns among the Muslim tribes of Mindanao to corruption among American officials. One episode that cast an unwelcome shadow over my otherwise positive impression of Roosevelt involved the detention of the Filipino independence leader Apolinario Mabini. A letter from Senator Hoar of Massachusetts to President Roosevelt in February of 1903 made a particularly convincing argument that the President was in the wrong. The Senator protested the fact that Mabini was still in prison in Guam even after the President had stated that “Mabini is not in prison at all, but free to go anywhere in the wide world he wishes,” though the President further clarified that he really meant anywhere “excepting the Philippines.” As I read about Mabini, I found that I agreed with Hoar’s argument that if Roosevelt had read of him “in Plutarch, or in the history of any other country, or of our country at any other time” he would have admired “the character, quality and heroism of the man.” As it happened, Mabini did agree to take an oath of allegiance to the United States in order to be allowed to return to the Philippines, though he died there of cholera a few months later.

My perception of the contents of other letters was also colored by the prism of modern society. For example, I was shocked to read a letter from Major Llewellyn updating the President regarding a litany of murder cases involving former Rough Riders, including the case of the imprisoned Frank Brito, who “was shooting at his wife at the time he killed his sister-in-law.” In this letter I saw not only a tribute to the “roughness” of these individuals, but also a reflection of the current question in American society regarding the degree to which violence by veterans may relate to their military service and wartime experiences.

While I worked with only a sliver of the documents being made available through the TR Center, my experience with these primary materials renewed my sense that they can give us both insight into the past and a fresh perspective on the present.

Daryl Grenz graduated from the University of Washington with his MLIS in June. He now lives with his family in Yanjiao, China.

Posted by Daryl Grenz on Oct 06, 2010 in History  |  Permalink  |  Comments (0)  |  Share this post

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