JFK library to put all its records online

JFK in Oval Office with children, AP The digitised archive will help to humanise views of JFK, says the library's director.

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The presidential library commemorating the life of US President John F Kennedy is digitising every scrap of paper, video, audio and artefact it possesses.

The project is the largest by one of the 13 presidential libraries.

Materials already digitised include secret phone conversations about the Cuban missile crisis.

There are also recordings of meetings discussing Vietnam, civil rights and the space race, school report cards and letters from JFK to his mother.

"We are scanning every single piece of paper, movie and audio tape we have in our possession," Tom Putnam, JFK library director told BBC News.

"Unlike other libraries there is no archivist making a decision about what they think you would like to see," he said. "We are showing everything we have."

To date more than 200,000 pages have been digitised along with 1,500 photos, 72 reels of film and 300 reels of audio tape containing 1,245 individual recordings of telephone conversations, speeches and meetings.

"That is a very small fraction of the millions of papers we have here," said Mr Putnam.

The library's total archive encompasses 48 million pages, 7,000 hours of audio recordings, 16,000 museum artefacts and 400,000 photographs.

The Kennedy online library is said to be the largest to be converted from pre-digital formats.

Libraries of more recent presidents already have a wealth of digital holdings. For instance, Bill Clinton's library contains more than 20 million e-mail messages.

Technical help
JFK library search, JFK Library The online archive will open up the library to anyone with a net connection

The project has cost more than $6.5m (£4.1m) with some funding and help from technology companies AT&T, EMC, Iron Mountain and Raytheon.

The project was announced to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the year that JFK took office as the 35th President of the United States.

Mr Putnam said the digitisation project had two main aims. To preserve the materials in the collection and to give anyone the ability to see the archives without having to travel to Boston.

He also believes that by making the archive easier to access the story of JFK will become better known and better appreciated. He said it would also democratise the study of history because anyone would now be able to walk through the archive and re-interpret events.

"Our hope is that people see him in a new light as a fully rounded person," said Mr Putnam. "We face the challenge as many institutions do that in honouring fallen leaders, they can seem larger than life and are often mythicised."

"He gave a speech that said the greatest enemy of truth is often not the lie but the myth," said Mr Putnam. "By having access to this material we hope to give people a much fuller sense of him as a person."

There were a host of examples of this human side showing through, said Mr Putnam. One of his favourite occurred during the Cuban missile crisis.

At the time JFK was in the White House when, after reading an official document, he handed it to his daughter Caroline. It has her little girl scrawl on it where she was practising his signature.

"Even that notion as he held the fate of the world in his hands," said Mr Putnam "there was this four or five year old daughter before him.

"You have a sense that this is something historians might not pick up on but that might have influenced his decision to take a more cautious approach over Cuba and not lead the world into a nuclear holocaust," said Mr Putnam.

Mr Putnam said missing from the library were materials documenting JFK's dalliances with actress Marilyn Monroe. Also left out are materials on his assassination which is covered extensively at other institutions.

"Our story ends when he passes away, igniting a national tragedy," said Mr Putnam.

President Kennedy served 1,000 days in office before he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas on 22 November, 1963.

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