Celebrating Emancipation, Preserving Freedom

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Celebrating Emancipation, Preserving Freedom

2013-01-16 16:27

January 1, 2013, marked the 150th Anniversary of Lincoln's final Emancipation Proclamation, and a special issue of the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, of which I am proud to be the Assistant Editor, commemorates this transformative moment in American history. Yet it is not just because I've spent the last few months editing the latest scholarship on emancipation that freedom has been on my mind. I am also the Project Director for an exciting digital history project for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania entitled Preserving American Freedom. For this project, made possible by a generous grant from Bank of America, 50 documents from HSP's collections that explore American freedom over more than 300 years will soon be presented online. Users will be able to explore facsimiles of the original documents, read their transcriptions, and learn more about the people, organizations, and events associated with them through scholarly essays, document descriptions, annotations, biographies, a timeline, and related media, including images and links to other documents in HSP's digital library. For this project, Eric Foner, the foremost historian of American freedom, has contributed a brilliant contextual essay on this topic's contested legacy, which is also reprinted with his permission in PMHB's January 2013 issue.

Freedom is complicated. The Emancipation issue of PMHB makes this clear—over 100 pages of scholarship grapple with the context and legacy of one document from one defining era of American history. A copy of the Emancipation Proclamation is one of the documents from HSP's collections that users will be able to explore when the Preserving American Freedom project goes live. There are 49 other documents featured in the project, each with a legacy as difficult to encapsulate.

How do we at the HSP take on such an expansive task as "Preserving American Freedom" when freedom is difficult to define, so fraught with conflict? This question has no definitive answer, but I have some thoughts. First, we preserve the written and physical heritage of American history—a history that has been constantly shaped by the idea of and struggle for freedom—literally: by performing top-notch conservation work, by housing these items safely and securely, and by digitizing these objects so their contents might live on even after they have physically crumbled away. Crucially, we also preserve American freedom by sharing these documents with the public. By providing and encouraging access to these historic works, the ideas and stories they tell live on in people's minds and hearts—to be commemorated and celebrated, yes, but also to be played with, wrestled with, and used to view the past, present, and future in new lights. In so doing, we not only tell and re-tell stories about American freedom, we participate in freedom's legacy of struggle, striving, and innovation.

The Preserving American Freedom project will not tell a simple narrative of American freedom—no such story exists. But it will provide the opportunity not just for the HSP but for all the project's visitors to continue Preserving American Freedom by continuing to engage with its complicated legacy.

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