In the Spot Light: Director of Papers of Abraham Lincoln Opens Windows to the Past

–by Nicole Harbour , Graduate Assistant, CSPL
Daniel StowellDaniel Stowell experienced what he calls a “divided” childhood. Born into a family that was thoroughly interested in the Civil War, it seems ironic that, during the Civil War era, his parents would have been fighting on two different sides.  “My father is from New York , and my mother is from Georgia ,” Stowell says. In this sense, his childhood was, in fact, a divided one.

Growing up in Georgia , it was not long before his parents’ interest in the Civil War rubbed off on Daniel. As a child, he began reading books about Civil War generals, and by the time he reached college, he knew exactly what degree he wanted to pursue.

“I got my bachelor’s in history and political science from the University of Georgia ,” Stowell explains. “I got my master’s in history from there, as well. I liked the religious history of the South and Civil War era.”

Stowell’s interest in the South’s religious history structured his master’s degree and carried over into his doctorate, as well. In the midst of his doctoral coursework, Stowell developed an interest in documentary editing as well after listening to Kermit Hall, a noted legal history scholar, speak.

“I attended one of Kermit Hall’s seminars on legal history while I was working on my doctorate at the University of Florida ,” Stowell says. While researching his dissertation in the early 1990s, Stowell learned about a Confederate woman’s diaries, kept from the 1830s to the 1890s. The diaries covered the life of Eliza Fain, a Tennessee woman, and had been passed down in the Fain family for several generations before John Fain, a descendant of hers, donated them to the East Tennessee Historical Society in 1994. Stowell contacted Fain about the diaries, and although he was unable to help Fain co-edit the diaries due to other responsibilities, his continued interest in documentary editing helped him obtain a job in Springfield .

“In 1996, I got a job here [in Springfield ] with the Lincoln Legal Papers,” Stowell says. Starting out as assistant editor of the legal papers, Stowell advanced to associate editor in 1999 and director/editor of the Lincoln Legal Papers in 2000. From there, he quickly transitioned to director/editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln that same year.

Being in the right place at the right time was significant in his Springfield career, he says.

As Director of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, Stowell is responsible for seeking out Lincoln documents across the country, and with Lincoln documents potentially in Japan , London , and Portugal , the search for Lincoln documents may take Stowell and some of his staff members overseas in the future.

“We’ve been to over 330 repositories in 45 states,” Stowell says. At the repositories, it is Stowell’s and his staff’s aim to digitally scan the documents so that they can then be read, transcribed, and stored in a digital archive housed by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

The National Center for Supercomputing Applications is storing our documents,” Stowell says. Having discovered and scanned over 20,000 Lincoln documents, the Papers needed a safe database to store the scanned images and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) staff was happy to provide that.

Searching for and discovering new Lincoln documents is certainly a full-time job for Daniel Stowell, but it is an exciting one, as well.

“My favorite part of my job is finding new Lincoln documents and also taking those new documents and figuring out the context of them. making them more understandable,” Stowell says. “It opens a window to the past.”

With the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial this month, Stowell and his staff have been busy with speaking engagements and presentations, but they were not too busy to give our 16 th president an early birthday gift. In mid-January, the Papers of Abraham Lincoln staff was successful in completing an online, comprehensive version of The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln . A revision and expansion of The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln: Complete Documentary Edition published in 2000, this electronic publication includes additional documents and cases that Lincoln worked on. It took a lot of work, but it is a timely gift for Lincoln and the people of Illinois .

It’s been a long, historical path for Daniel Stowell, but overseeing the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, it seems he has found his niche and will no doubt continue to find Lincoln documents and keep the past alive.