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A Conversation with Tom Schwartz
Illinois State Historian

Interview by William Furry

Tom Schwartz in the Supreme Court chambers of the Old State Capitol

Photos by William Furry

Illinois State Historian Tom Schwartz began his career with the state on April 15, 1985, as the second curator of the Henry Horner Abraham Lincoln Collection (the first was James T. Hickley). On November 19, 1993, Governor Jim Edgar appointed him Illinois State Historian. Schwartz earned, his undergraduate degree in history from the University of lllinois-Urhana/Champaign. He began his master's degree, again in history, at the University of Minnesota but finished at the U of I., later earning his Ph.D. in Urbana, specializing in United States diplomacy with a focus on Andrew Jackson's foreign policy. In early July we invited Tom to our office for an informal discussion about the state of Illinois history. What follows are highlights from that conversation.

Illinois Heritage: Tell us something about yourself. Have you always been a student of Lincoln?

Tom Schwartz: I came to Lincoln as do many graduate students: through the back door. I had been a teaching assistant and research assistant until a position opened up in the library to take care of a special collection devoted to Abraham Lincoln. I thought, "This is great; it will pay bills and let me finish my dissertation." Unbeknownst to me, the two years I was in that special collection confronted me with all of the different questions, reference materials, and historiography that I would need to take the job with the state. When I applied for the job of Lincoln Curator to take over the best overall collection of Lincoln materials anywhere I didn't think that I would have a chance. Truly. But surprisingly, they were looking for someone who was younger, someone who would be able to give greater visibility to the collection and someone who would do creative exhibits that the previous curator was not given an opportunity to do.

Illinois Heritage: And you've done marvelous things there. The New Lincoln Presidential Library promises to be the crown jewel for Lincoln and Civil War historians, but what, if any, impact do you see the library having on the academy? What new disciplines or focuses do you see coming out of the library?

Tom Schwartz: One of the things that will be added to the library is a research division, which, as state historian, I will head. The research division will encompass what is now the Lincoln Legal Papers. We've already begun transforming that into the Papers of Abraham Lincoln. It will be an on-line endeavor, digitizing Lincoln's incoming correspondence as well as outgoing correspondence.

The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln was a milestone. It was released in 1953 and Julian Boyd had just set the standard for documentary editing with the Jefferson papers, publishing volume one back in 1950. Well here, Roy Bassler and the Abraham Lincoln Association released all eight volumes of Lincoln's writings. They really did a superb job, but the editors only gave you one side of the story. They provide you with Lincoln's replies, and in the footnotes a few summaries of letters
to Lincoln, but seldom do we get the original correspondent's words.

We're hoping to provide some kind of on-line prototype next year just with the Henry Horner Lincoln collection. We're in the process of doing some color microfilming and digitizing of the collection now. The color microfilm captures a lot more information than a digital camera and that's why there is the two-step procedure; you'll have much higher resolution on the microfilm than a digital image.


Illinois Heritage: Sounds like you'll have a lot of people working on-line but not many working on site...

Tom Schwartz: It will be the current staff of the Lincoln Legal Papers. Not all of those are employees of the Historic Preservation Agency; many are with our partnership with the University of Illinois at Springfield, which provides the many student employees that we have. We're hoping to carry that forward. Obviously, one of the things with the new Presidential Library and Museum is to build a close relationship with a variety of partners. The U of I Springfield has hired Philip Paludan to head up their Lincoln Studies program.

But there's more to it than that. Everyone asks, "Why is it always Lincoln all the time?" Lincoln obviously is a hook on which to hang the larger study of Illinois history, and that is exactly what we hope to do. People come specifically looking for Lincoln; hopefully, it will lead them to the broader landscape of Illinois history.

One of the missions of the research division is eventually to get beyond Lincoln. Obviously, with $115 million going into our facilities, our focus has to be fulfilling the expectations of visitors finding as much as they can on Lincoln and being able to navigate our massive collections. But at some point we need to get into other areas, and again it will be up to our research division to transcend Lincoln and his associates.

Illinois Heritage: You can't escape Lincoln in Illinois.

Tom Schwartz: Exactly. [Illinois author and educator] Jim Hurt made the observation that the two dominant themes of Illinois literature are Lincoln and Chicago, Lincoln representing the frontier and the pre-urban period, and Chicago representing urbanization.

Illinois Heritage: Chelsea Clinton, daughter of former President Bill and Senator Hillary Clinton, recently graduated from Stanford University with a degree in history. Does she represent a new trend in undergraduate career moves, or is she an anomaly?

Tom Schwartz: Obviously, the job prospects for someone with a Ph.D. in history are dim. The problem is, you have this vast pool of people with history Ph.D.s now. Rather than hire new teachers to replace retiring tenure-track faculty, colleges and universities have hired adjunct teachers. There have been more job openings recently than I've seen in a long time. But I think that, by and large, technology has changed the way people view education. You can do an on-line course in the privacy of your home. You don't need to physically be in the classroom anymore. Community colleges too, have grown like Topsy. I think most people who are interested in history at the undergraduate level tend to go on to careers in law, political science, public policy, and so on. I've known a number of lawyers who have left their practice and gone back to get a Ph.D. in history because that's something they wanted to do and they're in a financial position to do it.

Too, I think there was a different mindset in the past, too. When I was going through grad school, if you went on to get an advanced degree in history the only thing that was worth doing was teaching. If you didn't teach and ended up in something like "public history," i.e., working for the state or the National Park Service, you were one of the "unfortunates." There was a conceit in the academy that those who didn't teach just didn't have the right caliber.

The irony is that you're really talking about different audiences and different ways of presenting information. There has been a high brow/low brow demarcation between historical practice and scholarship. There is a realization now that there never were enough jobs in the academy. A lot of good history is being done in the public sector and by independent researchers. Typically I have found that people with a deep abiding interest in a subject are really the greatest historians. They will go out and talk to anyone who knows the slightest bit about the subject. They will search flea markets and book sales they just accumulate everything and they become a warehouse of valuable information on topics such as barn construction, river steamboats, and 19th century agricultural practices. Identifying these people and tapping into that knowledge is really something that needs to be done. You find them everywhere.

Illinois Heritage: How has the specialization of history degrees affected the teaching of history in the public schools and in the academy?

Tom Schwartz: When I look at my daughter's textbook in American history, I see much more emphasis on Native Americans, women, and African Americans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries than I ever saw in my textbooks. Typically problems arise when you get this sort of disconnect, when people talk about Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Abraham Lincoln, and the Civil War and do not know they were all contemporaries. History certainly has become broader, has taken on bigger issues, has become more inclusive. The idea of America as a diverse, multicultural entity from the beginning, rather than something that happened with a "wave" of immigration at the turn of the century, is important. There is also this new realization that America was a nation of conquest, of conquering native peoples and that it was a nation built upon slave labor. Traditionally, American history was played in a major key, but it has minor key, too. More of the dissonance is coming through for my daughter and son.


Unfortunately, when the teaching of history became a subset of social science in the middle and high schools, it became a very small piece of a much larger assemblage of subjects. Most people don't have an interest in history when they are young, simply because so much of history is based on life experience. For example, in my own experience of growing up in Downer's Grove, I spent a lot of time with both sets of grandparents. My mom's folks were both born before the turn of the century; my dad's folks shortly thereafter. Their experience stretched from World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, up to watching a man walk on the moon. It was quite amazing to hear them spin their stories. But when I was teaching at the U of I, I asked my students, just before the Thanksgiving break, to go home and talk to their parents and grandparents about Korea and Vietnam. Their response was: "I don't have grandparents"; "My parents are divorced"; "My dad doesn't want to talk about it." The idea of families getting together and exchanging life stories over food was completely lost to them. It made me ask myself, "was my childhood that unusual, or have we changed this much?" I think that [the changing family structure] makes it much harder for people to have an appreciation for the past, especially if they don't have these life stories passed on from one generation to the next.

The other thing is that we push seniors out of the picture. Senior citizens used to be individuals that you encountered on a daily basis and cared for. You had to confront the past. Now it is easier not to.

Illinois Heritage: But there was a time when their stories were our stories...

Tom Schwartz: Yes, and coming at it in that regard that our stories are somehow connected and the idea that history is story and narrative is different than probably what you'd get at the academy, where the concept that you can have a grand narrative is neither possible nor desirable. The grand narrative (the peoples' history of the United States) we accepted that as a given when we were growing up. You start with Leif Erickson or Christopher Columbus and you march forward in a continuum. Nowadays even talking about them [Erikson and Columbus] is an issue for some. I think most people, however, do have this sense that they are connected to a larger story. They have their own individual narratives, but they are plugged into a bigger story, something beyond themselves. This is why I see some of the most vital history being done at the grassroots level a house museum, a group of volunteers, a local historical association, or some kind of niche group like a Civil War round table or a genealogical society. Genealogy, in fact, has become a great democratic enterprise because it's no longer the DAR and the SAR; you have a number of how-to guides for African-American genealogists to help them take their roots back to Africa. I think we need to embrace all of this.


Illinois Heritage: Technology has forever changed the way libraries collect, preserve, and retrieve data. Computers have obviously made the researcher's job easier, but are there repercussions to all this technology that historians will have to grapple with 100 years from now?

Tom Schwartz: I remember when I came to the state, the inventory for many of the artifacts at the Old State Capitol was on keypunch cards. Wally Henderson, the architect for the Historical Library, told me that the keypunch system was incorporated into the design in 1960 as part of the "library of the future." I have no idea how to run that system. Everything changes, and sometimes too quickly. People forget that books are artifacts. Bookmaking is an art. A book represents a variety of things; it is not just information. That is the greatest danger in library science profession, where librarians who used to embrace how books were produced no longer care about the form but only about the content. Microfilming and digital imaging are much more accessible and useful for doing research, but they will never replace a book or a newspaper. People may read their newspapers on line, but there's something to be said for the experience of holding a book and turning a page. You can't share a computer screen the way you can share a book or a newspaper. Technology changes so rapidly. We have all these things: 45s, 78s, and 33 1/3 speed records; we've got the old Wollensak reel-to-reel tape recordings; we've got VHS, 3/4 inch beta, and laser discs; and now the big thing is DVDs. Saving the equipment just to operating this technology is a challenge. For a while we were storing information on floppy disks, but now it's hard to find a computer that has a floppy drive.

History is supposed to encompass the totality of human experience. It is an impossible task to capture it all. And even if you could save it all, preserving it is another issue entirely, because you are dealing with very fragile and ultimately unstable media, Nothing is permanent. It is ironic, for example, that you find velum records that were made centuries ago that are in better shape, and paper that was made 100 years ago that outlasts our own; the challenge is how do we deal with it.

Illinois Heritage: What is the biggest challenge facing historians in the state? Are we losing more history than we're saving?

Tom Schwartz: Unfortunately, we are losing. And even the things that we have saved are endangered. For example something recorded on 8 - track tape, how do we play that back? Do you have a record player that can play your 45's? This is a problem. And the other thing is a sort of institutional amnesia. When you have a fairly cohesive group of individuals - a government body, for example and they all retire within a few years, typically with them goes an entire institutional memory of why certain things are done certain ways. The impulse of newcomers is to get rid of things they don't understand. That's frightening, especially in libraries that assume that if something is mass-produced, surely someone is saving a copy. Yet one of the few things that were mass produced [in 18th and 19th centuries] were broadsides, so why are there so few of them around today?

Illinois Heritage: Is there anything not worth saving?

Tom Schwartz: You have to be very selective in what you do save, and what you collect has to be representative of significant aspects of the culture. But when you look at most archives they contain records of politicians, of businesses, and of major civic organizations. Yet what are people studying? Popular culture has become a particular focus of the academy. Many things researchers are looking for are found in vertical files and aren't even catalogued. Most places don't even save these items. I don't know how you can determine with any degree of certainty the questions that someone 100 years from now is going to ask. I can't predict that. Sure, there will be interest in the politicians of the day. But some of the things people are interested in today are recipes, cookbooks, and fashion. As the profession continues to ask questions, it needs to cast a wider net to include things that were previously considered ephemeral.

I see history everywhere; there are wonderful stories just waiting to be told. When I browse the stacks at the historical library all sorts of topics jump out at me, and I know I'll never have enough lifetimes to explore them all.

Illinois Heritage: Last question: If Illinois were not the "Land the Lincoln," what would it be?

Tom Schwartz: Well, the land of wonderful stories. Illinois is not only unusual for its size and diversity, but it has remained a force in the history of this nation. Even if you look in terms of popular culture today, one of the major forces in the landscape is Oprah Winfrey. Michael Jordan defined excellence, not only in basketball but in sports generally. Go anywhere in the world and kids have Michael Jordan posters up. Pundits talks about the dominance of the east and west coasts and how they are driving our cultural activity, but Illinois has done a good job of offsetting those stereotypes, providing a good alternative to the New York/Hollywood model.


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