An online database devoted to Civil War Soldiers

I have stumbled upon a potentially great resource for historians. This website seeks to collect the letters and other manuscripts written by Civil War soldiers that are floating around the auction sites. The website is SoldierStudies.org and it has the potential to reshape the way Civil War historians conduct research. While I have only scratched the surface of this site, I must say that they are off to a great start. The site has several published memoirs scanned and online, as well as various letters. They are always seeking volunteers to both obtain the manuscripts from the internet auction circuit, but also to transcribe some letters for the site.

Now, their idea seems noble, gathering the vast quantities of writing from Civil War soldiers and placing them online and in the public domain, but I do have some reservations about this. The biggest one revolves around having persons transcribe letters in library and archive manuscript collections for the site. This is because some libraries are strict about how their material is used, especially with regard to the dissemination of information. For instance, while researching in the manuscript collection at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, I was aware of a rule stating that I must obtain permission from the library before I may extensively quote from materials. Now I am sure that the fine folks at the site do this, but it is just a concern I have with regard to copyright.

The second issue that concerns me is that while this site has the potential to revolutionize the way we research, it may also set us back as historians. What will become of the historian scouring the archives and libraries of the nation searching through piles of letters? Will this site cause researchers to become lazy, as less effort is involved in research? These are just a few concerns that I have with this medium.

Overall, I applaud the staff of the site and wish them well. I again think that this site is a good thing, but do have reservations, as do most people when confronted with something new that can alter what they have know and how they have done things. It is my hope that more professional historians will get on board this site and keep it heading in a positive direction that is beneficial to both the general public and the profession as a whole.

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One thought on “An online database devoted to Civil War Soldiers

  1. “For instance, while researching in the manuscript collection at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, I was aware of a rule stating that I must obtain permission from the library before I may extensively quote from materials. Now I am sure that the fine folks at the site do this, but it is just a concern I have with regard to copyright.”

    This is a favorite peeve of mine. I assure you, material written by Abraham Lincoln (or anything else published before 1923) is firmly in the public domain. The Lincoln Library may restrict your access, but you do not need their permission nor can they limit what you quote from public domain works. No library or archive can.

    Similarly, war-era letters and diaries such as those Chris posts on SoldierStudies are in the public domain. He has no copyright issues.

    The law, in part:
    (1) No one can claim copyright of material in the Public Domain.
    (2) The holder of the material cannot claim copyright by virtue of possession. The copyright resides with the creator unless expressly given by the creator to another party. As a rule, libraries and archives do not hold copyrights.

    No one should hesitate to put public domain works online.

    In my opinion, no one should be intimidated by library or archive “policies” which attempt to limit reproduction of public domain works. The only legal recourse such institutions have is to limit your access (and that stinks, when it happens).

    Sorry for the rant …

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