Richard Smith: Champion of the New Lincoln Presidential Library

Historians in the News

Steve Neal, in the Chicago Sun-Times (Feb. 11. 2004):

As the nation celebrates the 195th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth on Thursday, Richard Norton Smith is making long-term plans to extend the Lincoln legacy.

Smith, 50, director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, who works out of an office in the Old State Capitol in Springfield, is looking ahead to the 2009 Lincoln Bicentennial; the 2008 150th anniversary of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, 2010-2015.

''Nearly two centuries after his birth, Abraham Lincoln's greatness is universally conceded,'' Smith has written. ''Yet the man himself is fast receding in popular memory. To many Americans our 16th president remains at once the most universally recognizable and elusive of figures.''

Smith said it is the goal of the Lincoln Library and Museum ''to convey Lincoln whole, employing 21st century technology to make the 19th century live again,'' and to establish Springfield as ''the preeminent center of Lincoln scholarship.''

The Lincoln library has more than 47,000 Lincoln documents in its collection, including an original copy of the Gettysburg Address.

Gov. Blagojevich, who recruited the nationally renowned historian for this task, predicts that Smith will transform the Springfield complex into ''the most exciting, the most dynamic and most successful presidential library in the nation.'' To help Smith in this effort, Blagojevich recently tapped former Gov. Jim Edgar, with whom Blagojevich shares a passion for history, as chairman of the Lincoln Library and Museum foundation board.

Blagojevich has also named Loop lawyer Wayne Whalen, one of the chief architects of the 1970 Illinois Constitution, and Bernard M. Judge, publisher of the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, as members of the library's board.

Smith, who has been on the job since December, previously served as director of the Gerald R. Ford, Ronald Reagan, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Herbert Hoover presidential libraries and the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas.

Among the reasons Smith is excited about the Lincoln center's potential to be a national tourist attraction is that with more than 50,000 square feet for the museum, the exhibition area will be three times larger than the Reagan library museum, which had been the largest in the presidential library system.

''Those responsible for conceiving the Lincoln Library and Museum have gotten the most important thing right,'' Smith said. ''They have designed a museum of unparalleled size, originality and educational promise.''

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