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JFK Documents Now Available Online

January 14, 2011

Caroline Kennedy unveiled this week a $10 million project to digitize the most important papers, photographs and recordings of President John F Kennedy’s days in office.

Users can sort through the drafts of Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you,” speech, and also see how he tinkered with the words of that most famous line from his inauguration.

Caroline Kennedy, daughter of President Kennedy, visited the National Archives and said that it reminds her the nation was built on words and ideas.

“His time is becoming part of history, not living memory, and we need to reach across the generations in new ways,” Caroline Kennedy said, noting many young people are disillusioned with politics. “He inspired a generation who inspired their children. They transformed America, and that’s why 50 years later, his legacy still resonates.”

Kennedy himself broached the idea of making his records available to the masses in 1961.

A reporter asked him if he would consider putting his papers in Washington rather than in his hometown in order to make them more accessible to scholars.

“Through scientific means of reproduction … and this will certainly be increased as time goes on, we will find it possible to reproduce the key documents so that they will be commonly available,” the president responded.

Archivists at the Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston digitized over 200,000 pages, 1,200 records and 300 museum artifacts, as well as reels of film and hundreds of photographs.

Library Director Tom Putnam said they started with all of Kennedy’s Oval Office files along with his personal papers, official White House photos, audio of all his public remarks, video of his famous speeches, and home movies.

Archivists knew that they had the most requested items in their research room in Boston and used them as a guide.

Private partners contributed $6.5 million in equipment and technical services to digitize thousands of records.  Iron Mountain will store backup copies of all the digital files about 200 feet below ground at its facility in western Pennsylvania.

Putnam said that original files will remain accessible at the Kennedy Library.  He said that the digital records will help preserve the originals because they will be handled less frequently.

The library will start digitizing about 100,000 pages a year, along with thousands of photos and recordings.

It could take over 100 years to digitize all records from the Kennedy administration.

The online archive will allow students across the country to have access to primary documents for school research.

Putnam said that drafts of Kennedy’s speeches show how he was writing and editing along with speechwriter Theodore Sorensen, giving people a sense of the president’s power as a writer.

“It truly democratizes history,” Putnam said. “We’re really hopeful it can work both for a young person and for the most serious scholar.”

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