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Library rescues early American trial records, digitizes pamphlet collection

A fascinating bit of legal history involving Lizzie Borden, John Brown and Lincoln's killers soon will be preserved and available online, thanks to a recent grant awarded to Cornell University Library.

With $155,700 from the Save America's Treasures grant program, the library will restore and digitize a collection of mass-produced pamphlets from the late 17th century to the late 19th century. These pamphlets, which were often sold on the street soon after a trial as entertainment and cautionary tales, include accounts of famous historical figures and reflect society's attitude toward such social issues as capital punishment, marriage and abortion.

"These pamphlets provide a snapshot into a time period from a point of view that isn't available in more 'traditional' resources," said Thomas Mills, head of collections at the Cornell Law Library. "The pamphlets contain a wealth of information about the daily lives of ordinary people, especially women and minorities, whose stories are not well represented in American legal history."

Cornell Law Library purchased the Trials Pamphlet Collection in 1927, when 321 pamphlets were bound together in the days before proper preservation techniques were established. Many of the bound volumes have deteriorated, and the original pamphlets' brittle pages are damaged, making them impossible for researchers to use. After conservation treatment, the volumes will be individually bound, cleaned and made chemically stable.

Each pamphlet will also be digitized and indexed online, allowing access to them in person and online. All conservation and digitization work will be done in-house, beginning in July.

"No other pamphlet collection of this type and scope is available online, and digitizing this material will be a significant contribution toward building a first-class digital library for Cornell and the rest of the world," said Danielle Mericle, coordinator of the library's Digital Consulting and Production Services.

Cornell is one of the only libraries to receive funding in the current round, and this is Cornell's third Save America's Treasures award. These grants, organized through the National Park Service, fund projects that protect American cultural heritage.

"This recognition shows we're justified in feeling incredibly proud of our collections here at Cornell," said Barbara Berger Eden, director of the Department of Preservation and Collection Maintenance and the principal investigator on the grant. "Without careful preservation, this part of history would have been lost forever, but now the originals will be kept safe while providing worldwide access to the content."

Gwen Glazer is a staff writer at Cornell University Library.

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