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NEH awards WVU Libraries funds to expand online portal for congressional archives

Collage of letters

West Virginia University Libraries has received a nearly $350,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to expand the American Congress Digital Archives Portal, the first-ever online portal bringing together congressional archives from repositories throughout the United States.

“The personal papers of members of Congress are vitally important for understanding Congress as an institution, public policy development, and the many diverse stories that comprise the American experience,” Danielle Emerling, Congressional and Political Papers archivist at WVU Libraries and project director, said. “We are honored to have support from the NEH to make more congressional archives available to everyone.”

The NEH awarded WVU Libraries the initial grant to launch the project and create the portal in 2021.

“Danielle has done a fantastic job building partnerships and developing a prototype for this project,” WVU Libraries Dean Karen Diaz said. “We are so excited that the NEH has selected this work to receive funding to carry the project further along, allowing us to build a tool that will be important to students and researchers into the future.”

WVU Libraries is partnering with other institutions that hold congressional archives, including the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center at the University of Oklahoma, the Dirksen Congressional Center, the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas, the Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies at University of Georgia, and the University of Hawai`i Congressional Papers Collection. The project also includes an advisory board composed of leading individuals in the areas of congressional archives and scholarship.

The project addresses many practical access barriers to using congressional archives. Unlike presidential papers, which are centralized in one location, congressional collections are geographically dispersed across institutions large and small. For researchers, collections may be difficult to use, both because of a lack of travel funding and varying levels of description in congressional archives.

“This project will specifically address the critical needs of rural and geographically isolated regions of our country to make national records available to all citizens,” Dr. Kelli Nakamura, associate professor of history at the University of Hawai‘I, said. “It will also highlight the connections that exist between members of Congress and illuminate the collaborative efforts that often ensure the successful passage of legislative bills and initiatives.”

The project will include a breadth of materials dating from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twenty-first century and support civic and history education initiatives that help connect the past to the present.

“Without question, the Portal will allow teachers at all levels to introduce students to the work of Congress,” Sean Q. Kelly, political science professor at California State University Channel Islands, said. “Using documents from House and Senate collections, teachers can animate the challenges of representation, the value of compromise, and the power of popular sovereignty invested in the most powerful legislature in the world.”

This grant project builds on an NEH foundations grant awarded in 2021, which resulted in a prototype portal and included archives from WVU Libraries, the Dole Institute of Politics, and the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education. The project has also received support from LYRASIS and the Association of Centers for the Study of Congress.

The NEH’s Humanities Collections and Reference Resources program supports projects that provide an essential underpinning for scholarship, education, and public programming in the humanities. The project was selected for funding, in part, by a new agency-wide special initiative, “American Tapestry: Weaving Together Past, Present, and Future,” which invests in humanities projects and new programs that support civics education, foster civic engagement, increase media and information literacy, and examine threats to America’s democracy.

WVU Libraries’ West Virginia and Regional History Center holds archives of West Virginia’s congressional delegations from the founding of the state in 1863 to the present. Resources from several collections will be included in the portal.