Digitize Historical Political Button Collection

Project Summary

Submitted by Leslie Donnell, Emily Eckart, and Kathryn Fortunato of Harvard Kennedy School, Library & Knowledge Services.

In 2012, the HKS Library received a gift of approximately 1,800 political buttons from Steven Rothstein, an avid political campaign volunteer. The buttons represent state, local, and national U.S. political campaigns, as well as ballot initiatives and questions. They date from the early 1900s to present, with the heaviest concentration in the 1950-1990s. The collection also includes a small number of lapel pins and buttons from the USSR, Israel, China, Costa Rica, and Mexico.

Images on political buttons are highly susceptible to damage from sunlight, temperature, humidity, and scraping. To preserve this historically valuable collection, and to make it accessible for research, teaching, and display at Harvard and beyond, we are requesting that the buttons be cleaned and digitized. The buttons will be cataloged at the item level. The descriptions and images will be added to VIA to complement Harvard’s growing collection of political ephemera in digital format. We are also hoping to receive professional guidance on best practices in the organization, exhibition, and storing of the collection.

After the buttons are cleaned and digitized, they will be housed at the Harvard Depository, where they will be retrievable for exhibitions, scholarly inspection, and classroom use across Harvard.

The HKS Library is planning to exhibit part of the collection during the week of midterm elections in November 2014. Exhibition themes we are currently exploring include women candidates, issues and ballot questions targeted at or of interest to women voters, race and the political process, candidates affiliated with Harvard, and a hundred years of Massachusetts politics.

Amount requested is $10,000. $7,000-$8,000 of the $10,000 request is based on a cost estimate from test shots done in spring 2013 by the Harvard Library Digital Imaging team. The remaining $2,000-$3,000 would cover consultation on best practices for storage and display.

Expected Results with Partial Funding

The collection is easily divisible into smaller segments, and even partial funding to digitize the collection would be quite meaningful. It would allow us to preserve the most vulnerable and obscure buttons for future research and teaching. Examples of buttons needing immediate conservation and preservation care includeTeddy Roosevelt gubernatorial campaign; Calvin Coolidge; Wendell Willkie, dark horse nominee for president in 1940; George Wallace/LeMay; Robert F. Kennedy for president; and JFK, LBJ, Adlai Stevenson, and Edmund Muskie holograms.

Estimated Follow-on Activities and/or Costs

The HKS Library will take responsibility for digital storage costs, the costs for storing the original source material at the Harvard Depository, and costs associated with future exhibitions.

Benefit to Harvard Scholars and Patrons

The digitized images and original source material will be used for teaching classes on politics, government, U.S. and world history, and sociology. They would also be used by faculty, students, and scholars researching 20th century politics, electioneering, political Americana, and social, political, and cultural issues and movements of the 20th century.

Ways the Project Supports Cross-Unit or Cross-Discipline Activities

This political button collection is relevant to departments, schools, and disciplines across Harvard. Faculty who support the digitization of this hidden collection include:

  • Daniel Carpenter, Allie S. Freed Professor of Government, FAS
  • Nancy Cott, Jonathan Trumball Professor of American History, FAS and Director of the Schlesinger Library, FAS and Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.
  • Walter Johnson, Winthrop Professor of History and Professor of African and African American Studies, FAS.
  • David King, Senior Lecturer in Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School would like to show the digitized images in his class Politics and American Public Policy
  • Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, 300th Anniversary University Professor, FAS has expressed interest in using the collection in her course Tangible Things: Harvard Collections in World History.

Resources the Sponsoring Library Can Support or Will Need Support For

HKS library staff members are currently working on a comprehensive inventory of the collection. We have created a spreadsheet that allows for sorting by name, state, year, issue or theme. We are also in the process of researching the buttons in order to provide background information for descriptions and exhibitions. Please see the inventory spreadsheet that has been sent as a companion document to the nomination.

We plan to curate the digital images and original source material after cleaning and digitization. As mentioned above, we are hoping to receive guidance on best practices for organizing and storing of the buttons to ensure long-term preservation at the Harvard Depository. We have conducted some preliminary research on the conservation and long-term preservation of political buttons and are aware of the importance of careful and appropriate handling and storage of these fragile materials. Please see the article, linked below, discussing the handling and care of political buttons.

Care & Conservation of Political Campaign Buttons / Minnesota Historical Society


Other Approaches to Achieving Goal or Result

The HKS Library would consider taking money from its unrestricted collections budget to digitize the buttons. However, cutting into an already modest collections budget is not best practice, and would seriously impede our ability to provide students and faculty with current print and electronic materials.

Risks if Proposal is Not Approved

The HKS button collection represents a particular period in American political history before the age of mass communication, when candidates used buttons as the most effective way to condense and distribute their campaign platforms to a broad and diverse electorate. The buttons preserve the names of electoral winners and losers, while illustrating campaign tactics for voter outreach and engagement. The buttons also document historical movements such as protests against the war in Vietnam, the draft, women’s reproductive issues, nuclear proliferation, and the early days of the environmentalist movement.

While political candidates still manufacture campaign buttons, their dominance as a form of political expression has waned. Therefore, the HKS political button collection represents a vital part of 20th century American political history, and is an essential primary source for scholars researching political engagement, campaigns and elections, and American history, society and culture. If the buttons cannot be digitized and properly cleaned and stored, their degradation and inaccessibility would represent a tremendous loss to future scholarship.

Additional Information

Attachment and proposal sent directly to Franziska Frey.

Attachment is spreadsheet of button collection, given to FF on 22 April 2014.

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