BISMARCK, N.D. — Theodore Roosevelt's love of the country's untouched, natural beauty spurred him to create and conserve hundreds of national forests, parks and monuments during his presidency.
His legacy, though, is being preserved digitally.
A devoted group of scholars and Roosevelt admirers has been scanning his papers and artifacts for years and is finalizing a design for a library and museum commemorating the life of the 26th president. Unlike the presidential libraries that came before it, however, the Roosevelt library will feature a collection that is primarily digital.
The physical library is expected to open in 2019 in Dickinson, a city of about 20,000 residents about 35 miles east of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which includes ranchland that once his. However, the library has already made thousands of notes, letters and photographs available online.
The National Archives in Washington, D.C., oversees all presidential libraries from Herbert Hoover on, but any library for a president prior to the 31st, Herbert Hoover, must be built and managed without the help of the federal government. The oversight of the archives help to create a central location for the more recent presidents' papers, while those of earlier presidents are often scattered across the country in private collections and in archives at places like the Library of Congress and Harvard.
To overcome this, the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University, which is spearheading the library project, has digitally archived about 50,000 documents, ranging from personal and presidential notes to letters and belongings since 2007. And it hopes to have hundreds of thousands more in the collection that grows every week.
"It's very difficult to create a traditional presidential library for TR, because all the materials will never be gathered physically in one place," project manager Sharon Kilzer said.
She said this approach could be used to open other presidential libraries for those who occupied the White House before Hoover.
"This could be a model through which the legacies of those other presidents are also preserved and made accessible to the public," Kilzer said.
Other libraries outside of the National Archive system, like the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, have digitized much of their subject's materials as well — but those digital collections add to an already-impressive physical collection. The Theodore Roosevelt Library and Museum will tentatively open by the end of the decade on a bedrock of a digital collection scholars hope will eventually include every Roosevelt-related they can find.
"And I think that's an interesting phenomenon; it's a very 21st-century idea," said Daniel Stowell, the director and editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln who also sits on the advisory board for the unbuilt Roosevelt library.
Stowell estimated that the Roosevelt library will eventually become a "mission control" for scholars and fans of Roosevelt while it slowly collects more physical artifacts in time.
"Whatever topics you're interested in from Roosevelt's life and career — whether they're at Harvard or the Library of Congress or in someone's private collection — the digital images are all brought together," he said.
Last year, the North Dakota Legislature set aside $12 million for the 56,000 square-foot library. The city of Dickinson has also pledged to chip in $3 million, although those involved with the project imagine it'll cost more than $15 million.
Richard Woollacott, the project manager for the Ohio-based Hilferty & Associates, who are finishing the master design plan for the library, said he expects Roosevelt's library to look "like the gilded age, but updated with computers."
"By having a traditional exhibit with a station where people could actually look up more in-depth information related to something that catches their interest, it tailors the exhibit to individual visitors, because they are in control of the information they're accessing," he said.
Roosevelt fell in love with the North Dakota badlands during an 1883 hunting trip, and he returned the following year to raise cattle. He established the Elkhorn Ranch, which sits along the Little Missouri River about 25 miles east of the Montana border.
Organizers hope that learning about Roosevelt's life and experiencing first-hand the raw beauty he saw in the badlands will present visitors with the complete picture of the man in the place that's often called the "cradle of conservation," and would lead the former president to write: "It was here that the romance of my life began."
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