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NEH Awards Dole Institute and Partners Funds to Build Online Portal for Congressional Archives

LAWRENCE – The Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas, in partnership with West Virginia University Libraries and the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education, will develop an online portal through which researchers can access a vast collection of Congressional documents. The three organizations are members of the Association for Centers for the Study of Congress, and WVU will lead the initiative, called the American Congress Digital Archives Portal project. The National Endowment for the Humanities awarded a nearly $60,000 grant for the project. 

“We are excited to be a part of this important and timely project,” said Dole Institute Associate Director and Director of Museum and Archives Audrey Coleman. “Archivists constantly strive to make collections more discoverable and accessible to researchers of all skill levels. This project will pave the way for increased use of congressional collections like the Dole Archives and lead to a deeper understanding of how Congress actually works.”

Congressional archives fall into two groups: the official records of Congress that are maintained by the National Archives and Records Administration, and the personal papers of individual senators and representatives. The personal papers, created by individual offices, are the private property of each member of Congress. The personal papers of members of Congress support scholarship about congressional procedures and leadership, Congress’ relationship with the other branches, and public policy. They illustrate multiple narratives related to the country’s social, cultural, and political development. However, practical barriers to using congressional archives mean researchers may struggle to find and use them. 

Many members choose to donate their collections to places where they can be preserved and, hopefully, made public. This leads to congressional collections that are geographically dispersed among institutions large and small with varying degrees of resources, unlike presidential papers, which are centralized in one location with dedicated staff and funding. For researchers, congressional collections may be difficult to use, both because of a lack of travel funding and the breadth and varying levels of description in congressional archives. The pandemic has made these problems more acute due to archives closures and travel restrictions. 

The project will address these challenges and provide easier access to archives for scholars, educators, and the public. The project will give open access to congressional archives by bringing together sources from multiple institutions into a single online platform, illuminating the value of each collection and the relationships among them. The portal will include correspondence, memoranda, audiovisual materials and more. 

“This is really the first phase of a larger goal,” said Senior Archivist of the Robert and Elizabeth Dole Archive and Special Collections Sarah D’Antonio Gard. “This grant will allow us to develop and test the portal itself using a smaller set of items. Once we have it built, the hard work of expanding the portal to include materials from around the country will start.” 

“We aim to have a sizable open access digital portal to reach various audiences for the nation’s semiquincentennial in 2026,” Danielle Emerling, project director and curator of congressional and political collections in the West Virginia & Regional History Center said. “Ultimately, we believe this project will expand availability of documentation about Congress, public policy, and representation in America. It will lead to new topics and methods of scholarly research and serve as a resource to advance civic education and knowledge of America’s constitutional democracy.” 

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. There are four levels of review before a grant is officially supported. The Endowment awards grants to top-rated proposals examined by panels of independent, external reviewers. 

The Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics is dedicated to promoting political and civic participation as well as civil discourse in a bipartisan, philosophically balanced manner. It is located on KU’s West Campus and houses the Dole Archive and Special Collections. Through its robust public programming, congressional archive and museum, the Dole Institute strives to celebrate public service and the legacies of U.S. Senators Bob Dole and Elizabeth Dole. 

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