The War of 1812 Collection at Indiana University

A Conversation with Erika Dowell

boarding the chesapeake image
Boarding of the Chesapeake.

Erika Dowell, co-director of the Lilly Library at Indiana University, talks with Choice about the collection, a recently digitized archive of primary source documents from the War of 1812. This extensive collection focuses on a crucial moment in United States history and contains fascinating information for students and historians of all levels.

How would you describe the collection to a perfect stranger?

The War of 1812 in the Collections of the Lilly Library is a website that tells the story of the war fought between the United States and Great Britain between 1812 and 1815 using fully digitized books, maps, prints, and manuscripts. You can view the digitized materials as illustrations to the website, but you can also dig deeper into all kinds of books and other materials.

What is the intended audience of The War of 1812 collection? How do you envision undergraduates using the collection?

The collection is intended for anyone interested in American history. Most Americans have a pretty minimal understanding of the War of 1812, sandwiched as it is between much more momentous conflicts—the Revolutionary War and the US Civil War. Undergraduates, as well as the general public, can use the collection as something like an extended encyclopedia article to learn about the war. But more exciting is the potential for students to use the digitized primary sources in their own research and writing. People with more expert knowledge about the War of 1812 would use the collection more as a portal to the fully digitized books and documents. And of course, we always hope our online content inspires people to visit the library in person. All the documents are here for visitors to examine in our Reading Room.

Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie.

I noticed that most of the collection comprises primary source documents written during the war. Could you please tell me a bit about the origins of this project? Who funded it originally? How were each of these documents found and selected for this archive?

The documents and books in the War of 1812 collection were gathered by librarians and historians at Indiana University starting in the 1930s. They purchased books and documents from a variety of sources over the years, though a large number of them come from the collection of Arthur Mitten of Goodland, Indiana, purchased in 1939.

The collection became part of the IU Lilly Library when it opened in 1960. In fact, the Lilly Library staged a large exhibition of the War of 1812 collections for the 150th anniversary of the war in 1962. Our digital project, funded by the IU Libraries, was created to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the war. (We had an exhibition, too.)

Is there an aspect of the War of 1812 documented in the archive that strikes you as particularly fascinating? What about it interests you?

Hieroglyphics of John Bull’s overthrow.

One thing I find interesting about the war is that the United States had no chance to even survive it if Great Britain had not already been at war with France. In some ways, United States war hawks were interested in gaining advantage while the British were busy elsewhere. Pressures of the war with Napoleon also drove some practices that created tensions between the US and Britain in the first place, like impressment, the practice of forcibly conscripting men into naval service. The British navy, after years of war, experienced chronic difficulty recruiting crews for its hundreds of ships. Impressment was a major source of men, and experienced sailors who were also British subjects were prime targets. But just who was a British subject? The United States was a relatively new nation, and many of its citizens were born elsewhere. Modern systems of documentation did not exist. The brutal practice of impressment combined with ambiguity of citizenship status led to numerous conflicts.

One fascinating item, one of my favorites in the collection, highlights this international aspect of the War of 1812. It is a broadside (one printed sheet) with the title “Hieroglyphics of John Bull’s Overthrow: or a View of the Northern Expedition in Miniature.” It has a report on the Battle of Queenston Heights, but the best parts are the simple images that line the top of the sheet, each with accompanying verse. Napoleon is depicted confronting John Bull (Great Britain). Napoleon, often called “Bona” here, is egged on by a range of characters, including a number of individuals representing Americans: James War, Tom Patriot, and John Adams. The last verse has what may be the earliest reference to Uncle Sam. I love how you can understand parts of the images and verses but other parts seem quite alien, though probably less so if you put in the research. The pictures also have a delightful simplicity that really appeals to me.

Battle of Niagara.

What are some of the challenges involved in converting what was originally an analog collection to a digital format, especially with the rarer and more delicate documents? What, if anything, is lost in that transformation? What is gained?

Digital collections of primary source documents and rare books always lack the tangible and sensory aspects of the real thing. Authentic documents allow you to understand their scale, how they feel and smell, and how they fit into the lives of the people who created them. They are materials objects that survive from past times, and seeing and touching the real thing connects you to the past in a way nothing else can. There were some materials that were too fragile to be digitized, primarily books that were too tightly bound, but many historical documents are relatively sturdy, especially those made before paper started being made with wood pulp.

There are clear benefits to digitizing books and documents, such as free online access, the ability to manipulate images, and the option of using documents or images in your own work. The real challenges to the project revolved around converting a traditional form of metadata (catalog cards) into a modern form (EAD) on a rather short timeline, and figuring out how to create one online interface that connected to the several places where the digital content is located.

I, for one, am very impressed with The War of 1812 collection’s online interface and the timeline layout of the site. Can you please talk a bit about the development of this interface and its advantages and disadvantages?

Thanks! The site is built on an open source software called Omeka. Developed by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, it is widely used by libraries and archives for hosting online archives and exhibitions. Omeka is pretty easy to set up and use, it has a variety of plug-ins that allow it do different things, and if you have the skills, it is endlessly customizable. We were lucky enough to have a professional graphic designer on the project, so it looks beautiful and functions well. Also key to the success of the interface were the efforts of IU Libraries software development staff, who helped make sure that Omeka could connect smoothly with the different digital library services that hold the digitized materials. There was also a lot of work to be done to get the timeline functioning as desired.

Considering how the War of 1812 can be overshadowed by the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, can you describe the importance of the War of 1812 and how it is critical to our understanding of US history? How does the archive facilitate this understanding?

Battle of New Orleans.

Well, the War of 1812 is always going to be overshadowed by the American Revolution and the US Civil War, but the War of 1812 did play an important part in the early development of the United States. The war contributed to the development of ideas of nationhood in both the US and Canada, and to the evolving relationship between the states and the federal government. The war looms much larger in Canada, where it is remembered as a time when they repelled an invasion by the United States and therefore preserved the existence of British North America. Native Americans also remember the War of 1812 as a pivotal time. The British did not keep the US from pushing westward across the continent and displacing native people; and Tecumseh, the principal political and military leader of the Pan-Indian movement, was killed during the Battle of the Thames.

A new generation of political leaders rose to prominence during the war, building their public reputations on military service. Five future presidents served in some way in the War of 1812, including William Henry Harrison and Andrew Jackson, who were well-known generals in the war. In just one battle, the Battle of the Thames, mentioned above, you find a future president, vice president, four senators, and twenty congressmen.

The War of 1812 also prompted the United States to get serious about training United States military forces, since dependence on local militias was a big problem in the war. Though West Point was founded well before the War of 1812, it was small with few standards for admission or training. It was after the War of 1812 that West Point was reformed and became the primary source for training US military leaders.

Still the most famous result of the war is the country’s national anthem. Francis Scott Key wrote the words to what is now known as the Star-Spangled Banner while observing the British bombardment of Fort McHenry at the entrance to Baltimore Harbor in 1814.

Are there any future developments/additions planned for The War of 1812 collection?

The Library will continue to acquire materials about the War of 1812 now and then, but we don’t have any plans to change the online collection at this time.

Erika Dowell headshot

About the interviewee:

Erika Dowell is associate director and curator of modern books and manuscripts at the Lilly Library, Indiana University. She is responsible for collections dating from 1800 to the present, and also coordinates exhibition, web development, and digitization activities. She is a former president of the Indiana University Bloomington Faculty Council and past chair of the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of the Association of College and Research Libraries.

Explore the War of 1812 Collection

This interview was conducted by Emily Hilton. She is an editorial intern at Choice and a student at Wesleyan University.

Photos courtesy of the Lilly Library.