The "Grant Papers" revisited

On May 18, a local Mississippi newspaper, the Dispatch, ran this wildly misleading article announcing the formation of something styled "the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library." The piece said, in part,
This weekend, Mississippi State will become the official permanent host of the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library during ceremonies to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Ulysses S. Grant Foundation. [...] Now, Grant's presidential artifacts will remain permanently at the Mitchell Memorial Library on the MSU campus, where they have resided since 2008.
The permanence of the arrangement plays no part in this press release (which matches the news story in laying smoke over the topic).

Anything touching on John Marszalek and his collection of papers requires a kind of expert Kremlinology to decode, so let's get to it.

Let's begin with the question, What is this collection housed by Mississippi State? On this official web page, last updated in 2009, it is styled the Ulysses S. Grant Association's Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Collection. This is actually a life collection but for some reason, in 2009, it is styled a presidential collection. (Nothing with these people is straightforward.) The page is "signed" by the association president, Frank Williams, leader of one of the battling factions on the Lincoln scene, and a man disgraced by an "inadvertent" plagiarism scandal.

When you go back to the press release, linked above, you find Williams (not MSU, not the National Archives) announcing the "Presidential Library" thing. The news article, also linked above, notes a celebration panel featuring (near as I can tell) one Grant author, Jean Smith. We explored Smith's plagiarism in some detail right here. He seems to be the Association's historian laureate, outside of the leadership.

So this is very clubby, as you might expect when an association owns papers and is making an announcement. And the news report fails to tell us with any accuracy what these papers really are.

And, BTW, what is a presidential library, anyway? As far as I can tell, anyone anywhere can designate any collection a presidential library. It's a wonder we don't have multiples. What is confusing to you and me is that we have a preconception; we're imagining a public institution under the supervision of the National Archives. Fooled you!
The presidential library system is made up of thirteen presidential libraries operated by the NARA. Libraries and museums have been established for other presidents, but they are not part of the NARA presidential library system, and are operated by private foundations, historical societies, or state governments...
So our diligent reporter, the press release, the celebrities concerned, all have failed to tell us that this is a private presidential library outside of the national system. The reporter actually went so far as to list presidential libraries housed at universities as if this one would belong to that system of libraries.

Now, there may be truth and meaning in the reporter's claim that the "presidential artifacts will remain permanently" at MSU. We don't know because everything about this bunch is top secret. the claim is not echoed in the press release or on the MSU websites. I assume that the Association may have clinched a "permanence" negotiation that gave them the confidence to announce their own presidential library. You wouldn't want a presidential library that floats around. That's my guess.

Marszalek was dogged in deflecting the public away from questions about how the collection went to MSU and under what terms. Here he is as late as February 2011 performing a complete snow job on Gerald Prokopowicz. (It's all about the bulldogs and Stephen Lee.) The man is nothing if not a serial deflector, for if you Google him back to the days after John Simon's death, you'll see he has assiduously avoided explaining the basis on which the papers moved to MSU. He may go to his grave withholding the most basic details on this presidential arrangement.

Let's talk about this collection, which presents fascinating problems. Over the years, the public face of the collection has been those volumes collected and sold to the book-buying public. The framework for the volumes has been set in time periods and the material is in no sense comprehensive or even representative of holdings for each period. Rather the papers deemed interesting or important for that period were selected and presented. So the books do not equal the papers.

On Gerry's show, linked above, Marszalek mentioned 95 file cabinets of material and 150 ms boxes. In the same breath, he mentioned (if I understood correctly), indexing (and maybe digitizing?) was being done by his wife, on a volunteer basis, plus an intern. If this is true, it gives another clue about the relationship of the school with the association. Perhaps that would also explain online search results like this (click to enlarge):
That's it - there's no drilling down to an detailed index or actual papers. You're done. The search box at the bottom is for a new search. Thank you for visiting the "Grant Papers!"

To avoid choking, before you click on the image to enlarge it, before you read the search instructions at the top of the page, I would suggest you empty your mouth of food or liquids.

You're going to search for papers by individual: could be the originator, recipient or subject of a communication. You're going to use initials and guess what - your paper may not be filed by initials after all. You're welcome to search by full name for supplementary material but good luck with that.

Meanwhile, dig this:
Marszalek said the collection database allows a full-text search, including footnotes. This makes searching easier when seeking specific names, dates or places, he added.
Easier. Right.

Again, though, what are these papers? They are a few originals augmented by scads of copies. This collection is the 1962 analog equivalent of a website with links. Can I create a Millard Fillmore website with links and declare it a presidential library? Assuredly. How would it differ from this Grant Society offering? Only in the number and quality of links.


We explored the Vatican-like secrecy surrounding Marszalek's many Grant collection dealings in a number of posts.

The mystery of Oktibbeha County 3/4/2009 - Note especially Marszalek's misleading quotes. This is your best overview of the puzzle and the players

The mystery of Oktibbeha County (cont.) 3/11/2009 - Here we learn that Mrs. Marszalek has endowed library funds in the state system and that her own papers are gathered into one such collection. This opens the door to the possibility that Mr. Marszalek's position was bought and paid for.

Grant papers find new home 2/18/2009 - This recorded our initial suspicions based on the early, patently misleading reporting. It contains a link to an NPR interview with Marszalek again deflecting questions about the underlying deal.

Over at Civil Warriors, there was a post on March 3, 2009 explaining what the collection is. Brooks Simpson noticed at this early date "inaccurate claims that the university nevertheless showcases."

Jean Smith's plagiarism in his book Grant was the subject of a series of posts.

Jean Smith, Grant, and antigravity 4/27/2005 - We kicked it off with a review of the standards Smith was held to when he published this work.

Jean Smith and Grant (cont.) 4/29/2005 * 5/02/2005 * 5/03/2005 * 5/05/2005

(The last post in the series has side-by-side text comparisons.)

We are nowhere near clarity on these matters and the presidential library project adds yet another layer of smoke on the landscape.