The Fragility of History: William H. Harris’ West Point 1861 Album

By Logan Tapscott ’14

Musselman Library’s Special Collections & College Archives  at Gettysburg College is a center for undergraduate student and faculty research and houses and maintains several types of primary source materials, including rare books, letters, diaries, maps, works of art, and photographs. Carolyn Sautter, the director of Special Collections, said, “one of the best ways of learning about historical eras is to actually see the images of the time period.” Special Collections provides researchers and visitors opportunities to visually engage with objects through either the exhibit cases in the Collection’s Reading Room or on the GettDigital website, a venue on which poeple can explore the Civil war by seeing peoples’ faces. Especially with fragile materials such as William H. Harris’ West Point 1861 Album, Special Collections’ online resource provides access to objects that would otherwise be inaccessable to students and faculty.

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Special Collections purchased this album decades ago as part of a U.S. Higher Education 1965 Title II-A Grant to compliment various Civil War Era Studies courses taught at Gettysburg. Though it was meant to augument the classroom experience, Harris’ album is in a very fragile condition and is currently undergoing conservation with the Library’s book conservator, Mary Wootton, who will determine how best to conserve the ablum’s spine. Frequent opening and closing has caused stress on the binding, therefore students are not allowed to page through the album themselves. While it is shown periodically for class visits, Special Collections staff members are the only ones permitted to turn the pages. Additionally, the threat of light damage means that Harris’ album is not safe for exhibition and can only be taken out of its case for occassional class visits.

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Because of its delicate condition, William Harris’ album is a great example of why digitalization is both important and useful. The online medium allows students to gain access to the images within the ablum without compromising the object’s structural integrity. This is one way in which archivists and conservators can keep physical objects in better condition for longer. Additionally, engaging with online sources allows students to magnify the image to observe details that would otherwise be undetectable. Online archives also permit students to see an object for as long as they want without fear of light damage, deterioration from over-handling, and other harmful effects of direct contact. With more exposure to sources, students can begin to analyze a piece with a more critical eye. For example, Harris’ album is full of personal commentary. Though he noted what happened to different individuals, he only did so for Union soldiers. He wrote the word ‘traitor’ for those who fought for the Confederacy, thus adding his own bias within the album. While these details are written plainly on the page, digitization allows for more in-depth analysis and helps viewers see not only the image, but also manuscript writing as well.

Without digitization, Harris’ album woud deteriorate more rapidly. Since the purpose of an archive is to maintain historical artifacts for use by the public, having an online resource ensures that when the West Point album does make personal appearances, it will not be in danger of destruction. With the help of Carolyn Sautter, Mary Wootten, and other Special Collections’ staff members as well as a team of dedicated student faculty, Harris’ collection will hopefully be around for a lot longer. This piece is a great acquisition for Special Collections and ultimately helps them further their mission to educate students about the Civil War, both in person and online.


William H. Harris, 1861. From the album of the West Point Graduating Class of 1861. Accessed on GettDigitial, Gettysburg College Special Collections. Source from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

Album image courtesy of Gettysburg College Special Collections.

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