Library finds ways to tell Truman's story

By Mike Genet

Last month, staff of the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence noted in a Twitter post that the library’s YouTube channel had reached 1,000 subscribers. 

In writing the post, Tammy Williams, who handles social media work for the library, gave a “begrudging thanks” to the pandemic, as it allowed staff to devote some time to digital, audio, text and video work for social media and archives. 

President Harry S. Truman takes the stage at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 15, 1948. This image, taken from a television shot, is among thousands at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence. The library has enhanced its social media presence during the pandemic, posting more videos. Standing next to Truman is Vice Presidential candidate Senator Alben Barkley. Visible behind Barkley is First Lady Bess Wallace Truman. This is a photo from Truman's campaign scrapbook. [Image courtesy of the Truman Library]

When the pandemic hit, the Truman Library had already been closed for several months for a long-planned renovation. But that project would have been over and the library reopened to the public by now, so social media has helped keep Truman and the library in people’s minds, particularly significant as 2020 included plenty of 75th anniversaries of events – VE Day, the Potsdam Conference, the signing of the United Nations Charter, the dropping of the atomic bomb, VJ Day – in Truman’s first months as president.

“It’s been a serious benefit, because the whole world is in the digital realm,” Laurie Austin, the library’s audio and visual archivist, said of having the devoted project time. “There’s a lot of material we have that isn’t digitized and won’t make it to YouTube for one reason or another (due to copyrights), but we’ve been able to get so much material out there, and that in turn has generated questions from people.”

“We had (the videos) in our collection; we just didn’t have them online. We’re getting donations all the time, so there’s always new stuff.”

The library launched its YouTube channel in March 2019. A year later, there were 78 videos online. Since the pandemic, Austin notes, she has added 372 videos. In March 2020, the Truman Library YouTube channel had 378 subscribers. Now, there are nearly 1,100.

'Social media can sometimes be a drag, so we try and be a brick in the wall of positivity,' says Laurie Austin, audio and visual archivist at the Truman Library.

“Putting material on our YouTube channel, it’s incumbent on us to caption it appropriately, so people who can’t see (the video) or prefer to just read it get it right,” Austin said. “My big thing was I was able to post material that had sound. A lot of that initial material didn’t have sound.”

Normally, Williams would be letting people know what’s happening at the library and what new material just arrived, and during the renovation she could provide some updates on progress.

“I’m kind of in that position where we don’t know,” Williams said, “and that’s something I miss – letting people know how we’re doing.”

Federal officials have not said when facilities such as the Truman Library and Truman Home can reopen to the public.

Williams keeps the library active on Twitter, as one can usually find some current event to which an archived Truman piece can relate, or some Truman-related anniversary, and there are plenty of fun hashtags to contribute toward (such as #ArchivesHashtagParty or #MenuMonday).

“Social media can sometimes be a drag, so we try and be a brick in the wall of positivity,” Williams said.

But during the pandemic, her chief work has been getting the library’s previously digitized materials into the National Archives Catalog, the flagship resource for access to all National Archives holdings.

Vacationing President Harry S. Truman, right, turns his movie camera on a distinguished trio in Key West in 1947. Left to right: Charles G. Ross, Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy and Adm. James E. Foskett, naval aide. This image is from the papers of longtime Truman aide Charlie Ross.

“Getting our documents in there allows them to be more easily used by teachers and others,” Williams said. “They have the ability to transcribe and tag documents to make them easier for people to find, and provide unique ways to link documents together.

“We have a lot of materials on our website, but the entire National Archives Catalog has different things you can do, it allows (teachers) to create lesson plans and allows people to find photos in ways we might not think about.”

It’s one of those tasks, Williams said, that can easily fall off the radar under normal circumstances.

When Truman Library renovations started in the summer of 2019, staff like Austin and Williams were busy providing various materials for the contractors who put together the new exhibits. Also, questions from researchers, educators and simply curious citizens never truly slowed down, including once the pandemic hit.

“We’ve also been able to answer a lot of people’s questions and help people find material,” Austin said. “We were super busy before we closed, and sending us home did not help matters.”

The brief times staff has been allowed to head into the office were certainly welcomed, Williams said.

Fortunately, before last March staff had prepared several collections of digitized resources to distribute when various 75th anniversaries neared. 

“Thankfully we had some of those things prepared in advance,” Williams said. “We were better prepared than we might otherwise have been.”

Said Austin, “Our ability to do that (outside of the office) would’ve been hindered.”

Now, Truman Library staff are mostly in a waiting pattern, until National Archives decides it’s safe enough and gives the go-ahead to reopen.

“I’m anxious to see everything put together,” Williams said. “I’ve seen all the things going in, but seeing it all put together will be really neat.”