Pitt to organize Arlen Specter archive

Sen. Arlen Specter , who died in October, left 2,700 boxes of papers, photographs, audio and video materials, and memorabilia. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Sen. Arlen Specter , who died in October, left 2,700 boxes of papers, photographs, audio and video materials, and memorabilia. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Posted: March 06, 2013

The voluminous archives of the late U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter are heading west.

Philadelphia University, which has custody, has struck a deal with the University of Pittsburgh to process, preserve, and digitize significant portions of Specter's material, officials announced Monday.

The job is huge. Imagine 2,700 boxes of papers, photographs, audio and video materials, and memorabilia. That's enough to fill 337 four-drawer filing cabinets, notes Michael Dabrishus, Pitt's assistant university librarian.

"We originally estimated late last fall that we thought it would take us four years to get everything in order," he said, but it could longer.

That doesn't mean the public will have to wait to see some of the materials. The library will make pieces available as they are completed, he said.

Philadelphia University and Pitt will jointly manage the archives.

The collection is part of the Arlen Specter Center for Public Policy at Philadelphia University. Specter donated to the university his archive spanning 50 years of public service. The university is using state funding to help renovate a historic building on campus for display.

Under the new agreement, Pitt's library system will store the collection for 30 years, but pieces of it will rotate through and be on display at Philadelphia University.

The first exhibition, on the Warren Commission, will open at the university in October and run through March 2014, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. From 1963 to 1964, Specter was assistant counsel to the commission, investigating Kennedy's assassination. He promulgated the single-bullet theory.

Other exhibits will focus on Specter's involvement in Supreme Court nominations, the National Institutes of Health, and negotiation with world leaders.

Philadelphia University retains ownership, and the universities will collaborate on educational programming related to the archive and access to it by students, researchers, and the public. The agreement will allow people at opposite ends of Pennsylvania to have access to the collection, said Philadelphia University president Stephen Spinelli Jr.

"This collaboration really sort of bookends the state for us," he said. With the digitization, he noted, "eventually this collection will be available to scholars all over the world."

Former Gov. Ed Rendell said he agreed with the approach, noting that Specter represented the whole state: "It's fitting and appropriate that these archival materials will be on display in both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia universities."

Philadelphia University reached out to Pitt for help, given the library's expertise in managing large collections, Spinelli said. Pitt has a history of archiving collections of important elected officials, including several who graduated from Pitt. They include Dick Thornburgh, former governor of Pennsylvania and U.S. attorney general; K. Leroy Irvis, who in 1977 became the first African American speaker of the House of Representatives in Pennsylvania; and the late U.S. Rep. John P. Murtha.

The university also digitized its rare John James Audubon "Birds of America" collection. Pitt has one of only 115 such collections in the world.

Dabrishus will discuss with Philadelphia University officials what pieces of Specter's collection should be digitized, he said. The full collection will be archived and housed at Pitt's Archives Service Center, three miles from the Pittsburgh campus.

Specter died of cancer in October. He was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2005, but continued working full time and subsequently wrote a book about his successful battle.

He was first elected to represent Pennsylvania in 1980. A longtime moderate Republican, he supported abortion rights, gay rights, and funding for stem-cell research, causing him to clash with party conservatives.

He took the spotlight in 1991 for his blistering interrogation of former law professor Anita Hill, who had accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. And he gained notoriety in 2009 when he switched to the Democratic Party and later lost a bid for reelection.

With  nearly $2 million in state funding and more in private donations, Philadelphia University is renovating its Roxboro House for the Specter center. Specter lived near the university in East Falls.

Construction on the Roxboro House began in December and is scheduled to be completed by Feb. 14, 2014 - Specter's birthday, Spinelli said.

Contact Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @ssnyderinq. Read her blog, "Campus Inq" at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/campus_inq.

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