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Preserving the Legacy

Despite the rich technological heritage embodied in the Edison National Historic Site and the many mysteries of the inventor’s work still to be plumbed, a visitor cannot help but be struck by the facility’s shabby condition. The damage and deterioration is severe enough, in fact, that the nonprofit National Trust for Historic Preservation cited the lab in 1993 as one of the country’s “most endangered historic properties.” Touring the main building, for instance, Gerbauckas departs from her largely upbeat, historically oriented remarks to note water damage from a large leak in the roof. An arm’s length away, scores of open shelves hold all manner of Edison artifacts, including motors, hand tools, metal castings, architectural models, and gizmos of every description. Just two years ago, a researcher working in the area stumbled upon one of the world’s first phonograph recordings buried on one of these shelves. “There may well be more hidden gems here,” Gerbauckas says resignedly. “We just won’t know for sure until we are able to work our way through it all.” A new roof for the main building, she explains, is just one of many costly renovations needed at the site.

To combat such problems, Gerbauckas has helped launch a newly unveiled public-private partnership to restore the aging facility. In an effort the entrepreneurial inventor would undoubtedly have approved of, the new nonprofit Edison Preservation Foundation will solicit private contributions to help maintain the lab complex and Edison archive. The inauguration of the partnership drew a recent visit from Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, who as titular head of the Park Service hailed the plan as “a prototype” for defraying maintenance outlays throughout the underfunded park system. To be sure, a gaping shortfall remains despite the initial $1 million raised by the trust: the site’s renovation is now estimated to cost $60 million. But the partnership plan at least offers a viable structure within which to complete the task.

To encourage broad interest in the new partnership, as well as to commemorate the inventor’s 150th birthday, Gerbauckas, DeGraaf, and others working at the site are attempting to open the Edison collection to a wider audience. This spring the Edison archivists will launch a Web site that will ultimately include a fully searchable database of the papers. And DeGraaf is organizing a symposium that will be the first to draw a group of scholars from around the world to consider Edison from every angle: as scientist, entrepreneur, and cultural icon.

Back at the archive office, though, it is business as usual as Thomas Jeffrey, associate director of the Edison Papers Project, plows ahead in the seemingly Sisyphean task of preserving the rich cache of materials for posterity. Jeffrey calculates that the Edison papers if stacked would stand roughly as high as the Chicago Sears Tower. Although he has already spent 17 years attempting to catalogue the collection, Jeffrey estimates that his dedicated team of editors, digging their way through this mountain of paper, will need at least 17 more years to publish a representative sample of the inventor’s work on microfilm and in 15 to 20 printed volumes. “When you think that only 3 volumes have appeared so far,” he adds, “even 2015 may prove to be an optimistic deadline.”

Jeffrey is candid in his assessment of the consequences of this slow process: “So far,” he says, “most scholars have been able to study only the tip of the iceberg of this collection. And there is no question that piecemeal access to the material has limited the range of scholarship.” But someday, he says, “the intellectual resources hidden away at this site will be unlocked. We are creating an essential roadmap into this invaluable collection.”

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