By Melissa Hanson
LOWELL -- For years, the papers sat in Niki Tsongas' attic, 720 boxes filled with her late husband's history as a congressman and senator.
Now, for the first time, UMass Lowell students and the public can read about U.S. Sen. Paul Tsongas' accomplishments in a digital archive of his congressional papers. It's a treasure-trove of his often pioneering work on issues such as climate change and gay rights, in which he was ahead of his time.
The records, stretching over 34,000 pages, are now as close as the nearest computer or smartphone.
U.S. Rep. Tsongas smiled as she looked at photos of her husband and read excerpts of his papers during an unveiling of the archive Tuesday morning.
"Paul thought differently, thought out of the box," she said, remarking on his push to get people in the community working together on issues.
The website has a searchable database of Paul Tsongas' congressional records, from letters to policy reports, created during the decade that he served in Congress and the U.S. Senate from 1975 to 1985. It's at http://uml.beta.libguides.com/tsongas.
Work on the archive began in 2010, and was created through the university's Center for Digital Scholarship, with support from a grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners. Representatives from UMass Lowell went through each document, scanning them and organizing the digital archive.
"We're set to go for hundreds of years with these papers," said George Hart, director of UMass Lowell's O'Leary Library. He said the archive helps show the power of primary sources, as students and the public can see not only finished papers by Tsongas, but also his drafts and notes.
Hart pulled up a paper where Tsongas wrote that the country should be using 20 percent solar power by 2000.
"It's astonishing to see his level of concern, his level of stewardship, for the country," Hart said.
Tsongas entered local politics in 1969. He went on to the House and Senate, and ran unsuccessfully for president in 1992.
Tsongas was 55 when he died in 1997, after battling cancer for more than a decade.
"Paul was, I think, one of the first politicians to really think about being a people's candidate," UMass Lowell Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney said. And Moloney knows that firsthand, having worked on Tsongas' first campaign.
The chancellor recalled a moment on the campaign when Tsongas and his staff went door-knocking on Chelmsford Street.
"I honestly believe Lowell is the city it is today because he encouraged so many of us to get involved," she said.
Moloney said Tsongas would have been proud to see his collection of work at UMass Lowell.
"We all know, also, Paul was kind of a Renaissance man," she said, recalling how the senator was always after new technology.
For Niki Tsongas, the launch of the archive is "bittersweet."
When it came time to decide where he wanted his work to be preserved, UMass Lowell was the answer. Tsongas was born in the city, and is a former trustee of UMass Lowell's predecessor institution, the University of Lowell.
"In the end, Lowell is where his home is," Niki Tsongas said.