Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Founders’ Archives and Documentary Editing

A few months ago the National Archives issued a report – The Founders Online: Open Access to the Papers of America’s Founding Era; A Report to Congress (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, April 2008). The report was “written at the request” of the U.S. Senate and House Committees on Appropriations, “outlining a plan to provide online access, within a reasonable timeframe, to the complete papers of America’s Founding Fathers” (this includes the documentary editions of Adams, Franklin, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, and Washington). As Archivist Allen Weinstein states, the “report proposes a new system that combines the digitized versions of the printed editions along with the raw, unedited transcripts of the yet-to-be-published Founders’ documents. In this way, all of these historical papers will be delivered to the American people more expeditiously” (p. iii). For archivists and others who have paid any attention to the nature and developments of modern documentary editing in the United States, there might be surprise that Congress discovered (finally) that there was a problem. Concern about the length of time it was taking the various documentary projects, especially the Jefferson and Adams papers, has been a well-known and highly debated issue for more than three decades. It must be with curiosity that anyone would open and read the report.

The report suggests that “Congressional concern arose because the completed volumes of the papers of the Founding Fathers have been slow to appear, and can be costly for the average citizen to access. Congress also is concerned that the availability of the papers of the Founding Fathers is being held up by the editing and publishing processes” (p. vii). Clearly, Congress has been pre-occupied with other, more important issues, since it is easy to find such concerns about these issues going back into the 1970s and 1960s. Of course, there is a more problematic matter displayed here, namely the assumption that the public is demanding access to these documentary editions. Indeed, the NARA report asserts that the “challenge is to determine the best way to make these papers accessible to people throughout the world without losing the rigor of the historical research process” (p. 1). This assumes that people throughout the world desire such access; it is not the case that they don’t want access to some of the documents produced by these individuals, but they doesn’t necessarily mean everything they wrote accompanied by heavy scholarly annotations. In fact, many of the key documents created by the Founding Fathers are available online, in the Library of America, or in even cheaper editions from publishers such as Barnes & Noble. We have confusion here between scholarly historical research generated by documentary editors and access to the documents; one doesn’t necessarily require the other. Assertions about the problems of the “limited accessibility of the published volumes” (limited because of cost and residence in research libraries) still begs the question about just what degree the public wants access to such documents and confuses the needs of the public with that of scholars.

There are promising matters discussed in the report. There is discussion of a more commercial venture, a product named Rotunda developed by the University of Virginia Press to provide online access to the Founding Fathers’ papers, featuring “robust searching capabilities that are superior to a collection of digitized copies” (p. viii). There are also promises that the “Archivist will strengthen independent review processes to ensure that performance measures are rigorous, production goals are accomplished on time, and performance information is used in grant decisions” (p. ix). While this may be a half-century too late, it is at least encouraging to see such statements made. If we get full online, searchable access to all the documentary editions, we will have made progress and documentary editing may truly enter into the digital era with its improved potential for timely and enhanced access.

However, the valuable aspects of the report are weakened by omissions and generalizations. A “brief history” of documentary editing is included, but it is a history that ignores anything of a critical nature about such editing – and some of this critical commentary is pertinent to the issues being considered in the report. For example, this abbreviated history states that Julian Boyd “set the standards for accuracy and inclusion in historical documentary editing” (p. 4), but it sidesteps the fact that there were critics of Boyd’s approach during his own day. There is the sense that this documentary editing must go forward in the same manner that it has for the past half-century or more; while desiring for the speeding up of production, it does not recommend just digitizing the papers not yet published without ever needing the academic process of annotation and historical context. There really has been little concrete evidence that the scholarly process of editing the papers is critical to the question of improved access to the archival remains of the Founding Fathers. Building a new online program including “all of the transcribed and encoded documents,” marked as “’draft’ or ‘verified but unannotated’ and clearly distinguished from the authoritative versions drawn from the annotated print editions” (p. 12) sounds like a positive step but why do researchers or the public require the annotated versions in the first place? Speculating that the enhanced access to the full set of papers “might also lead to contributions from independent scholars, along with the discovery of documents ‘hidden’ in private collections” (p. 13) sounds compelling, except for the fact that these documentary programs have been well publicized since 1950 and the prospects of new discoveries have always been present in the litany of reasons for documentary editing; the possibility of other scholars using the papers has always been present anyway (Lester Cappon, for example, worked with both Julian Boyd and Lyman Butterfield in reviewing the assembled papers of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson for the publication of his popular 1959 two-volume edition of the correspondence of these two revolutionary leaders, a publication that has remained constantly in print for fifty years and that possesses a truly light editorial hand). Why promise what has always been possible?

The key to understanding this report may rest with seeing what is not in it and understanding what has been the relationship between the National Archives (and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission) and modern historical documentary editing. In responding to Congress, the authors of the report leave out a lot. For example, Walter Rundell, Jr., in his In Pursuit of American History: Research and Training in the United States (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970), had a lot to say about the problems of documentary editing and relying on the materials published in such projects. And, there is no reference to the controversy about scaling back NHPRC financial support for these projects just a decade ago, a controversy that brought out the long-standing concerns about the costs, time, and other resources needed for such projects including the issue of whether they really provided the kind of access needed for both scholars and the public; for an example, see my own "Messrs. Washington, Jefferson, and Gates: Quarrelling about the Preservation of the Documentary Heritage of the United States," First Monday 2 (August 1997), available at What we may have here in this present report is another knee-jerk defense of documentary editing, such as the NHPRC published, Ann Gordon, Using the Nation's Documentary Heritage (1992), an earlier defense of the potential power of access by the people to the writings of the Founding Fathers; see my earlier review of this publication, "Archivists and the Use of Archival Records: Or, A View from the World of Documentary Editing," Provenance 9 (1991 [1992]): 89-110.

Personally, I believe that modern documentary editing is an important scholarly endeavor, and that it has made many important contributions to our knowledge of the American past. I also believe that it should continue to be able to do its work. However, I think it ought to be recognized as being a scholarly discipline without needing to resort to extravagant claims about the use of its products by the public. And we should be more realistic about its strengths and weaknesses. That the National Archives has responded to the Congress is laudable, but it could have been much more straightforward about the unsubstantiated claims on behalf of historical documentary editing and still made a substantial case for why and how the papers of the Founding Fathers could be put online. Citing the results of other online historical digitalization projects, for example, could have been the higher road to take. Holding onto the continuing fiction that every American wants to read the entire correspondence of a Jefferson or Adams actually undermines the potential contributions of modern documentary editing.