Founding Fathers go digital

NARA plans to offer online public access to the Founding Fathers’ historical papers

The unpublished works

Historians have made progress in publishing verified, annotated volumes of the Founders’ Papers, but many volumes remain unpublished. Here is a snapshot of historical publishing projects related to those papers.

  • John Adams: 30 of 67 volumes have been published, estimated completion 2043.
  • Benjamin Franklin: 39 of 47 volumes have been published, estimated completion 2016.
  • Thomas Jefferson: 34 of 52 volumes have been published, estimated completion 2026.
  • James Madison: 31 of 48 volumes have been published, estimated completion 2026.
  • George Washington: 60 of 90 volumes published, estimated completion 2023.

— Ben Bain

Movies, novels, historical research and documentaries have been based on the papers, letters and other writings that the Founding Fathers left to the nation. The documents provide a unique insight into the personalities and episodes that shaped the country’s history. Yet despite decades of efforts to transcribe, annotate and publish verified versions of the documents, 90,000 remain unavailable.

Now, responding to congressional concern, the National Archives and Records Administration has a plan to speed the time-consuming process of publishing the papers and make them freely accessible online to the public. Congress left instructions in the 2008 appropriations bill for NARA to develop the plan.

In many cases, the papers are hard to read, making the work of transcribing them difficult. Despite decades of efforts that have resulted in the publication of 217 volumes of papers by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Washington, 270,000 pages remain. According to official estimates, that work could take another 35 years.

NARA’s pilot program will incorporate the efforts of research and publishing institutions while also relying on a sole service provider to transcribe and encode the papers that have not yet been edited. The agency will provide a content management system to improve public accessibility via the Internet. NARA also plans to publish transcribed versions of the texts in draft form, gradually replacing them with fully annotated and verified versions that take historians longer to complete.

Kathleen Williams, executive director of NARA’s National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), said providing the documents even in a raw, basic form will create interest. Historians normally prefer to wait until documents have been fully transcribed, annotated and reviewed before making them public.

NARA’s approach has the support of the project directors of NARA-funded publishing projects. Jeff Looney, editor of the Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series sponsored by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, endorsed the plan to create a federally managed, omnibus content management system. Looney said it could be a boon for scholars who prefer not to wait for the final, verified versions to be released.

Although Looney said he is enthusiastic about the benefits of making basic transcriptions available online, he added that people must not mistake the basic transcriptions from the complete verified works.

Looney, whom NARA consulted about the project, said creating the final, verified, published texts involves several rounds of transcription, editing and re-editing, which makes it an arduous process.

Williams said the pilot program will give people an overall idea of what went on during a particular period in history. NARA plans to release a request for proposals for that program next month. The agency plans to award a grant or grants totaling $250,000 later this year to test the approach on a select number of documents.

John Bray, a Democratic staff member on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said NARA’s report to lawmakers detailing the plan is a good beginning. However, it remains unclear what the total cost of making all the papers freely accessible online will be, he said.

Williams added that the purpose of the pilot program will be to answer those questions and test the new approach. “The process is the beginning of a conversation” about how to solve the problem, she said. “It’s been a problem that’s around for quite a while.” 

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.


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