Digital Editions Put Words of America's Founders at Your Fingertips

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April 10, 2009 — Imagine being able to find out what George Washington was thinking on a certain day, or to eavesdrop on a conversation between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.

Now it is easier to find and read their words through the University of Virginia Press' Rotunda collection of electronic imprints, which comprise original digital scholarship and digital versions of original material posted in one searchable database. Rotunda features a new custom platform for the American Founding Era collection and other areas, programmed to allow users to read several online documents at the same time.

Rotunda's American Founding Era Collection offers a unique gateway into some of the great conversations in early American history. These newly prepared digital editions of the papers of many of the major figures of the early republic are presented in a fully searchable online environment that will continue to expand.

On Monday — the 266th anniversary of Jefferson's birthday — the Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition launches with the first 33 volumes of its ongoing papers project. They cover the period of Jefferson's life from January 1760, when he was 16 years old and preparing to enter the College of William & Mary, to April 1801, when he became the third president of the United States.

The Jefferson Papers join digital editions in the American Founding Era database of the papers of Dolley Madison (with more than 900 letters), plus 52 volumes of George Washington and more than 30 volumes of John Adams.

The Rotunda collection's newly developed platform allows students and scholars a unique opportunity to access materials in a kind of conversation — with several voices contributing to one of the most important periods in U.S. history. Readers may search and retrieve documents from any or all publications located in a single (virtual) place and seamlessly navigate through the results.

If a user searches for the word "freedom," a list of occurrences in documents appears. The entries show who wrote the document and the fragments in which the word appears.

Researchers can peruse the era when the War for Independence was going strong.

In a 1781 letter to Washington from Jefferson in Charlottesville, the latter requests military aid as the British occupy Richmond: "... the presence of their beloved Countryman, whose talents have been so long successfully employed in establishing the freedom of kindred States ... would restore full confidence of salvation, and would render them equal to whatever is not impossible ..."

Washington, however, declines in a letter dated June 8, saying that he will go to New York instead, with the aim of drawing some of the British troops to leave the Southern states and meet his: "… the enemy will, I hope, be reduced to the necessity of recalling part of their force from the Southward to support New York, or they will run the most eminent risque of being expelled with a great loss of Stores from that Post which is to them invaluable…"

The Rotunda collection was created to encourage the publication of original digital scholarship, along with newly digitized critical and documentary editions in the humanities and social sciences. The collection combines the originality, intellectual rigor and scholarly value of traditional peer-reviewed university press publishing with thoughtful technological innovation designed for scholars and students.

Searches of crucial events and themes will return results by a host of the era's participants: not only the collection's title figures, but also numerous and distinguished correspondents.

Chronological navigation within the Founding Era — accessing documents by browsing from decade to year to month and day — permits users to find in one place all the documents from all publications for a given date, such as July 4, 1776.

Users also can search a person's life in letters by name, date, author and recipient. They can even conduct French-language searches.

The digital edition of the first three volumes of the Jefferson Papers Retirement series, which begins in 1809, edited by J. Jefferson Looney, will follow later this year. Other forthcoming digital editions in the American Founding Era collection include the Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, the Papers of James Madison, the Papers of Alexander Hamilton, the John Jay Papers and the Papers of John Marshall.

Charles Cullen, former editor of the Jefferson Papers and former president of the Newberry Library in Chicago, said he is impressed by the momentum and effort the U.Va. Press has put behind this monumental project.

"Having access to all these papers in one place is a huge achievement and a boon to scholars and the public," said Cullen, who added, "The database is unique for historical figures.

"I've used these materials in print all my life, but you can't make full use of them. The online catalog allows searches that were impossible before."

Added John P. Kaminski, director of the Ratification of the Constitution Project: "The idea of having so many editions related to early American history, from the Revolution to the Constitution and beyond, in one place and searchable across projects is exciting."

The Rotunda collections are available to institutions and libraries that subscribe to the databases. The Web site recognizes the user's location and allows navigation around the site. Fees are determined by considering six tiers of criteria, such as area population and research activity. A high school library might subscribe to the Papers of George Washington for $684, instead of paying more than $4,000 for the 52 volumes published so far.

"Putting the published volumes online will increase readership by orders of magnitude over current use the letterpress edition, which is largely confined to those with access to major research libraries," Looney said. "Not only will more people use the definitive source for Jefferson's words and ideas, but more of them will be lay enthusiasts, secondary school students and teachers, politicians, foreign scholars and others who have not previously had access to this material."

The Rotunda collection is made possible by grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the U.Va. President's Office.

— By Anne Bromley