English Professors to Make Jefferson's 'Notes on the State of Virginia' More Accessible

A notice of its rivers, rivulets, and how far they are navigable?
The number and condition of the militia and regular troops, and their pay?
A description of the Indians established in that state?
The measures taken with regard of the estates and possessions of the rebels, commonly called Tories?

June 14, 2011 — French diplomat François de Barbé Marbois sent these and other queries to American officials in 1780 while the new United States was still fighting for its declared independence. Marbois had arrived as secretary of the French legation to the American colonies, a role like that of ambassador.

Thomas Jefferson, then governor of Virginia, undertook an extensive project to answer the queries for his state and prepared "Notes on the State of Virginia; Written in the Year 1781, Somewhat Corrected and Enlarged in the Winter of 1782, for the Use of the Foreigner of Distinction, in Answer to Certain Queries Proposed by Him." After sending his answers to Marbois, Jefferson published his notes in book form – first just for friends, and in 1787, a public copy of "Notes on the State of Virginia." He continued adding information and appendices, rearranging the manuscript for years as Virginia evolved.

The University of Virginia's Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library holds, among several editions,  the actual copy of the book Jefferson owned, with the notes he added in the margins.

"This is Jefferson's great book," said John O'Brien, an English professor in the College of Arts & Sciences. He and colleague Brad Pasanek have received a grant from the Alumni Association's Jefferson Trust to create an accessible, user-friendly digital version for students and a more general audience.

The American Philosophical Society, to which Jefferson gave a copy of his first edition of the "Notes" in 1805, describes the work: "No American natural history was more influential during the 18th century than Thomas Jefferson's 'Notes on the State of Virginia,' though it is, as intended, far more than a simple natural history. At once a description of the land and people of the state and a theoretical discourse on historical, natural and political systems, the 'Notes' represents Jefferson's conflicted views on the present and future of the new American nation, an integral mix of hope and anxiety."

Europeans understood Virginia, a bigger territory at the time, to be the geographic and powerful center of the land across the Atlantic, where much was unknown. Jefferson was eager to enlighten them about the outstanding features of the new land and disabuse them of negative ideas common at the time.

O'Brien said the book is a good project for using digital technology, because it doesn't fit well into the traditional book format. Jefferson kept changing it over the years, so it didn't end with one publication. It included maps and charts that don't reproduce well in a typical paperback, not to overlook the expense of printing in Jefferson's day.

The text and some of the editions can be found online and are housed in different places. Since they are separate and scattered, it's hard to get the full picture of Jefferson's work, O'Brien said.

He and Pasanek saw the opportunity to remedy the situation. O'Brien thinks it will be a good test case for what digital technology can add to learning, he said.

The two English professors, who study 18th-century literature, envision the website allowing students to see the stages from the original manuscript, left to the Massachusetts Historical Society by a Jefferson heir, through the printed editions in Jefferson's time, including his own copy at U.Va., and later editions. Viewers would be able to look at a digital copy of the private edition that Jefferson had printed in Paris and compare it to the first public printing that came out a few years later, for example.

The resources of the U.Va. Library will certainly enhance the project.

"Through the strategic digitization of its rare and unique materials, such as those undertaken by Digital Curation Services, the U.Va. Library helps enable the research and teaching of its faculty and students," said Bradley Daigle, director of Digital Curation Services. "We provide the raw materials for such projects as the one Brad and John are embarking on. We often work very closely with faculty to help them transform some of their groundbreaking ideas into reality."

O'Brien said the "Notes" is an important piece of early American writing, and he would like more people to be able to read it. In Jefferson's style, the work is serious and encyclopedic, he said. He hopes his graduate class on transatlantic 18th-century literature this fall will be able to use the new website.

The Jefferson Trust grant, a modest $23,000, will allow the professors to pay for the Web-based platform and software to bring Jefferson's "great book" to the public for free, perhaps even as an app for the iPad, by the end of the year.

Established in 2004 by the U.Va. Alumni Association, the Jefferson Trust is an unrestricted endowment that distributes funds annually through a Universitywide grant program. The unrestricted nature of the endowment allows the trustees to pursue excellence across the entire University by supporting a variety of initiatives in programs that enhance teaching, scholarship and research; programs that allow faculty and students to work closely together while engaging in hands-on learning; and programs that allow the University community to reach out to other communities – locally, nationally and globally.

— By Anne Bromley

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications