National Archives Helps Founding Fathers Go Online

October 30, 2009 — Five thousand previously unpublished documents from our nation's founders, including James Madison, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, are now online through ROTUNDA, the digital imprint of the University of Virginia Press.

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Anne Bromley:

The project was spearheaded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the grant-making arm of the National Archives, in partnership with the "Documents Compass" group at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

The ROTUNDA Founders Early Access project makes available for the first time letters and other papers penned by important figures from the founding of the United States. The Founders Early Access portion of the site allows users to read, search and browse newly transcribed documents, and is available at no cost to users.

In 2008, Congress urged the National Archives to investigate ways to make the Founders Papers more readily available to historians, scholars and the general public at no cost to researchers.

Many of these documents are in the possession of scholarly editors, who go through a long, painstaking process to prepare them for formal publication. This "Early Access" effort makes these documents available long before they are included in verified and annotated collections, such as the "Papers of George Washington" and "Papers of James Madison" volumes being produced at U.Va. and published by the University of Virginia Press.

As longtime funders of the print editions of the Founding Fathers documentary projects, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission worked with the editorial teams at the "Papers of …" projects and supported a pilot demonstration project through Documents Compass, a nonprofit organization designed to assist in the digital production of historical documentary editions.

Over the past 10 months, the pilot has transcribed and completed basic transcription verification for roughly 5,000 documents. These transcriptions will be fully verified, and the editorial teams will provide explanatory annotation as they proceed with their work. Each completed volume of a documentary edition contains roughly 500 documents and provides notations that identify historical figures and events to shed light on the papers' meaning and significance.

"This is an important stage in the process," said Kathleen Williams, executive director of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. "We have been looking for ways to help the public gain access to these documents sooner and to assist the editorial projects in completing the comprehensive documentary editions. This work advances those goals."

"There is much to discover here," said Penelope Kaiserlian, director of the U.Va. Press. "Take a look, for example, at Thomas Jefferson's letter to James Madison on Aug. 30, 1823, when the elderly Jefferson contests the memory of 88-year-old John Adams regarding the creation of the Declaration of Independence. Historians will already know this letter, but now anyone can easily find this readable version."

The Founders historical documentary editions include the papers of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, as well as the Documentary History of the Ratification of the U.S. Constitution, the first Federal Congress and the first Supreme Court. Rotunda is publishing digital editions of some of these publications in its American Founding Era Collection.

"Generations of scholars, historians and teachers will use these documents to tell the American story from its grand beginnings," Williams said. "We will look back in wonder at the effort of countless scholars to create this work, a national monument to the founding of our nation. Transcribing documents and publishing them online at an early stage makes more of this treasure available sooner, and we look forward to the day when the entire collection is fully annotated and complete."

— By Anne Bromley