September 29, 2011 — The unpublished papers of several Founding Fathers will be made available online through a three-year, $2.5 million agreement between the University of Virginia, through the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the grant-making arm of the National Archives.
The program will give scholars and the general public free access to primary source materials before they appear in the official print editions, which take years to produce.
Documents Compass, a Virginia Foundation for the Humanities program specializing in documentary editing in the electronic age, will digitize 68,000 historical papers of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Washington that have not yet been published in authoritative editions. Documents Compass will update and improve the existing transcriptions of these papers, building on its successful 2009 pilot project. That project, funded through a previous national commission grant, put online 5,000 unpublished documents from the papers of Madison and Adams.
"This is a remarkable opportunity to make available to the public these very important historical documents in a timely and easily accessible manner," said Robert Vaughan, president of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
Six separate groups are working on the official volumes, which are published in print only after years of thorough research and annotation. The Papers of George Washington and the Papers of James Madison, which are part of the College of Arts & Sciences, are housed at the U.Va. Library, and the project on Jefferson's papers from his retirement years is located at Monticello. The Jefferson papers up to 1809 are produced by Princeton University. The Adams papers are produced by the Massachusetts Historical Society, and the Franklin papers by the American Philosophical Society and Yale University.
David S. Ferriero, archivist of the United States, said, "These documentary editions provide a treasure trove of information about the founding of our nation. The historical documents contain fascinating details about the thoughts, deeds and lives of these seminal figures. This agreement ensures that we leverage the latest technology and processes to ensure that all Americans can access and use these papers."
The papers will be available on a new National Archives website, which is being built by Rotunda, the University of Virginia Press' digital scholarship project. Providing access to the unpublished transcriptions is the second stage of the national commission's Founders Online Initiative, begun last year.
In the first stage, currently under way, Rotunda is providing free online access to more than 120,000 historical documents included in already-published documentary editions for these key figures of the U.S. founding era.
Users will be able to access both the published, annotated documents and the unpublished transcriptions through the forthcoming Founders Online website. As new authoritative volumes are published in the future, the final transcriptions with explanatory notes will replace the digitized pre-publication transcriptions.