In terms of the spread and ease of access to information we are definitely living in “interesting times.”  Despite the wide use of the Internet, digital texts, and various media other than the printed text, there is a divide between those who use it, those who don’t, and an even greater one, perhaps, for those who create it.  I’ve often found that in the early enthusiasm of bringing traditional print resources online, we haven’t stopped to think about how you would or could alter them to be better, but just reproduced what existed in print in order to get it out there in a format more easily searched.  So what do modern editors of digital editions have to take into account?  How would an editor approach making a digital edition of a text contain the scholarly apparatus (footnotes, annotations, etc.) of use and value to scholars and researchers, and accessible to students who might be less familiar with the scholarly conventions of printed texts?

Darryl Stuhr discussing the digitization equipment

Dr. Holly Shulman,  Editor of the Dolley Madison Digital Edition and Research Associate Professor at the University of Virginia, addresses some of these questions in her essay “Doing Digital History.” In discussing how the electronic environment changes how she as an editor approached Dolley Madison’s papers, she identifies five key areas: “access, space, searchability, mutability, and collaboration.”   One of the many interesting ways in which Dr. Shulman was able enhance the electronic edition was to annotate not just the specific literary titles Dolley and her correspondents mention in their letters to one another – we’d expect that as part of good scholarship – but she also chose to annotate the many literary references Dolley and her friends make throughout their letters.  I’ll leave you to link through to Dr. Shulman’s news article and see the other challenges editors of digital editions face.

I’d like to turn, now, to the Rotunda Collection itself.  This is a digital initiative of the University of Virgina Press designed to publish original digital scholarship and to publish digital editions of existing critical and documentary works in the social sciences and humanities.  Perhaps the most well-known undertaking in the Rotunda Collection is the Founding Era Collection.  It provides (or will provide through future publications) access to  the papers of the founding generation of American leaders (Presidents, First Lady Dolley Madison, and political and legal thinkers such as John Jay and John Marshall) and to The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, which traces the progress of the Constitution’s ratification through all thirteen state conventions.  These resources are valuable primary documents, providing insights into the men (and women), their social networks, and the country they helped shape. What I’d like to highlight here is the distinction between the UVA Press’ The Founding Era Collection  and it’s freely accessible
Founders Early Access.

Ray I. Riley Reading and Digital Presentation Room, Moody Library

One of the advantages of digital publication is that early drafts of a document which has received at least minimal editing by scholars can be made accessible to the public.  This is the route that UVA Press has chosen to take as it continues the editing of the the five Founding Fathers Papers series still ongoing (the papers of Alexander Hamilton were completed in 1987).  This has two advantages:

  • scholars working on these unpublished documents can gain easy access to them regardless of their location in libraries, government agencies, historical societies, and collections
  • it will be possible to follow the scholarly editing of these documents over time

Once a document has been fully edited and selected for publication, it will be removed from the Founders Early Access collection and published in its appropriate Founding Era Collection.  Any item not selected for a Founding Era Collection will remain freely accessible in the Founders Early Access Collection.  The versions in the “Early Access” collection will not have the notes and annotations the final, published copies will have, and the data in these items may change as a result of scholarly editing and research.

If you have used either the Founding Era Collection or the Founders Early Access collection, please comment on their usefulness, any quirks you might have found, and any suggestions you have for how scholars and students could use these resources.