Historians and Documentary Editing

PBFOn this—the 223rd anniversary of the death of Benjamin Franklin—I thought I would use this space to say a few words about my experience over the last year working at the Papers of Benjamin Franklin here at Yale University from the perspective of a graduate student. Last June, I was fortunate enough to be given a regular (part-time) position at the Franklin Papers. Officially, I am a Research Assistant and have done a number of small research projects designed to provide the editors with reference materials on Pennsylvania in the 1780s as they finish up the volumes covering Franklin’s stay in Paris. I have also been given the opportunity to tackle more editorial-type duties including fact-checking, drafting annotations, and proofreading transcriptions. Through these experiences and my innumerable conversations with the chief Editor, Ellen Cohn, I have gotten an inside look at scholarly editing, which often goes either unnoticed or under-appreciated by academic historians.

Projects like the six major founders’ papers (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, and Franklin), the Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, the First Federal Congress Project, the Documentary History of the Supreme Court of the United States, and numerous others provide an enormous benefit to both academic and popular historians. The initiative to federally fund the individual founders’ projects began in 1952, the goal of which was to produce definitive editions. The six major projects have received around $25 million dollars in support from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission as well as funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and private organizations like the Pew Foundation. Graduate students and historians have used these volumes for decades, whether in their letterpress editions or, more recently, on UVA’s Rotunda* database, and yet it is my sense that many don’t realize (or at least don’t bother to think much about) the effort and quality of the work that goes into them.

I could describe the editorial process at the Franklin Papers, but that would require much more than a blog post. Suffice it to say that each stage of production that a piece of correspondence goes through from primary source to its appearance in a volume is performed multiple times by different editors each time. The level of quality control is impeccable. Transcriptions are checked and re-checked; references and annotations are checked and re-checked. And then they’re all checked again. All with the goal of achieving an accuracy that is unsurpassed in the historical field. Working at the Franklin Papers has taught me, among many other things, a serious lesson in professional diligence.

Of course, this level of diligence is necessary. The nineteenth century produced hundreds of documentary volumes of founders’ papers by persons with good intentions (most of the time). However, many of these volumes are littered with mistakes and, at times, highly questionable editing practices. Hence, the decision over a half-century ago to federally fund definitive editions of the founders’ papers. This, however, was a one-time deal. It is unlikely that these projects will ever be done again with this level of funding. Therefore the product of the projects have a permanence that no scholarly monograph—no matter how groundbreaking—could ever hope to achieve. That creates a very real pressure upon the editors to get it right, despite constant pressure from publishers, funders, and talking heads to hurry up and finish.

Even as a graduate student, I find myself continually amazed at the level of research and attention to detail that the editors at the Franklin Papers put into each piece of correspondence, no matter how trivial it might seem. The editors at these projects—many with PhDs in History, but many without them—are every bit the historian as any PhD-holding academic. So the next time you crack open one of these volumes or logon to Rotunda and cite a letter or benefit from an annotation, take a moment to appreciate the truly immense efforts that have been put into these volumes by three generations of historians/editors who ate, slept, drank, lived, and breathed their subjects for the benefit of countless generations of future historians.


*Further federal funding and a Congressional mandate has resulted in Founders Online, which contains all the volumes of the Founding Fathers Project—including annotations—and is freely accessible to the public.

7 comments on “Historians and Documentary Editing

  1. I agree 100%. The editorial teams who tackle these projects have my (and my eyes’) undying gratitude. They have made research so much easier.

  2. Thank you for reminding us of the existence of these well researched volumes, not only for our ongoing scholarship and teaching, but also as a reminder of the good work underwritten by the NHPRC and NEH, which are once again under siege. A friend and former colleague, Roger Parks Ph.D, who worked on the Nathanael Greene Papers (out of the Rhode Island Historical Society) for many years, did a remarkable job of bringing his correspondence to life. Just as Michael observes, the scholarship that undergirds these projects is impressive. The annotations are beautifully written. These recent and ongoing documentary editions are well worth scholarly attention.

  3. Thanks for writing this piece. I’m a research assistant on the Papers of Francis Bernard (www.bernardpapers.com), and I know all too well the amount of work goes into each published document.

    They form a fantastically vital component to so many projects.

  4. Hetty Krol says:

    Thanks, Michael, for putting the editors of historical documents in the spotlight. My colleague Melanie Miller and I are working on the Gouverneur Morris Papers, and we know all too well how all-absorbing and wonderful the work is.

  5. While not a Founding Fathers project, my three years as a research assistant for the Joseph Smith Papers Project as an undergraduate were foundational in my historical training, so I have deep sympathy, respect, and appreciation for these projects.

  6. Sara Georgini says:

    For more, please see the Association for Documentary Editing’s current list of projects & editions: http://documentaryediting.org/projects/index.html

  7. […] early 2013, Michael D. Hattem offered some thoughts on his role as a Research Assistant on the Papers of Benjamin Franklin. Since […]


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