The First Year of Founders Online: An Interview with Kathleen Williams

Founders OnlineFounders Online launched just over a year ago on June 13, 2013. Today, The Junto catches up with Kathleen Williams, the Executive Director of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), to get a sense of how Founders Online is being used, how much it is being used, and who is using it. We also discussed what the future may hold in store for Founders Online in terms of further website and content development. (NB: In my capacity as a Research Assistant at the Franklin Papers, I have been proofreading the Founders Online transcriptions of the Franklin volumes. I have also used the database for research, both for pieces I have written for the blog as well as my dissertation.) 

JUNTO: Can you give us some idea of how Founders Online has done during its first year, in terms of numbers?

WILLIAMS: Since its launch in June of 2013, Founders Online has had about 445,000 unique visits. We have seen the average daily visits climb from just under 1,000 to about 1,500. The page views for the first year totaled over five million. Keep in mind we have done very little marketing or advertising of Founders Online, and we think that these results are very solid for its first year.

JUNTO: How do those numbers relate to your initial expectations?

WILLIAMS: To be honest, we didn’t know what to expect upon launch in terms of the volume of use. We did spend considerable energy and resources testing the site’s load capacity prior to public launch, using prior online data launches with somewhat comparable data sets as our volume goal. But we really focused on the site working as planned, getting the metadata and programming correct, and giving users meaningful search results. We emphasized ease of use in the site’s design and functionality. We think we got it right, but we continue to urge users to contact us with any questions or problems (as well as praise).

JUNTO: You mention that you did very little advertising. How can the NHPRC go about increasing exposure and use of Founders Online?

WILLIAMS: We have a couple of things in the works to increase exposure. Let me give just a few examples. We are working on a a quick “how-to video” for Founders Online that is directed especially at educators. In addition, we designed a new Founders Online bookmark and perhaps, more importantly, we have partnered with education staff at the National Archives and elsewhere to distribute it at educators’ meeting, in-service workshops, etc. We continue to use social media outlets (Facebook, Twitter, and the NHPRC blog, Annotation) to post stories that direct readers to the website. Finally, we are in the midst of forming partnerships with the Miller Center at UVA and the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle, NC to expand the Founders Online audiences with digital discovery tools and curriculum packets that use the website as a key component of these efforts.

JUNTO: I think I saw immediate benefits from Founders Online in terms of access for three distinct groups, students at colleges that can’t afford to subscribe to Rotunda, public school secondary students, and, of course, private (or unaffiliated) researchers. Are those the groups most using Founders Online? And have there been any surprises in terms of the user base?

WILLIAMS: Our analytical software doesn’t break down users by type (individuals do not register to use Founders Online), so I really can’t answer the types of user groups making the most use of the website. I can relate a few pleasant surprises that we did not expect. Some users have contacted us because they have a document that has been identified in Founders Online as “not found” and they, in fact, have the document. Other users contact us because they claim to have a document to/from one of the six founders featured in the website, but the document is not included or even mentioned. We didn’t expect that the website could be used to further possible acquisition work at the editorial projects! In either of these scenarios, we immediately put these individuals in touch with the appropriate editorial team for further investigation.

JUNTO: I know the GUI was designed to appeal to the non-academic user. Have you had feedback from academic users? Is there a feature that they have requested more than any other? Is there any plan to incorporate a way (similar to Rotunda) to browse the individual papers collections by volume/page?

WILLIAMS: To answer your specific question about volume citations, I should point out that Founders Online does feature a volume-by-volume contents list found at: In addition, the sidebar for each document lists the original source, with page numbers (if applicable). We hope that this will serve as a useful way to locate a document’s complete citation information quickly and easily. We haven’t discussed a navigate-by-page-number feature, partly because the born-digital content we have in Founders Online means it wouldn’t be relevant in many cases. The user feedback has been extremely positive, whether academic or general user. The most frequent enhancement request we have received thus far is for the site to link each transcribed document to an image of the original document (if a digital version exists). Technically this is very possible to do.

JUNTO: Yes! Last month, in a NARA blog post, you posed a number of questions for readers about the future of the project. In it, you mentioned how 13% of the documents on Founders Online are held in the original by NARA, and, as you just mentioned, you asked about the possibility of linking the documents with the transcriptions. And even perhaps going beyond that to link FO transcriptions to items held in other institutions’ digital catalogs, like the Library of Congress. In that post, you wrote, “Assuming this is worthwhile to do, how can we link Founders Online to the individual documents held there?” Do YOU think it is worthwhile? And is the sheer amount of work involved in such a project the main obstacle?

WILLIAMS: Great question! As I mentioned earlier, one of the website enhancements that users have requested is to provide such linkages, and I think this is a very worthwhile and important aspect of what we should feature on the website. Transcriptions linked to original primary sources (and vice versa) makes for a better connection with those sources and a stronger sense of how primary sources link us to the past. What are the obstacles to achieve this? It is not so much a question of technical difficulty—we know how to make the connections—but more a matter of enlisting these repository stewards in the work. During our first years of putting together Founders Online, our emphasis rightly has been on partnering with the editorial teams to get their content online. But now I see significant advantages in us partnering with the holders of the originals in linking digital versions to the transcriptions. Stay tuned, as we continue to explore this possibility as a future site enhancement.

JUNTO: I want to turn the conversation toward content. Founders Online currently contains the papers projects of six founders. Are there any plans in place to expand beyond those projects? For example, there are a number of smaller paper projects of lesser-known founders already published. (From my own work, I’m thinking of William Livingston or John Jay). Has there been any discussion of expanding beyond correspondence? 

WILLIAMS: There are lots of possibilities in terms of adding new Founding Era content to the website, and we do have the authority to add additional content to Founders Online from outside the scope of the original projects. Of course, having the funds and other resources to do this is another question entirely, and that’s something I will be working on as we go forward.

JUNTO: Recently, I wrote a piece about Benjamin Franklin and American prisoners in England, and I was able to link all the quotes and footnotes to the documents in Founders Online. Allowing readers to immediately look at the letter from which a quote was taken seems to me to be an excellent use, especially in pieces designed for non-academic audiences. What are some of the more creative or unanticipated ways people have made use of Founders Online?

WILLIAMS: We have some users let us know about their incredibly creative uses of the documents and data contained in Founders Online. To give you one recent example: Gates Thomas, professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, is using Founders Online as part of his research in composing a cantata based on George Washington’s Revolutionary War letters. And this spring noted historian Peter Onuf used Founders Online as a critical resource in teaching his massive open online course (MOOC) entitled “The Age of Jefferson.” These are great and surprising uses of the website; I expect that more will be coming!

JUNTO: We’ve talked about a number of possibilities for Founders Online going forward. What are your (and the FO team’s) greatest hopes for Founders Online in this next year and beyond?

WILLIAMS: We want to keep the content and functional enhancements going, as I’ve described earlier. But what’s really the key from my perspective is to build the user base. With the efforts we are beginning this year to make Founders Online better known, I feel sure that users will follow. And if your readers have ideas to share in this regard, I invite them to contact me by email with their thoughts.

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  1. Pingback: The Week in Early American History « The Junto


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