Making the Adams Papers

acornNearly a quarter of a million manuscript pages, and almost fifty volumes to show for it: As we mark the 60th anniversary of production at the Adams Papers editorial project, here’s an inside look at our process, from manuscript to volume.

Lyman H. Butterfield, the founding editor-in-chief, came to the Massachusetts Historical Society in the autumn of 1954. As he found, his most recent turn as director of Williamsburg, Va.’s nascent Institute of Early American History and Culture, had prepared him for the job. As he drafted the first editorial directives, Butterfield also drew on his training at the Papers of Thomas Jefferson project with editor Julian P. Boyd. Butterfield took his cues from the physical mass of brown-wrapped, string-tied manuscripts stacked on his desk. Before him lay loose correspondence, letterbooks, treaties, and photographs. As a “new breed” of scholar-editor-archivist, Butterfield first sought to impose order on the manuscripts by classifying each within a master control file. For ease of access, he assigned a color palette. When the Society owned the recipient’s copy (always the first choice to publish, as it signifies both the author’s final intent and the actual message acted upon), he assigned pink slips. Letterbook copies, which John Adams first made while at the Continental Congress, got white slips. Yellow slips represent Adams documents held either privately or at other institutions, and blue (“lead”) slips indicate auction items or documents we’d still like to know more about. In recent years, we’ve digitized the control file as the Online Adams Catalog. It’s a good way to navigate the 608 reels of the (widely available) Adams Family Papers microfilm.

Butterfield’s excited first pass at the documents raised a few dilemmas. How to organize such an immense archive for publication? Swiftly, he sent out John Adams’s diary for preservation. Then he labored to separate the cache into two thematic groups: private papers to run in the Adams Family Correspondence series, and public papers to appear in the Papers of John Adams series. To tackle the challenge, he developed an editorial process for publication that, with a few (digital) tweaks, remains in place today. Here’s a brief overview, from manuscript to book:

  1. Transcription: Every volume begins with creating an accurate, faithful, readable text. We preserve the words—nonstandard spelling, odd capitalizations and all—just as they were written. When a selection of the family letters was first published in the nineteenth century, juicier bits and private family doings were excised, edited, or curtailed. Modern transcriptions of the correspondence, then, are far more comprehensive for historians to browse and cite. And, since many early Americans wrote phonetically, transcription is a valuable way of getting the early American voice in one’s head. I know that Abigail said “Canady” for Canada, and that she was interested in planting “spinnage,” “sperry-grass” and “cow-cumbers” (spinach, asparagus, and cucumbers) on their Quincy farm of “Peacefield.” I know that Abigail used the Yankee-inflected “Aya” to indicate “yes,” and that she called her husband’s peace commissioner colleague by “Frankling.”
  2. Selection: We select a chunk of manuscripts for each series, publishing two thirds of roughly a 500 to 600-document corpus at a time. We read as many versions of a document as possible, then compose a calendar summary (2-3 lines) of each one. This gives us a way to distinguish the big stories in each volume. Documents that don’t make the final cut do appear elsewhere—either to support details in our annotation, or on our list of omitted documents in the volume’s endmatter. The Adams Family Correspondence series has a rich cast of characters, so editors offer a chronology to keep the reader in step with family events as they unfold.
  3. Collation: Two editorial pairs team up for what we call collation, a tandem reading of original manuscript and transcription. Reading every word, “misspelling,” and punctuation mark aloud, they verify that we’re supplying an authoritative text. They finalize the descriptive notes, which run at the foot of each document to indicate how letters are addressed, docketed, and endorsed. For annotators, these descriptive notes are key since they tell us who knew what, and when. When did John Adams actually receive those Congressional instructions? Are Abigail’s shopping lists for Thomas Jefferson making it to Paris in good time? These are the finer-grained details that show how documents can render the past with new accuracy and a burst of historical color.
  4. Annotation: Is a wonderful thing! Following Lyman Butterfield’s initial guideline, we aim for brief but informative notes that relate to the document and supply quick context for the reader. We identify major people, places, and events that affect the Adamses and shape their universe of American history. Pivotal documents—such as John Adams’s draft notes for A Defence of the Constitutions… or multiple iterations of the definitive Anglo-American peace treaty—are framed to reflect the singularity of the physical archive, and the historical significance of the event. Here, it’s also important to think about other features of the editorial apparatus, and how they can reinforce or cancel each other out. There’s often no need to annotate, say, a Congressman’s brief cameo if he will be identified clearly in the…
  5. Index: Though it’s the first thing readers flip to, this is the last item on our to-do list before submitting to Harvard University Press. Once annotation has moved through a verification (fact-checking) phase, the introduction drafted, and the volume has undergone a few critical reads by other editors, it’s on to indexing. We create our index in-house, with three editors taking a staggered pass through the entire text. For several months of index, I have to think in backward dependent clauses, which can be a bit of an intellectual challenge. We maintain a consolidated index online, so it’s critical to think about how prior generations of editors may have described the same person/topic. Nothing re-sculpts a familiar text quite like constructing a good index. The thing about indexing is that I think every graduate student/faculty member should try it at least once. You’ll confront the whole manuscript differently—no matter how well you know what it says—and new overarching themes will emerge. Then it’s off to the press, with bound books shortly thereafter.

To learn more about the profession of documentary editing and related training resources, go here. For research queries or for more information on the Adams Papers, email here.

16 comments on “Making the Adams Papers

  1. Alec Rogers says:

    Sara – what role do you think the progress of this project has had in the spate of new books on JQA? We saw new bios in 2012 (Unger), 2014 (Kaplan) and two forthcoming ones, and another study of his foreign policy (Edel) just released. I don’t recall a period of interest in JQA like we’ve had in the past 2 years and it shows no signs of letting up.

    • Sara Georgini says:

      Alec, thanks for sharing. You’re right–and we’re delighted to see this wave of interest in JQA and his wife, Louisa Catherine Adams. In recent years, we’ve made the JQA Diary available online (see under “Read Adams Documents”) and recently published Louisa’s Diary and Autobiographical Writings. The more we’re able to share authoritative texts of primary sources, the richer the historiography will be.
      To consider your excellent q in broader context, I’d recommend taking a look at the generation of Adams biographies issued between the 1950’s and 1970’s. I’ve found it fascinating to see how publication of the papers (plus celebration of the Bicentennial) reshaped our notions of John and Abigail.

      • Alec Rogers says:

        Sara – are you familiar with Catherine Drinker Bowen’s John Adams and the American Revolution? Speaking of old biographies, I’ve always been curious about that one.

        • R. B. Bernstein says:

          I know the Bowen. She had no access to the papers, because nobody did before the 1954 creation of the Adams Manuscript Trust. The other problem with the Bowen is that it’s not a biography — it’s fictionalized, and it doesn’t even get far into the Revolution. It’s a really bad book, and I fear that my old teacher Henry Commager liked it because he was a reverse snob — he held old-line Philadelphia families in awe and she was a Drinker as well as a Bowen.

          I did a roundup of Adams scholarship in my chapter in David WE. Waldstreicher, ed., A CMPANION TO JOHN ADAMS AND JOHN QUINCY ADAMS (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013)

    • Sara Georgini says:

      Thanks! And a special note to researchers: if you’re working on an Adams-related project, we’d love to know more about it, so feel free to get in touch.

  2. This is very similar to the process we use at the Franklin Papers. We’re usually working off original transcriptions done during the 1950s and 1960s (most of the ones in French having originally been transcribed and typed by Claude Lopez when she started as an assistant). And so tandem reading is used to create an updated transcription that then goes to the Assistant Editors for annotation. I’ve been fortunate enough to get a chance to do both tandem reading as well as annotation drafting and annotation checking and the micro-level of detail that the Asst. Editors uncover never fails to impress me. They really are the unsung heroes of these projects and, often, extremely impressive historians in their own right. They just happen to be working on these projects, which, in the end, will outlast almost any monograph written by most tenured professors. I think between the posts done by you, myself, and Chris Minty (who worked on the Francis Bernard Papers), The Junto has done an excellent job of making people (and historians) aware of the amazing efforts that go into producing these published editions.

  3. sandvick says:

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    Sara Georgini has an essay about the massive Adams Papers editorial project at The Junto. After 60 years, the project has published over 50 volumes of Adams documents. Georgini’s article explains how documents are selected for publication, organized and published. It is a fascinating project in both it scale and complexity.

  4. […] by canoe, ventured into French archives, reconsidered the “new history of capitalism,” and took an insider’s tour of the Adams Papers editorial […]

  5. R. B. Bernstein says:

    Just to say thank you to Sara Georgini for a really splendid article that should be shown to anyone who questions the value of these fine projects.

    • Sara Georgini says:

      Thanks for weighing in, and for producing new Adams scholarship. It’s wonderful to see our volumes at work in the profession.

  6. Elizabeth Brown says:

    Sara, thank you so much!

  7. […] Ford remained the sole editor with access and publication rights. Butterfield’s first thought was to organize and open the papers for […]

  8. […] Editorial Project has published over fifty volumes to date. (To read more about the process, see Sara Georgini’s 2014 post.) As I continue to work on volume 13 Adams Family Correspondence I am reminded of the breadth of […]

  9. […] editing, I savored the art and science of his approach. Curious to see how it compared with the editorial process at the Adams Papers, I marveled at the collaborative hunt to locate those pamphlets in a pre-Internet age. Bailyn’s […]


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