Sunday, February 10, 2008

Editing the Founders

On Thursday morning, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing designated "The Founding Fathers’ Papers: Ensuring Public Access to our National Treasures." Witnesses included historians David McCullough and Ralph Ketcham, Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein, and Princeton professor Stanley Katz, chairman of the Founding Fathers Papers project (which represents the six ongoing editorial projects for the papers of Washington, Adams, Jefferson (Papers and Retirement Series), Madison and Franklin).

I'm going to write about the hearing and what was said there, but understand that I can't come at this topic from an unbiased standpoint: I work every day with the staff of the Adams Papers and understand the excellent, meaningful research and scholarship that goes into each and every volume of the Papers.

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the committee chairman, led off the hearing with a prepared statement, calling for digitization of the papers and making them freely available on the Internet. Not a bad idea if the resources can be arranged, but no replacement for the published volumes.

David McCullough delivered a ringing endorsement of the project, noting that the value of the published papers "is unassailable, immeasurable. They are superbly edited. They are thorough. They are accurate. The footnotes are pure gold - many are masterpieces of close scholarship ... Just this past week, for my current project, I wanted to find out what all was contained in the 80-some crates that Thomas Jefferson shipped back home to Virginia, in the course of his five years of diplomatic service in France - all the books, art and artifacts, the scientific instruments, and the like. The range and variety of the inventory would, of course, reflect much about the mind of the man. So I turned to the Jefferson papers hoping there might be something. And, sure enough, there it was, in Volume 18, the whole sum total in a footnote that runs nearly six pages in small type. I know what work had to have gone into that footnote, the care and attention to detail. There have been times when I’ve spent a whole day on one paragraph just trying to get it right, to be clear and accurate." Many of you probably know how I feel about footnotes (not to mention Jefferson's books) and will understand why this made me happy.

McCullough pushed back against strongly against calls for trying to speed up publication, noting that the editors "are the best in the business and the high quality of the work they do need not, must not be jeopardized or visciated in order to speed up the rate of production. There really should be no argument about that."

Stanley Katz submitted a lengthy document [PDF] containing various important data about the editorial projects, including publication histories, schedules, access notes, and several sample documents before and after the editorial process.

Deanna Marcum, Associate Librarian for Library Services at the Library of Congress, suggested in her testimony that the LoC could, with adequate resources, host a digital edition of the Founding Families papers. Rebecca Rimel, CEO of the Pew Charitable Trusts (a major funder of the projects), called for additional federal funding for the projects and consequent increased access while not forgetting the "essential steps of research, historical editing and annotating." Weinstein suggested that current volumes of the published papers be made available digitally, along with "unannotated transcripts of the raw materials for future printed volumes."

Ralph Ketcham's prepared statement praised the editorial projects, noting "I do not think that the present rate of publication, with present staff and funding, and providing that the focus of the staff remains on gathering, validating, editing, and preparing for publication of those papers according to the long-established and widely approved standards noted above, can be much hastened. Efficiencies and improvement of technique can, as they have often in the past, probably speed things up some, but the projects already do very well on that score; even new technologies are unlikely to be major factors. ... I would propose, then, that the best way to speed up public access to the treasured documents is to provide increased funding and staff for the existing efficient, highly skilled projects. Any effort to shortcut, bypass, or interfere with the work of the existing projects would, I think, only impede them, and in the long run diminish the useful access to their documents."

Stanley Katz also wrote two dispatches from the hearing for the Chronicle of Higher Education (here and here); he provides some more information about the purposes of the hearing, and adds "I felt yesterday and I feel now that a little sunshine is a very good thing for scholars who have nothing to hide and everything to gain from greater public awareness. ... And yes, Senator Leahy, we could use more federal funding. Thank you, sir, for your interest!"

There are a bunch of other aspects to all this that I won't get into here (at least not now) - I've read within the last few days some serious misconceptions about the editing process and the availability of the materials (both the primary documents on microfilm or the published volumes as they're released), for example - suffice it to say that while the pace of publication may not be frantic, it is deliberate, measured and effective. If the annotated volumes can be supplemented by digital editions without compromising the ongoing editorial projects, excellent.

The major reason these project have taken so long (they were begun in the 1950s) is that there is simply so much material to work with. Many of the Founders lived long lives and wrote voluminously right until the end. The only finished series is The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, published in twenty-seven volumes by Columbia University Press from 1961-1987. As Ketcham noted the other day, the chief editor of that project, Harold "Cy" Syrett, "once remarked that he considered dedicating his work to Aaron Burr, who 'made completion of the task possible.'"

From that angle, we should all be thankful that the other projects still have so many more writings to edit!

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