About Documentary Editing

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The practice of publishing collections of writings, letters, and/or speeches by leading figures dates back to the late eighteenth century and became popular by the mid-nineteenth. Men such as Henry Clay had collections of their speeches published during their lifetimes.

The project that is generally cited as the progenitor of “modern” documentary editing is The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, begun at Princeton University in 1943. When the Jefferson editors presented a copy of their first published volume to Harry Truman in 1951, the president noted that he hoped this work would “inspire educational institutions, learned societies, and civic-minded groups to plan the publication of the works of other great national figures.” Truman issued a charge to a section of the National Archives then known as the National Historical Publications Commission (NHPC)– now the National Historical Publications and Records Commission– to see what could be done to facilitate the development of other projects.

The NHPC conducted a survey of scholars to identify which historical personalities merited the most consideration and recruited people to serve as editors and set up projects. Most of the ones begun in the 1950s and early 1960s focused on white male political leaders. As the academic disciplines became conscious of more diverse subjects in the late 1960s and the 1970s, documentary work broadened as well.

Work on the modern editions benefited from the advent of microfilming and photocopying, allowing projects to accumulate facsimiles of the original documents that could be consulted whenever necessary. In recent years, the computer has become an invaluable tool, particularly in expediting the publication process.

What do Editing Projects Do?

Each documentary editing project operates differently, depending on the subject and scope of the project. Some projects are undertaken by a single editor, while others are larger collaborative efforts of a number of scholars. The first step for most projects is to gather copies of all its subject’s documents, including variant versions and editions (hundreds of thousands in some cases). In the process, project offices often become research centers for those interested in the subject. Projects catalog their collections (now usually with computer databases); select the documents for publication (depending on the scope and format of the publication); transcribe from the facsimiles of the originals and proofread the texts multiple times; and often provide, through extensive research, editorial notes and/or annotation to give context and background information about the document. If the editing is for a book edition, the editors prepare the text for publication, proofread the resulting copy, and usually prepare an index for each volume. Editing projects working on image editions develop indexing schemes to locate specific documents, while those working on electronic editions, code their transcripts and images in order to make them readily searchable.

Editing projects also create other products, ranging from scholarly articles to exhibits, from websites to document-based teaching aids, and generally serve scholars, the general public and students as accessible experts on major historical and literary figures.

Funding for Editions

Most documentary editing projects receive federal grants from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and/or the National Endowment for the Humanities. Most also get funding from their host institutions and raise funds from private foundations, individuals and in some cases state agencies. Virtually all of the letterpress editions are published by university presses, often with the aid of subvention funding and grants.

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