Excerpts from Editing Historical Documents

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Excerpts from Editing Historical Documents: A Handbook of Practice by Michael E. Stevens and Steven B. Burg (Altamira Press, 1997)

The authentic words of men and women from the past offer a way to experience the real thing. Historical documents, carefully selected, clearly explained, and presented in a readable format, provide an immediacy not otherwise found in conventional narratives. Reading the words of men and women who do not know how their own particular lives will play out helps avoid the sense of inevitability found in many history books. First-person historical accounts are equally powerful when ordinary men and women tell their own stories–versions that do not usually make it into history books. They reinforce the idea that history belongs not just to politicians, generals, or doers of great deeds. The publication of historical documents, or documentary editing, is an effective way of making history vivid. (p. 17).

People edit and publish historical documents because they believe these materials have enough significance to merit the time, energy, and money needed to make them accessible to a wider audience. Whether intended as research tools, study aids, or simply pleasurable reading, the basic mission of historical editions is to provide easy access to the unique information contained in original documents. Editors reproduce documents through the creation of facsimiles or transcriptions, make them understandable by providing annotation, facilitate access to them through devices such as indexes, and publish these documents via microforms, computer networks, CD-ROMs, or the printed page. Historical editors do not simply reproduce texts; they also provide readers with the information needed to understand the content of the historical documents. (p. 25)


However small or grand a project, from a single document in a historical journal to a multivolume book edition or a multireel microform edition, documentary editors begin by defining the scope of the project. Whatever the topic, the editor should articulate a clear and well-defined statement of scope that includes a definition of who or what is being documented, the dates under consideration, and the reasons for undertaking the project. By clearly specifying a project’s scope, editors use resources more efficiently and bring coherence to the work of collecting, editing, and publishing documents. (p. 25)


Editors should identify their intended readers and consider the knowledge and expectations they are likely to bring to their work. Accounting for the specific needs of different kinds of readers affects decisions editors make about the selection, annotation and presentation of documents.

Editions aimed at scholars and professional communities will often be tailored toward a knowledgeable audience well versed in the language and background of the subject. Scholarly and professional audiences use documentary editions as research tools and therefore require full and authenticated texts, notes that provide information beyond common historical knowledge, and exhaustive indexes. For scholars, the narrative flow and readability of an edition are secondary to the information contained in the documents. (p. 32)

Editions aimed at audiences of students and general readers are characterized by brevity, readability, and a preference for using narrative rather than academic forms of annotation. Editors of documents aimed at students and general readers strive to make the works readable without sacrificing the accuracy of their content. (p. 33)

Forms of Publication

Each editor decides the form of publication most appropriate for the selected materials, including both the medium in which the documents will be published and whether the documents will be presented as facsimiles, as transcriptions, or in both forms.

Edited documents can be distributed through several different media. Printing documents in a historical magazine or another type of periodical makes them accessible to a wide audience, although the number of publications willing to print historical documents is limited, and they must of necessity limit the quantity of documentary materials. Self-publishing one or more documents in a pamphlet is a fairly easy and affordable way to reach an audience, especially for an institution like a library or a historical society that has a gift shop.

Editors of larger projects may want to publish the results of their work in a book edition, be it a single volume or multivolume set. Book editions are easy to read, compact, and portable and may be read without expensive viewers or computer hardware. When produced on acid-free paper they can have a shelf-life of hundreds of years. Yet books are expensive to produce and require a publishing house willing to take on the costs of printing and distributing the work. (p. 31)

Microfilm editions provide a compact and less costly means of reproducing and preserving large numbers of documents, but viewing microfilm can be hard on the eyes, can produce images that are difficult to read and copy, and furthermore, requires the use of machines. Editors may also consider using computer and scanning technology to put their documents onto computer disks, CD-ROMs, or the World Wide Web (the Internet). The immediate appeal of electronic media is their ability to store vast amounts of information that can be disseminated at a low cost. However, electronic media have an uncertain shelf life, with carefully stored disks and electronic tapes holding data for ten or fewer years and CD-ROMs predicted to last from fifty to 100 years. Furthermore, the fast rate of change in computer technology threatens all electronic media with rapid obsolescence.

Whether publishing documents on the printed page, on microform, or via electronic media, editors must decide whether documents should be presented as facsimiles, as transcribed texts, or in both forms. While many microform and electronic editions present only facsimiles–thus saving the time, labor and expense of transcribing and annotating documents–these editions can be hard to read, difficult to understand, and impossible to search unless the editors mark the texts or provide thorough indexes. Each user, in essence, approaches the documents afresh, without the experience of the editor. In editing documents, the greatest service editions can provide readers is a clean, readable transcribed text, followed closely by a convenient method for gaining access to the information in the documents and explanatory annotation. (p. 32)

Copyright Issues

Before proceeding too far, you should determine whether the documents are protected by copyright and who holds it. Copyright of unpublished documents is a complex issue, and legislation governing it continues to be revised. As a general rule, it is good to remember that copyright does not reside in the owner of the document but rather in the writer and the writer’s heirs. It is the editor’s responsibility to obtain permission to publish the materials.


Editors decide which documents collected by their projects will be published, and should consider a number of criteria in doing so. On some occasions the choice may be obvious–for example, a short, well-written diary or autobiography; but for many topics a decision must be made between publishing all the collected documents or only a selection. Comprehensive editions provide an invaluable historical resource capable of presenting important documents as well as details of day-to-day life that are seldom available in selected editions. However, not all editors will want or be able to produce comprehensive editions. Editors may produce selective editions as a result of time and financial constraints, space limitations, copyright restrictions that prevent the use of certain documents, or a desire to present only the most interesting or historically significant documents. In deciding whether to produce a comprehensive edition or a selective one, editors should remember that most topics receive treatment in documentary editions only once. Some important figures or topics might have more than one documentary edition, but usually no more than one in a single generation. The existence of an edition may preclude others from securing the requisite financial backing or publishing support and thus may prevent revisitation of the topic for decades. Whenever feasible, editors should seek to produce editions that are as comprehensive as possible and that will make the greatest contribution to modern scholarship. Whether a project publishes all the documents it collects or only a small portion, editors should clearly explain to the readers how the documents that appear in the final work were selected. (p. 41)\


Transcription is the process of converting textual and nontextual elements of original documents into readable, publishable, typescript form. In so doing, editors strive to represent original documents faithfully. All transcription, however, is a form of translation and requires editors to make innumerable decisions about how to present documents. Editors make choices about standardization of the form of the documents (placement of datelines, uniform indentation of paragraphs, etc.) as well as how to emend the text (capitalization and punctuation, etc.). In the past, the typesetting of textual footnotes such as superscripts, subscripts, canceled passages, interlineations, marginalia, drawings, and other marks was costly, and these features were reproduced for only the most important texts or were represented by editorial symbols. Modern typesetting and printing techniques have reduced the difficulty and expense of reproducing unusual textual characteristics, and, as a result, cost is no longer the primary consideration. Instead, editors evaluate the types of documents they will be transcribing, consider the needs of the audience, and then select the form or forms of presentation that best convey the information contained in the document. Transcription methods should be presented in an introductory statement and then consistently implemented. (p. 71)


Proofreading is the process of comparing a transcript of a document against the original text for accuracy of all the textual details, such as correct wording, phrasing, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, paragraphing, and consistent emendation. Proofreading is an essential step in the editing process. Editors must ensure that all parts of the edition, including documents, notes, quotations, headings and titles, have been accurately presented. The text must be rechecked for accuracy whenever errors might be introduced into the final texts. (p. 82)

Document Presentation

Most editors standardize the presentation of parts of their documents, creating datelines, placelines, signatures, salutations , or complimentary closings whose placement is consistent from document to document. Uniform presentation helps the reader locate important information such as the dates and recipients. It also helps editors avoid the difficulty and expense of reproducing the irregular physical layout of many documents, elements that are not important to most users and that are best studied in the original manuscripts. Within each document, editors also need to decide to what extent they will emend the text to facilitate its presentation. Some editors intervene only minimally, presenting a near-literal transcription of the text, while others standardize many parts of the document and make significant emendations to produce a text with a modern, standard appearance. The variety of possibilities within expanded transcription requires editors to explain to their readers exactly how they have standardized and emended the documents they publish. (p. 121)


Annotation, the information added by editors to improve the readers’ understanding of historical documents, can serve several different functions. Editors may explain the history of documents; supply missing parts of the text such as a date, place or word; or offer editorial commentary that helps the reader understand the text. Annotation may appear as bracketed insertions in the text, footnotes, endnotes, headnotes, microform targets, or supplemental materials, such as tables, illustrations, charts, glossaries, directories, and introductory essays. Annotation makes the text of documents more readable, clarifies unusual terms, offers background on events and people, supplies missing information, and provides readers with historical context.

The quantity and specificity of annotation will be determined by the needs of the audience, the characteristics of the documents being edited, the resources available for researching and printing annotation, and the judgment of the editors. Editors of complex documents many nee to provide extensive annotation to assist their readers, while easily understood documents may require little annotation. Editions produced for academic audiences may assume a high level of background knowledge and thus provide readers with more technical information, while editions for general audiences may assume their readers have little historical background and thus use their annotation to contextualize and clarify documents. Editors balance the value of providing useful annotation that will enhance the accessibility of documents with the cost of producing and printing notes. Furthermore, excessive annotation may preclude the printing of additional documents and can diminish an edition’s readability by cluttering the page. (p. 157)


Editors carefully design their editions to offer easy access to the documents. For book editions, indexes are the most important tool editors can provide, although document numbers and running heads can also help readers find their way around an edition. Modified indexes and contents lists lead users of microform editions to the desired documents, while electronic links and computerized search engines provide access to electronic editions.

An index includes headings describing the names, places, and major subjects covered within an edition, usually presented in alphabetical order and subdivided into logical subheadings. An indexer should balance the necessity to save space with the need to provide full access to the varied material contained in the edition. Editors strive to provide access to all subjects covered within an edition, even those that may not be related to the main subject of the volume. (p. 199)

For much more on these and other topics, as well as practical examples from a variety of editing projects, consult Editing Historical Documents in its entirety.

The above excerpts from Editing Historical Documents were reprinted with the permission of Altamira Press. (http://www.altamirapress.com)

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