The rise of digital historical resources
From the very first year of NHPRC funding, the Commission has embraced new technologies to increase public access to historical records. In the beginning, the strategy was to fund both historical documentary editions in print publications and the microfilming of collections of historical records.
Microfilm editions were effective ways for editors to assemble records from multiple repositories, arrange them in chronological or thematic order, create a photographic copy of each record, and describe the records to make them more readily discoverable for users.
In many cases, microfilm was the first step in a process that eventually led to a print edition. Some projects viewed the microfilm as a comprehensive collection of records out of which an annotated selective edition might be drawn.
By the 1990s, the NHPRC began funding pilot projects that use electronic technologies, including CDs and the World Wide Web, to publish collections of historical records. The Lincoln Legal Papers, for example, covering the 24 years of Lincoln’s law practice, was published as a stand-alone edition, and the Papers of Benjamin Franklin went online after beginning as a CD edition in 1988.
As editors began to explore the potential of the Internet as a publishing platform, several projects received NHPRC funding. The Dolley Madison Digital Edition, for example, began as a website designed for educational purpose on the life of Dolley Madison, and it later grew into a print edition, The Selected Letters of Dolley Payne Madison, which introduces readers to the most important First Lady of the 19th century, before eventually becoming published by Rotunda, the University of Virginia Press’s electronic imprint.
Rotunda has been the home for several successful digital editions of important records, and the University of Virginia and the NHPRC (along with other partners) have teamed together to create Founders Online.
In addition to these projects, the NHPRC has also funded the Walt Whitman Archive, which was conceived of, and created as, an online digital edition.
All around the world, these new digital editions and resources are on the rise. One augury of that rise is a new review journal, RIDE, from the Institute for Documentology and Scholarly Editing, aimed to make digital editions and resources more visible and to provide a forum in which expert peers can evaluate and discuss the efforts of digital editors in order to improve current practices and advance future developments.
Since 2006, the NHPRC has also been funding digitization projects, and in some cases, there is a direct analogy between a microfilm project and a digital resource. Like those 1960s microfilm projects, new digital resources assemble, arrange, describe, and copy historical records to increase public access. The key difference, of course, is that unlike microfilm, you don’t need a special reader and physical film. With these new digitization projects, such as Princeton’s Mudd Library special collection on the history of the Cold War, you can access these records online. Right now.