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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.

microfilmMicrofilm 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, LLPand 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, thewalt-whitman 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.muddbanner-wp

Sketch for billboard of the Open Road

Source: Duke University

Nearly everyone has probably experienced that moment when you are out to dinner when a question comes up and no one knows the answer, so someone whips out a smart phone and looks up the answers on the web.  The explosion of information and resources has changed our  lives.

And it is changing how we learn about the past. The  NHPRC has been contributing to this increase in access to historical records by supporting digitizing projects of archival records.  From the papers of noted conservationist Aldo Leopold and those of  southern 19th century lawyer Septimus Cabiness to the records of Missouri Supreme Court from 1821 to 1865 and photographs of billboards across the country, these 39 grants have made over a million digital images of historical records available to the public to use at no cost.

These projects complement those NHPRC-funded documentary editions who are increasingly putting significant parts of their collections online for users to discover. The Walt Whitman Archive includes not just his poetry and other literary writing, but also his letters. Founders Online, launched just over a year ago, contains thousands of letters, diaries, and documents from six of the Founding Fathers. NHPRC and many other funders have supported the publication of books of these transcriptions, but the website has opened the material up to many more users.

But all of this woPortrait of Septimus Cabanissrk requires new skills and new thinking for historians, archivists, and the public. Indeed, what are these skill is the question that many of us are asking. What is the best way to present material to the public? I asked this question to Jody DeRidder, the Head of Digital Services at the University of Alabama who managed the Septimus Cabiness Project. She said:

 The first thing you need to do is to identify your target audiences . . . As a simple example, grade-school students generally need visual browse interfaces (such as with representative images for each category or subcategory), and the younger ones will prefer icons with primary colors.

For college students, the challenge is different. Katie Davis, a professor at the University of Washington’s iSchool notes that students today have grown up in an “app” culture and as a result tend expect that “any question or desire one has should be satisfied immediately and definitively.” As a result, Davis cautions the “learner of tomorrow may need support to break free from an app mentality that demands instant, unambiguous answers to all questions.”  As one possible answer, Davis is investigating the use of digital badges  – similar to those scouts earn for demonstrating certain skills — that online users earn after completing tasks.  She reports that developing such badges requires close collaborations with teachers, developers, and students to ensure that the learning experience is meaningful and the badge is desirable. She is excited about continuing to explore the possibilities. (“Katie Davis: Who is the Learner of Tomorrow?”, Project Information Literacy).

Here at the NHPRC, we hope to encourage others to explore these questions specifically in terms of historical records. A new grant opportunity this year, Literacy and Engagement with Historical Records, is designed to let applicants explore how people understand historical records, both digital and those in archives. Applicants may choose to focus on K-12 students, the college student, or the broader public. The grant announcement gives more detail.

So some questions for readers:

  • What are some of your favorite websites that provide access to historical records?
  • If you design websites for historical records or use them, what do you expect?
  • What do you think we need to be doing today for the “Learners of Tomorrow” in terms of historical records?

On June 17, 1963, President John Kennedy hosted a luncheon at the White House for the editors and sponsors of the historical documentary editions of the papers of the Founders and other leading figures in American history. At the luncheon, he endorsed the idea of funding for the National Historical Publications Commission (as the NHPRC was then called). He had written a letter in response to a Commission report (see image) calling for Federal funding for a grants program.JFKPOF-079-005-p0021

“I want to welcome all of you and express a very warm appreciation to this combination of unlimited wealth and scholarship. [Laughter] It’s a very happy occasion-both groups are happiest when with each other, so that I think it’s appropriate that we meet together today.

I want to express the high esteem I feel for the National Historical Publications Commission. President Truman gave it a new life in 1950. And I think that the work they have done since then, and this very exceptional report which I would hope would be read by a good many Americans who are interested in the past and the future. I think it tells the story of what the Commission is trying to do and what our unfinished business is and what our responsibilities are.

The Commission has made three proposals which I have strongly endorsed and which I think the American people will, as they become increasingly acquainted with the extraordinary accomplishments of the men who began the priority projects [of the founding era].

I don’t know the complete explanation of why these extraordinary men appeared on the scene at one time in a very small country, a very distant country from the center of what was then regarded as Western civilization. But they came and they have left a very lasting imprint on all of our actions. I run into the results of their work every day. The more we can know what they really thought, the more we can follow their extraordinary careers, almost day by day, the more, it seems to me, the American people are given a certain sense of confidence in their past which in turn gives them confidence in their future. If we don’t know anything about our past, then we don’t really have any base from which to move in the days ahead…”

Our colleagues at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library have digitized the papers related to the event, including the Report to the President, the invitations and responses to the lunch at as well as editor Julian Boyd’s remarks, Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s memorandum and talking points at

The President’s remarks were recorded, and you can listen to his address to the editors at

A year later, on July 28, 1964, Public Law 88-383 was passed and signed by President Lyndon Johnson, establishing the NHPC grant program. Congress appropriated $350,000 in grant funds, and the Commission has been awarding grants for the past 50 years.


Tomorrow marks the first birthday of the online tool, Founders Online –

This resource contains over 150,000 transcribed letters and other writings of six Founders of the nation – George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin. The transcribed documents are all in one place, fully searchable, and freely available to all. The NHPRC was extremely fortunate to be given the chance to put the funding and the Founders Online team together, and we hope everyone reaps the benefits of this unique resource.

We have a lot to celebrate after one year. Almost 450,000 unique visitors have used the site since its launch, with a current average of about 1500 daily users. Organizations have begun to recognize the website with distinguished awards and associated accolades. We have seen the site used as a primary resource tool in classrooms, including its use as a teaching tool for a massive open online course (MOOC) on The Age of Jefferson. And we’ve witnessed important, unexpected results. For example, some private holders of previously unknown or undiscovered original documents have shared this new information with us and with the teams of editors who continue work on transcriptions and annotation.

But I need your help with figuring out what’s next for Founders Online. While we are celebrating the first year of this new resource, we also want to improve its usefulness. Here are a few things that you can help with in going forward:

We want a tool that is dynamic. Although we continue to add documents from a handful of editorial teams working on the Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin papers projects, is this sufficient in terms of the necessary growth of Founders Online? Should it strive to be more comprehensive? Will the results meet researcher needs? In other words, should the coverage expand beyond these seminal figures and if yes, in what way(s)?

Is there value in linking transcriptions with original documents/digital images? Documents from the National Archives (NARA) make up about 13% of the Founders Online content. That seems like a great opportunity to link NARA catalogs, digital images and other tools to Founders Online. In this way researchers can see the documents, or images of the documents, and transcribed versions of them, complete with annotations. How can we make this happen? I have similar questions about large caches of other digitized documents maintained at other places – the Library of Congress, for example. Assuming this is worthwhile to do, how can we link Founders Online to the individual documents held there?

What’s the best way to make Founders Online better known, especially with educators and students? The usage numbers for its first year are respectable, but there are many opportunities to better connect this resource with educators (high school through college) as well as the general public.  What are they? I have a few projects lined up to address this challenge – a short “how to” video in the works, a curriculum development project underway with a humanities center – but there must be additional activities I should be planning for as we begin year two of Founders Online.

It’s likely that there are other things I should be thinking about as well for Founders Online, and I invite you to share your thoughts and help us enhance this tool during the coming year.  Thanks!

Ike’s Thank You

by on June 6, 2014

A week after the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, General Dwight Eisenhower sent the following message on June 13 to the Troops of the Allied Expeditionary Forces after touring the Normandy beachhead:


“One week ago this morning there was established through your coordinated efforts, our first foot-hold in Northwestern Europe. High as was my pre-invasion confidence in your courage, skill and effectiveness in working together as a unit, your accomplishments in the first seven days of this Campaign have exceeded my brightest hopes.

You are a truly great Allied Team; a Team in which each part gains its greatest satisfaction in rendering maximum assistance to the entire body and in which each individual member is justifiably confident in all others.

No matter how prolonged or bitter the struggle that lies ahead you will do your full part toward the restoration of a free France, the liberation of all European nations under Axis domination, and the destruction of the Nazi military machine.

I truly congratulate you upon a brilliantly successful beginning to this great undertaking. Liberty-loving people, everywhere, would today like to join me in saying to you ‘I am proud of you.’”

From the Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower (, a project supported by the NHPRC. The Army photo shows Gen Dwight Eisenhower, Gen George Marshall, and Gen “Hap” Arnold, beside their VIP DUKW during their tour of the Normandy beachhead, Normandy, France, Jun 12, 1944.

Pickles and Steel!

by on June 3, 2014


The Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania in Pittsburgh received an NHPRC grant to support a two-year project to process 13 collections that document business and industries in western Pennsylvania, 1844-2002.

The Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania was established in 1879 and began doing business as the Senator John Heinz History Center (HHC) in 1996. HHC is considered the largest history museum in Pennsylvania. The Library and Archives Division is responsible for documenting the history and culture of western Pennsylvania and its regional, national, and global contexts by collecting, preserving, and providing access to primary and secondary sources. More than 860 finding aids are available online and 5,000 images are available on Historic Pittsburgh ( HHC has also recently established a website called Life in Western Pennsylvania ( which provides access to over 800 images and 12 moving image clips.

In 2011, the NHPRC awarded a grant to HHC for the basic-level processing of over 600 collections totaling 2,130 linear feet. These collections date from the late-18th century to the present and document business and industry, ethnic communities, arts organizations, religious groups, civic entities, and politics.

Business and industry collections are among those most frequently requested by researchers and are used by a wide range of researchers, including high school and college students, curators planning exhibits, academics, genealogists, documentary producers, and authors of both scholarly and general interest publications. The collections targeted for this project include records of influential Pittsburgh-based companies such as Westinghouse, Alcoa, Heinz, and U.S. Steel, as well as several smaller firms. These records, which document the beginning and evolution of the nation’s aluminum, glass, consumer electronics, steel, energy, food, and financial services industries, reveal diverse aspects of these companies and shed light on initiatives to recruit immigrants, women, and minorities to the workforce; World War I and II production efforts; labor union strife; national transportation systems and infrastructure; the rise and fall of manufacturing; the evolution of advertising; and the emergence of the multinational corporation.

The webinar on the grant announcement for the NHPRC Publishing Historical Records in Documentary Editions held on Tuesday, May 20, 3:00 PM EDT was recorded.

You can watch and listen here:

If you have questions, please ask.

Read all about the meeting of United States Minister John Adams with King George III and take a look at how the report was dramatized on HBO’s “John Adams.”


The National Historical Publications and Records Commission seeks proposals from organizations to continue the Archives Leadership Institute. First funded in 2008, the Archives Leadership Institute seeks to bring to tomorrow’s leaders the insights and understanding necessary for increasing public use and appreciation of archives.

The Commission expects to make one award for up to three years with the expectation that an institute will take place each year beginning in 2016. Applicants may propose to host two or three institutes, depending on the total time period of their projects. The total award will be up to $225,000.

  • Draft (optional) Deadline:   October 1, 2014
  • Final Deadline:   December 4, 2014

NHPRC support begins no earlier than July 1, 2015.

Read the full announcement at


Washington, DC…Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero has awarded 30 grants totaling $2.62 million for historical records projects in 18 states and the District of Columbia. The National Archives grants program is carried out through the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. A complete list of new grants is available online at

Grants totaling $1.1 million were recommended for 14 documentary editing projects to publish the papers of key American figures including Andrew Jackson, Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Martin Luther King, Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, Thomas Edison, and the Presidential Recordings project.

Grants totaling $1.5 million were recommended for 15 archival projects, including: projects to process the records of Oklahoma City; state government archives in South Dakota; the gubernatorial records of three Pennsylvania governors and former Arkansas Governor Jim “Guy” Tucker; labor records at the Reuther Library Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs at Wayne State University; emancipation records in Maryland; and records from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. An Innovation grant was awarded to George Washington University to explore innovative methods to facilitate the preservation and use of social media collections by developing viable preservation tools.

Pictured here is a copy of a manumission record from the Maryland State Archives.

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