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The First of 5,000

by on September 24, 2014


Fifty years ago this month, the National Historical Publications Commission (“Records” was added in 1974) met to make its first grant recommendation. (There is no visual documentation of this meeting, but I’m sure it looked something like the above image.)

The first meeting of the NHPC had been held on January 29, 1935, in Room 1755 of the New Department of Justice Building, which served as the temporary office of the Archivist of the United States while the National Archives Building located across the street was being completed. The meeting was chaired by Robert D.W. Connor, Archivist of the United States. Among the other Commission members in attendance were Dumas Malone, representing the American Historical Association, and J. Franklin Jameson, representing the Librarian of Congress.

At that meeting the following motion was approved by a unanimous vote:

“RESOLVED, That the National Historical Publications Commission should, after making plans and estimates, recommend to Congress that in any celebration of the sesqui-centennial of the adoption of the Constitution, one element should be a documentary historical publication illustrative of the origins of the Constitution, to be executed under the supervision of the National Historical Publications Commission.”

Although the NHPC continued to meet during the following years to discuss and offer encouragement to a variety of documentary editing projects, no Federal funds were appropriated to support these efforts until 1964, when Public Law 88-383 authorized the awarding of “grants to State and local agencies and to nonprofit organizations and institutions, for the collection, describing, preserving and compiling, and publishing (including microfilming and other forms of reproduction) of documentary sources significant to the history of the United States.”

At the NHPC’s September 11, 1964, meeting, the following motion was approved by a unanimous vote:

“RESOLVED, That the National Historical Publications Commission hereby respectfully recommends to the Administrator of General Services as Allocation #1 under P.L. 88-383 the sum of $39,000 for the continued support from October 1, 1964, to June 30, 1965, of the project for compiling and publishing a Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution and First Ten Amendments, this amount representing three-fourths of a proposed annual budget of $52,000, and this allocation being conditional upon appropriations being made by the present Congress for the implementation of this legislation.”

In 1964, the National Archives and Records Service (NARS) was part of the General Services Administration (GSA), and the Administrator of GSA had sole authority to award grants, based on the recommendations of the NHPC. When NARA was created as an independent agency in 1984, the Archivist of the United States assumed that authority.

Not long after the NHPC’s meeting on September 11, 1964, Congress appropriated $350,000 to implement P.L 88-383, and the first grant was awarded to the Constitution Project, as recommended by the members of the NHPC. This grant of $52,000 covered the project’s expenses for an entire year. Approximately 5,000 grants have been awarded since Allocation #1.


TR and the Archives

by on September 17, 2014


Have you been watching “The Roosevelts” on PBS? Bully!

As many know, President Franklin Roosevelt was instrumental in the creation of the National Archives, signing the 1934 Act that established both the Archives and the National Historical Publications Commission (later renamed as the National Historical Publications and Records Commission).

But it was President Theodore Roosevelt who actually started the whole process. In the 1880s and 1890s, the American Historical Association began pushing for a national archives and for a commission to “edit and publish” historical documents of national significance.

In 1905, Roosevelt established the Commission on Department Methods, headed by Charles Keep, to consider, among its many reforms, the care of Federal records and the publication of historical materials. Over the next few years, the Keep Commission researched and worked on recommendations, and by 1909, the Commission’s Report called for a national archives and a Commission on Historical Publications. Several bills were introduced in Congress, but they were not passed before the end of Roosevelt’s second term.

But that didn’t stop TR’s interest in archives and history. In 1912, he was named President of the American Historical Association, and his Presidential Address, “History as Literature” is oddly prescient and vital to this day. He said:

The great historian of the future will have easy access to innumerable facts patiently gathered by tens of thousands of investigators, whereas the great historian of the past had very few facts, and often had to gather most of these himself. The great historian of the future cannot be excused if he fails to draw on the vast storehouses of knowledge that have been accumulated, if he fails to profit by the wisdom and work of other men, which are now the common property of all intelligent men. He must use the instruments which the historians of the past did not have ready to hand. Yet even with these instruments he cannot do as good work as the best of the elder historians unless he has vision and imagination, the power to grasp what is essential and to reject the infinitely more numerous nonessentials, the power to embody ghosts, to put flesh and blood on dry bones, to make dead men living before our eyes. In short he must have the power to take the science of history and turn it into literature.

Made me think of the Internet and the role that historians play in using archives to tell the American Story.


As I prepare to receive our first applications funding Literacy and Engagements with Historical Sources (drafts due 10/1/14, final 12/4/14), I often reflect on my first experiments with trying to have college students use documents on the web in the 1990s. It wasn’t always easy for them. Undergraduates were not all comfortable on the web. The Library of Congress’s American Memory site had functionality issues then. Most importantly, I wasn’t aware of all the trouble they were going to have with the assignment. I just gave up at that point and turned to printed primary source readers.

Young sailor on board ship during civil warAs much as the grant announcement stresses projects that will engage students or other audiences, I think every applicant will have to take into account how those “teaching” the resource will need to prepare. Michael Federspiel in an essay “Focus on the Questions in High School,” published in Uncovering Our History: Teaching with Primary Sources, ed. by Susan H. Veccia (2004) explains how he gradually learned to introduce his students to primary sources on the web. He learned he could not just bring his class to the computer lab and let them explore American Memory. He first needed to demonstrate skills in his class, both in using the site and in analyzing primary sources. Then once his students realized that in most cases looking at one primary source would raise more question, he opened up broader questions. He focused the class on photographer Mathew Brady’s pictures of the Civil War, but asked the student to pick a topic, and then use the pictures to make a hypothesis. After refining this assignment until it worked well for students, Federspiel used it as model for other assignments. He would limit his students to a single website, but let them pick the topic, and form the hypotheses. He concludes that the benefit of these assignments is his high school students saw that primary sources are key to history and “demand interpretation.”

For the Literacy and Engagement program, we do not require projects that will be taught by in-person instructor. So I’m curious to see how applicants might mimic some on these lessons learned in the classroom in an environment that draws the public in but without a teacher to offer the first demonstration and later give help and advice.  Share your thoughts here.

Of course, applicants may want to explore other ideas in this grant program and we welcome that. So join me for a webinar on Thursday, 9/11 from 3 pm to 4 pm ET. Simply click on this link:

Then, enter your name and email address.

Hoorah! Whether you are a first time applicant or a seasoned veteran of the grant application process, that feeling of success on receiving a “thumbs up” from the NHPRC, or any funder, never gets old. You competed successfully and the funding for your project is secured. Take a well deserved bow!MoneyBag

Now that you have the resources to make your project a reality, there is the next challenge – to advance from successful grant applicant to awesome grantee. As you roll up your sleeves and get to work, here is my own personal list of the attributes that successful grantees/project directors demonstrate, in no particular order of importance.

1. Be able to make a new plan, Stan. It’s all about having an effective, yet flexible, project plan. Every NHPRC applicant is required to submit a work plan as a part of the application process. Well thought out plans are critical to funding success – no surprise there. But flexible project plans that can adjust to unexpected circumstances, conditions, roadblocks, etc. – these result in really successful projects despite snafus. They require not only having your project’s goals and objectives carefully crafted, but also having a handful of ways to achieve them, just in case surprises occur – like you don’t receive full funding and must adjust accordingly, your project staff departs midway through the work, etc. Bottom line – creativity and flexibility in planning will help tremendously when you face the proverbial monkey wrench.

2. Keep your eyes on the prize. Before officially making an award, we review all project goals and objectives with each grantee. We put these goals in writing, and there is a reason for this – they are important. They demonstrate the ultimate value of your project well beyond your own institution. Successful grantees/project directors keep these goals front and center throughout the life of the project.

3. Grant projects are a team sport. Who’s on your project team? The most effective grantees think big when they think about team. They know it’s more than the individuals listed in a grant application budget. For example, the Development/Sponsored Office staff at your institution is essential – they need to know about your project, and you need to know what they bring to the table (often it’s the details of your project budget). The Public Affairs staff is handy, as they will assist with any press and outreach efforts, often including your web and social media presence. Do you have a boss and/or an advisory committee? They can be important reviewers of your work, as well as advocates for it all along the way. And how about the NHPRC staff? We want every project to be a total success, and we are here to help. Ask us for assistance, ask us questions, and work with us on budgets, particularly if revisions are necessary.

4. Communicating – across, up, down, over, out and beyond. Directors who share project information as the work proceeds attain circles of fans, followers, and public support. And they include the project staff in carrying out  the communications work plan. In fact, some of the most compelling project communications come from project archivists, technicians, interns, and volunteers who are making the discoveries, testing the methods, preserving the items, etc. It’s relatively easy (and immediate) these days to communicate in real time with blogs and a host of social media options to choose from, along with more traditional communications tools such as listservs, newsletters, etc.

5. Observe, analyze and report “reality”. The best directors make a habit of telling it like it is with their projects, and they do it in some detail. Comparing progress against objectives can be a sobering experience. Analyzing the challenges and shortfalls associated with a project may not always be pleasant, but it pays off in the end. You learn from successes as well as mistakes, and so does everyone else, including us. This is a rather huge part of the post award process, so we really encourage grantees to share their project stories, warts and all.

6. Celebrate those milestones! So many of us genuinely enjoy the work we do, but we forget to (A) tell others about it and (B) stop and celebrate accomplishments as they occur. You cannot believe how successful your celebration event can be until you try. We’ve seen everything from press and exhibition events, hosted by parent institutions, to stopovers from elected officials to alumni or friends groups’ gatherings. These are all good ways to mark the project’s achievements, give thanks to the staff, and generally make some noise. Work it, folks, as the benefits will far outlast the grant period.

7. Thinking beyond the grant project. Individuals who are in the habit of placing their grant-funded projects into the larger context of what they want to accomplish overall with their programs deserve the highest praise. This takes vision, analysis and planning, communication, team building, and, yes, leadership. They make the most of these opportunities and bring vision to the entire enterprise.  Kudos in particular to those who make it look easy! Anything I’ve missed, misstated or confused you with? Let me know! Share your ideas on what’s on your own list.

Preservation and Access

by on August 28, 2014

Two articles about digitization came across my desk this week; you probably saw them too. One argued for a re-prioritization of work so that more funds could be devoted to the preservation of audiovisual materials. The other explored the work of an organization seeking out and scanning old meteorological data that only exists on paper to make the data widely accessible.

So how do we balance them? Do we prioritize the material that is currently considered the most fragile? Do we set priorities solely based on format? If we do set priorities by format, would audiovisual material actually be the first priority? I would bet that some digital formats are more vulnerable than some audio or video formats.

Or do we set priorities based on research demand? The International Environmental Data Rescue Organization and other meteorological research collection efforts make a good case for responding to needs of researchers, but their focus can change more quickly than archives are able to respond to them.

All this has me thinking about the basics of
archives: preserve and provide access to
permanently valuable records and papers.

John Buchanan v. Robert Sayers. Augusta Chancery Court 1769

John Buchanan v. Robert Sayers. Augusta Chancery Court 1769. Virginia Memory

How do we prioritize one over the other?
We can’t. There is no point in preserving
something if we can’t or won’t make it
available for use. Similarly, we can’t make
it available if it hasn’t been taken care of.
Access and preservation are symbiotic partners
in our work. Just as there are many audiovisual
items at risk of being lost if we don’t take
preservation actions, meteorological records will
be lost we don’t seek them out and make them
available for use.


When I came to work as the Project Archives Assistant on the NHPRC grant at Appalachian State in the Fall of 2012, my only prior experience working in the archives was limited to a few months as a student. My interests lie primarily in absorbing knowledge concerned with the history and folklore of the Appalachian Region through music, literature, arts, material culture, and—perhaps most useful of all— conversations and word of mouth. This desire to understand the history local to the region drew me to attend Appalachian State in 2007. The deciding factor in my choice of university was the existence of the W. L. Eury Appalachian Collection, the largest and most comprehensive collection of Appalachian materials anywhere in the world. To say I was “a kid in a candy store” when wandering around in the collection would be putting it lightly. Within the open stacks I could find materials on anything from archaeological surveys of ancient Indian Mounds to records of Kentucky fiddler Marion Sumner to a video on Virginia architectural influences in southern Ohio. As if that was not enough, just on the other side of the wall in the Dougherty Reading Room I could view documents from the ballad collections of I. G. Greer, W. Amos Abrams, and Cratis Williams or read the letters of E. B. Olmsted, a ginseng buyer in 19th Century western North Carolina. After spending time in the Eury Collection, I was determined that, if I could not eventually work there, I would at least try to work towards finding a job in a similar collection somewhere within the region.

The NHPRC grant to process the backlog within the Appalachian Collection’s archives coincided with my graduation with a degree in Appalachian Studies in 2012. I applied for the University Library Specialist knowing I would have much to learn concerned with archival practices but I was excited at the prospect of handling and helping to preserve historic documents as part of a daily routine. In processing the backlog I determined to balance my previous experience as a researcher with the practical constraints and time limitations of the grant. I began each collection by asking the same key question: How can I arrange these materials in a relatively short amount of time while still making it easy for researchers to find the items they need? Tackling many of the larger collections within the backlog, I learned that each collection features a particular set of quirks dissimilar to others. To work out how to best process a collection I found that a hammer/anvil approach—hammer being the processing guidelines and anvil being the shape of the collection itself—is needed in order to address the problems within each collection. My supervisor and the grant writer for this project, Cyndi Harbeson, was a constant sounding board for my concerns and questions regarding how best to process or reprocess a collection and helped me in balancing processing times with creating researcher friendly collections. Fellow Processing Archives Assistant Anita Elliot also picked up the slack for me in helping with processing grant materials, including knocking out a large number of the small collections as well as offering advice from her own experiences in processing.

Aside from the practical duties of processing, working on the grant introduced me to materials which reignited my enthusiasm for Appalachian history. Some of my favorite finds (as well as other eye catching items) are included on the Backlog Blog ( which I will continue to update until November when the grant is completed. Perhaps the most invaluable experience from the grant (along with the obvious benefits of exclusive access to rare documents) was that it allowed me to work in close contact with a Special Collections team whose members possess both scholarly and personal knowledge of the Appalachia’s landscape and culture. I am indebted to the jumpstart the NHPRC has given to my career and I hope to continue to use the knowledge I have gained through this grant to preserve and explore more collections valuable to the study of the history of this region and its people.
– written by Trevor McKenzie, Project Archivist for the W. L. Eury Appalachian Collection, Appalachian State Special Collections and Archives


All of the NHPRC’s program officers are at the joint annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA), the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators (NAGARA), and the Council of State Archivists (CoSA) this week.  We are fortunate that  this meeting is being held in the Woodley Park neighborhood of Washington, DC, which is only about four miles from our offices in the National Archives Building. This allows us to have a larger presence at the meeting than is possible when the meeting is out of town.

Our blog post for July 22 and our Facebook entry for August 11 outline the many opportunities that those attending the meeting will have to learn about the NHPRC’s grant programs and speak one-on-one with a program officer. We encourage you to stop by the NHPRC’s booth (#803) during exhibit hall hours.

If you are not attending the joint annual meeting, rest assured that we will all be back in the office on Monday, August 18 to help address your last-minute questions prior to our next grant application deadline, which is August 27.  Operators will be standing by to take your calls.

We’ve scheduled webinars for people interested in applying for a grant from the NHPRC:

Application deadlines: DRAFT October 1, 2014; FINAL December 4, 2014.

Digital Dissemination of Archival Collections program with Nancy Melley.

The National Historical Publications and Records Commission invites applications for its new archival grant program to expand access to the nation’s most valuable archival resources. This grant program is designed to support the digitization of primary source materials with national historical significance. The program emphasizes the reuse of existing descriptive metadata and providing free online access to the digital surrogates.

A grant normally is for one to two years and for up to $150,000. The Commission expects to make up to 7 grants in this category for a total of up to $500,000. Grants begin no earlier than July 1, 2015.

Webinars will be held on the following dates and times:

Tuesday, August 19 @ 4:00 p.m. Eastern
Thursday, August 28 @ 4:00 p.m. Eastern
Wednesday, September 10 @ 3:00 p.m. Eastern

The webinar will be available at; attendees will need to enter their name and email address.

State Government Electronic Records with Nancy Melley:

The National Historical Publications and Records Commission seeks projects that will accession, describe, preserve, and provide access to state government electronic records of enduring value. Only state archives are eligible to apply.

A grant normally is for one to three years and up to $200,000. The Commission expects to make 3 or more grants in this category, for a total of up to $600,000. Grants begin no earlier than July 1, 2015.

Thursday, August 21 @ 3 pm Eastern
Tuesday, September 9 @ 4 pm Eastern

The webinar will be available at; attendees will need to enter their name and email address.

Literacy and Engagement with Historical Records with Lucy Barber:

The National Historical Publications and Records Commission seeks projects that explore ways to improve digital literacy and encourage citizen engagement with historical records.

Tuesday, August 26 @ 4:00 pm Eastern
Thursday, September 11 @ 3:00 pm Eastern

The webinar will be available at; attendees will need to enter their name and email address.



Forty years ago, on August 9, 1974, Richard Nixon resigned as President of the United States. The troubled conclusion to his term in office was the result of the Watergate investigations, but to understand the history, we must understand the man.

Tracing the history of Richard Nixon illustrates the unique role that the National Archives and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission play together in preserving and providing access to primary source materials. The bulk of Nixon’s papers are at the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library. The National Archives Office of Presidential Libraries administers a nationwide network of 13 libraries beginning with the 31st President of the United States, Herbert Hoover. Material on Nixon’s service as Vice President from 1953-1960 can be found at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, and information on his run for the Presidency in 1960 may be found at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

Between February 16, 1971 and July 18, 1973 Richard Nixon secretly recorded roughly 3,700 hours of conversations and meetings in five different locations. With the exception of the manually-operated equipment in the Cabinet Room, Nixon’s recording system was sound-activated and recorded a wide range of conversations of varying audio and substantive quality. The Presidential Recordings Program at the Miller Center, the University of Virginia, is making those the secret White House recordings more accessible through transcripts and historical research. These recordings constitute an extremely rich historical resource, but one that cannot be unlocked without considerable time and experience in working with the tapes. Once unlocked, the tapes can, are, and will make significant contributions to our understanding of recent political history and how the U.S. government works. To that end, the PRP brings together historians, journalists, and a talented team of student interns to work with these materials to transcribe, annotate, interpret, and share them.

Researchers are also encouraged to visit the Papers of Dwight D. Eisenhower,  a project at the Johns Hopkins University Press, for details of Nixon’s Vice Presidency. The NHPRC supported the annotation of those papers for nearly 20 years before the project was completed.

More on Nixon can be found in the Public Policy collections at Princeton’s Mudd Library–in particular the history of the Cold War and mid-20th century economic policy. Through a grant to the Minnesota Historical Society, the NHPRC also funded the digitization of the speeches of Hubert Humphrey, Nixon’s opponent in the 1968 Presidential Election, and through a grant to Bates College, the preservation of the papers of Edmund Muskie, the 1968 Vice Presidential nominee, who also ran for the Democratic nomination in 1972.

These resources–and there are, no doubt, others–are the essential evidence for writing the history of those times. Whether through its holdings of Federal government records or through its NHPRC support for nationally significant historical records held at other repositories, the National Archives is vital to preserving every chapter of the American story.


We’ve scheduled four webinars for people interested in applying for a grant under Digital Dissemination of Archival Collections program.

The National Historical Publications and Records Commission invites applications for its new archival grant program to expand access to the nation’s most valuable archival resources. This grant program is designed to support the digitization of primary source materials with national historical significance. The program emphasizes the reuse of existing descriptive metadata and providing free online access to the digital surrogates.

After completing digitization activities, applicants may also propose to undertake more complex work, such as document transcription, tagging, or geo-referencing, if these additional access points are justified by the value of the material and its expected users.

A grant normally is for one to two years and for up to $150,000. The Commission expects to make up to 7 grants in this category for a total of up to $500,000. Grants begin no earlier than July 1, 2015.

Application deadlines: DRAFT October 1, 2014; FINAL December 4, 2014.

Webinars will be held on the following dates and times:

Thursday, August 7 @ 3:00 p.m. Eastern
Tuesday, August 19 @ 4:00 p.m. Eastern
Thursday, August 28 @ 4:00 p.m. Eastern
Wednesday, September 10 @ 3:00 p.m. Eastern

The webinar will be available at; attendees will need to enter their name and email address.

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