Documents Compass, 2008-2016

Documents Compass was formed in 2007 by documentary editors Sue Perdue and Holly Shulman who recognized the need to provide digital tools for bringing digital editions to the Internet in a rapidly changing environment. They established this service provider as a resource for scholars and editors who wanted to create digital editions of historical and literary documents. Documents Compass was fortunate and very thankful to find a home at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Together we shared a mission of using historical content to tell stories that are critical to the humanities. Primary documents are at the heart of our ability to engage audiences and make those stories come to life, ultimately leading us to a better understanding of the world around us.

Before the program arrived at the VFH, we were fortunate to receive funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities with a Digital Humanities Initiative Grant, which funded a workshop held at the VFH to discuss the future of scholarly editions. In January 2008, editors, publishers, and other stakeholders talked about the viability of a service provider or center for documentary editing. What are the tools critical for digital documentary editing? How can a single entity assist multiple projects and create efficiencies among them? These were some of the questions addressed in this early meeting and those same questions remained at the heart of the program throughout its eight-year tenure at the VFH.

During that time, Documents Compass was engaged in two major projects. People of the Founding Era: A Prosopographical Approach was generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Scholarly Communications grant from 2008 to 2016. The aim of this project was to aggregate biographical information for historical individuals represented in Founding Era documentary editions into a single access point. In this way the project represented one of Documents Compass’s primary goals of building interoperability across independently created projects. Designed to simplify access for users, PFE did all of the heavy lifting in combining a vast array of data points about people, sifting through that data, and establishing a centralized “name authority” record for each person. Machine and manual processes were both used during four cycles of funding, each new grant enabling thousands more records to be added and an expansion of the amount of information collected for each individual. Now a formal publication of the University of Virginia Press’s digital imprint Rotunda, PFE has almost 66,000 people. This is more than a five-fold increase in numbers from the original population of 12,000. There are numerous online prosopographies based in Great Britain and elsewhere but few in the United States. PFE is unique in this regard as the only prosopography—that is a collective biography of a distinct group—of an early American population. This beautiful digital edition provides users multiple ways to search for people, whether by surname, gender, or organization. Documents Compass is enormously grateful to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for its generous support of almost $4 million to this project as it evolved from an idea to a formal publication, as well as to the nearly 50 graduate student and temporary employees from UVA that worked on it. The project would also not have been possible without the contributions and willingness of numerous collaborators who shared their scholarly work and data. All are named here.

Early Access was the second major project that Documents Compass undertook. It was sponsored by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission as part of a larger initiative Founders Online, a project to make all of the digitized papers of the American Founding Fathers available for free online. We began with a pilot project in 2009 as a proof of concept to digitize, proofread, and publish 5,000 documents in one year’s time. This was followed by the larger project beginning in late 2011 and continuing on through early 2014 with the aim of providing pre-publication access to 68,000 historical papers of John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington that have not yet been published in authoritative documentary editions (that is, unannotated documents=Early Access). The cooperative agreement with the National Historical Publications and Records Commission provided $2.5 million for the project which entailed proofreading and digitizing existing transcriptions of the papers of the Founders of the Nation to make them available at Founders Online. Documents Compass hired and trained more than 50 staff members to do this work comprised of UVA Temp and graduate students. The project would not have been possible without their significant contributions (list here).

Documents Compass provided consultation services in areas such as project management, workflow, transcription standards, metadata and tagging. Among the projects Documents Compass worked with are: Papers of Frederick Douglass Digital Edition, the Patrick Henry Digital Library, the Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, the American Naval Records Society, and the Getting Word Project at Monticello

From its inception, the exploration and deployment of digital tools was a central focus of Documents Compass. For the most part, we have used proprietary systems such as web-based content management systems for XML files and digital asset management systems to store document metadata and image files. This includes our efforts to develop an application for FileMaker Pro called DocTracker which is uniquely designed for all stages of a documentary editing project. DocTracker has been in use at the Dolley Madison Digital Edition for nearly a decade and at the Pickney Edition for half that time. (Both projects publish their digital editions with UVA Press Rotunda). Documents Compass received three years of funding (2010-2013) from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission from a grant designated for Tool Building to build DocTracker 2.0. That project partnered with the Papers of George Washington Financial Papers Project, the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition, the Pinckney Statesmen, and the Woodrow Wilson Papers at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum.

Beginning in 2014 we focused on identifying open source platforms that would enable the full production chain of publication from document collection to publication either with an academic press or self-published online. One of the most promising solutions in this category is the open-source technology stack Islandora. We have built two projects using this platform (Frederick Douglass and Patrick Henry), and are enthusiastic about its capabilities and wide application for a variety of scholarly editing projects as well as institutional repositories.

Our experience with this platform, and the wealth of lessons learned over the last eight years, will be useful as Documents Compass ends its time at VFH and we turn to new digital initiatives—namely, Discovery Virginia. Documents Compass worked behind the scenes building a significant digital legacy: the complete writings of the Founding Fathers available for free online; five volumes of speeches by the abolitionist Frederick Douglass from hard-to-find print volumes; the first ever comprehensive edition of the writings of Patrick Henry; and the first digital prosopography of Early America.