Document collection. Editors work like detectives. They scour collections, sometimes at hundreds of different repositories, and obtain copies of documents from private hands, libraries, and archives. They assemble these documents into a single duplicate collection, which they make as comprehensive as possible. This work of finding, identifying, and collecting documents from disparate sources is alone an invaluable service for other scholars, but it is just where documentary editors begin.

Archival Organization. Editors organize and process the primary documents they find into some kind of coherent order, creating an archive in their project office. They may take letters gathered from a hundred different libraries and place them all in chronological order, virtually recreating the correspondence as the author created and received it. They use different tools to help with this stage of a project (which editors call “document control”) often databasing identifying information for all their documents and creating hard-copy files that contain documents that are carefully described.

Selection. A few documentary book editions are comprehensive, meaning that they include all the documents that a project has collected. But most present just a selection of all the documents available. Editors have discussions and develop criteria by which they select documents to be presented in full form. They choose what they think are the most important documents and those that tell a story. These documents provide evidence of events, motivations, and relationships between people. They can be arranged chronologically or by theme, or even in different kinds of series.

Documentary editions work a lot like web pages. Readers can consult just parts of them. They may want to read, for example, just the documents about a particular event or person that interests them, using the volumes almost like reference books. Or they can take a more linear approach, reading the volumes from beginning to end like a story. Editors present their documents with these different kinds of uses in mind.

Transcription and proofreading. Another valuable service that documentary editors supply to scholars and students when they prepare book editions is the translation of hard-to-read handwriting into printed format. This is one of the ways in which microfilm and book editions differ. Microfilm includes pictures of the original documents as they were created, usually with handwritten or typed letters and writings. These can be very hard and time consuming to decipher. For book editions, editors do the work for researchers of reading these documents for them and figuring out what they say. They do this by strict standards of accuracy, transcribing letter by letter and word by word, and then painstakingly proofreading these transcripts several times against the originals to get them just right and present them in the published books in printed form.

Researching and annotating documents. In the process of collecting, selecting, and transcribing documents, editors do a great deal of research. They often need to figure out who a letter is written to or by, or what it is about. They work like investigators or detectives hunting down clues from the texts. They verify the accuracy of texts. They find out where various drafts or fragments of writings may go. They identify people, places, events, and things mentioned in the documents. They do this in all kind of ways, including conducting interviews and oral histories, traveling to historic sites and cemeteries, reading old newspapers, doing genealogies, searching probate records, and reading letters and writings related to those they have collected which might help shed light on the meanings within the documents they hold in their own project’s archives. They read biographies and scholarly articles, and conduct research on the Internet. They also search for photographs, maps, pamphlets, advertisements, songs, and other nontextual evidence that help tell their story. All these things they find in research become part of their project’s archive, along with the documents themselves. Information from this research finds its way into the published volumes in the form of introductions and annotations, or footnotes, that help further explain the meanings within the texts. If they want, readers can go to these footnotes to learn a fuller story or to help understand who people are who are mentioned, or what is happening within a document. Introductions help set the stage for the documents. They provide background information and larger contexts which help readers interpret the texts they read.

Creating searchable texts. When editors have all the documents they have chosen for a volume assembled, transcribed, proofread, researched and annotated, they put them all together to create a book. They include information in the front matter of the book, like a list of repositories telling readers where the original material they used came from, lists of illustrations, and a table of contents that identifies all the documents that were selected for the volume. They also make subject indexes, and sometimes offer different types of appendices, to help readers use the books and find specific things within them.

Electronic Formats

While in the twentieth century documentary editions were almost all microfilm, CD, or book based, in the 2000s we have whole new opportunities available to present documents online for people to use.

Electronic formats make it possible to combine the best of both worlds of former microfilm and book editions, because they allow editors to show scanned facsimiles of original handwritten documents and transcriptions side by side. The transcriptions can be coded in a mark-up language to make them easy to format and searchable by subject or keyword. Annotations, too, can go online.

Whether in book, microfilm, or electronic format, documentary editions bring a wealth of primary documents to readers who could never individually travel to find them all to read in their original form. While archives and libraries preserve the original documents so that they will last for generations, documentary editors make the content of the documents available for readers of all kinds, from elementary to high school students, school teachers, scholars and professors, history buffs to general users.

Addams Signature

The Work of Documentary Editing Projects


Documentary editing projects present historical or literary documents in formats that make them accessible to scholars and readers.

Major editing projects have traditionally produced multi-volume book and microfilm editions of historical documents centered around the life and career or writings of a particular person, era, or social movement.

Past and current documentary editions have been devoted to the writings of presidents, politicians, reformers and thinkers. Beginning with the core of “founding fathers” such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington or Benjamin Franklin, documentary projects have moved to nineteenth-century leaders like John Ross and Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, to writers, educators and public intellectuals like Samuel Clemens, Henry David Thoreau, and Booker T. Washington, or twentieth-century movers and shakers like Thomas Edison, Eleanor Roosevelt, or Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Documentary projects have helped make available primary documents about wars and major political events, or those that focus on the evolving nature of principles like freedom and citizenship–for example, documentation of the First Federal Congress or the experience of Freedmen and their emancipation from slavery. Women’s history and African American history projects focused on large social movements have included the Papers of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Margaret Sanger, Marcus Garvey, and Martin Luther King, Jr., which together chronicle abolition, woman suffrage, reproductive rights and public health, nationalism and Pan-Africanism, and the civil rights movement.

Increasingly, as new technologies have arisen, documentary editions are being produced in various kinds of electronic formats, and in new and selective ways.

The Work of Documentary Editing Projects

The Work of Documentary Editing

Documentary projects traditionally have involved work by teams of people. As they locate, process, and interpret documents for users, the staffs of projects combine the skills of archivists, editors, designers, electronic specialists, researchers, historians and literary analysts in their work.

The process of documentary editing to produce book editions involves several careful stages and is conducted according to rigorous professional standards. These stages include: