Doing Digital History


Ms. Shulman is the editor of The Dolley Madison Digital Edition, and with David B. Mattern, The Selected Letters of Dolley Madison, both published by the University of Virgina Press. She is Research Professor in the University of Virginia program, Studies in Women and Gender. She can be reached at hshulman@virginia.edu.

As I finish the second “volume” of The Dolley Madison Digital Edition(University of Virginia Press, 2004 and forthcoming) it’s a good moment to reflect on what it means to be a digital pioneer: a documentary editor who publishes born-digital electronic editions. After all, there is still a fair amount of skepticism about digital history, especially the question of how historians can employ the web to enhance scholarship by utilizing what is inherent in the new medium, while adhering to the standards of the old. I think The Dolley Madison Digital Edition (DMDE) does just that.

What’s important about being born digital is the “third dimension” of editorial work. Of course in many ways the labor that goes into creating a documentary edition is the same whatever the publishing medium. But being born digital means building a traditional documentary edition on top of metadata that is delivered to you on line. It is an electronic archive rather than a static website. To phrase this as a simple list, the electronic environment allows access, space, searchability, mutability, and collaboration.

We talk about access all the time. This is an essay published at the History News Network, and you, the reader, may be sitting in Northern Virginia (alongside HNN’s server), London, Sydney, Los Angeles, or even Vail while on your winter skiing vacation. While it’s unlikely that you have bought the DMDE from the University of Virginia Press as a single purchaser, your library, whether public, school, or University, has it. They give you access.

We talk less about space – and often use the rather dreadful term “screen real estate.” But letterpress editions are always fighting for enough space to produce the results they want in each volume. Annotations are kept short. Some documents may only be calendared, leaving the scholar to go to an archive, documentary volume in hand, to seek out the full text. I won’t say that space is endless or irrelevant in an electronic environment, but it’s far less cramped. And most of all, because you read differently online, I decided that rather than footnotes (which my undergraduate students always found distracting and difficult when presented on screen), the DMDE should provide annotation as a pop-up box, which is flexible and far more capacious than a traditional footnote.

Searchability has become a household word, and we live with it all the time, even if only through Google and JSTOR. But for me, it meant I could design an edition where the reader could search not only by word or phrase, but by person, place, organization, title, concept, and chronology. And that’s not an “or” but an “and.” You can search for a person, in a place, who belonged to an organization in a given year. Try looking for James Laurie and the American Colonization Society in 1836, or Thomas Jefferson and Philadelphia in 1805, or Ruth Barlow and death in 1812. And because we’re hand-crafted you can search by a topic such as the War of 1812, slavery, death and mourning, and find results even when the words war, slavery, or death don’t ever appear in the letter.

As good as this all sounds, there is more. Since the edition is electronic, you can go back and add a letter or correct an annotation. The University of Virginia Press has now added a response button: when a reader thinks there is a mistake, she or he can tell me. It’s not a wiki, the edition remains authoritative, but we’re listening to all of you who want to talk to us.

Scholars will be able to actively participate by marking up Dolley’s letters to pursue their own interests. For example, I thought it would be interesting to know what the women of this period were reading, so we tag the DMDE not only for literary titles, but for the literary references that dot the epistolary landscape of Dolley and her contemporaries. A scholar in the future might contact the University of Virginia Press with the idea either of taking the framework and working on it privately, without publishing her or his results, or producing an addition to the DMDE as her own electronic publication. A student interested in women of the Founding Era, may bookmark some of Dolley’s letters through a social bookmarking system for storing, sharing, and discovering websites such as del.icio.us, and bring materials together for themselves or to share.

My goal is to be as collaborative and interoperable as possible. In the 21st century not only will documentary editing remain a source of creative scholarship, editions that are born-digital will allow for greater creativity and open up more scholarship. Working with the University of Virginia Press and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, I plan to launch Women of the Founding Era, a collection of the correspondence of critical women of the Founding Era. Scholars will then be able to read across the correspondence of not only Dolley, but Abigail Adams, Martha Washington, Eliza Lucas Pinckney, Martha Jefferson Randolph, Ruth Barlow, and more (as well as the founding fathers themselves, whose papers are now being republished as conversion electronic editions by the Press). At that point, born-digital documentary editing will become a first-stop for all historians of the Founding Era, and a beacon for the future of digital history.

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Jeff Shear - 1/16/2009

Great essay and wonderful project. Thank you.

Ms. Schulman writes: The Dolly Madison Project “is an electronic archive rather than a static website. To phrase this as a simple list, the electronic environment allows access, space, searchability, mutability, and collaboration."

I would add to that list that the electronic archive greatly affects the reader's sense of time, accessibility, the author's clarity, authorial flexibility, perhaps even spontaneity; but most of all, it affects layers of explanation, which is another way of describing the depth of the written work. As I work on my own project, The True Story of Madame Elizabeth Brousse, published here on HNN as "The History of ‘Cynthia,’ the World War II Spy" (should the title of an iBiography be underlined or set in quotes?), I think of Marshall McLuhan's famous line about looking at the future through a rearview mirror. We speak of being "immersed" in a book, and I wonder if the digital corollary isn't being "enveloped" in a site, a website. Does the electronic book engross a reader; does the reader devour the work, as we might say of a book? Or is the process similar to the effects of the World Wide Web, causing the user to surf from text to link? For now, by agreement, no entry I make at HNN is to be longer than 800 words, far less than a chapter. I write in spans to accommodate the medium and its users/readers. The spanning process has a definite affect on the project, certainly on my end. And more, the digital work exist in multiple universes. For instance, I am developing a parallel site to validate the primary HNN installments of “The History of Cynthia,” a repository of links to citations, notes, even my own personal thoughts on the work. There's also the technical limitations the author brings to the electronic archives, the need for collaboration. And I’m jealous of Ms. Schulman’s ability to use "pop-up" boxes in place of traditional footnotes or annotations. I am limited to mundane links, because I can’t yet code. But the point is this: the effort of composition requires more than scholarship and editorial decisions, it requires technical foresight. I worry, for instance, whether I have chosen the right software for my project, a “product” that will allow me the greatest future flexibility; or will the work be limited by the bounds of my technology choices, potentially a function of budgets and funding?