Public History Series: Documentary Editing

Documentary editing does not refer to television documentaries, but to documents. When you conduct research on a historic figure, you go to the library and look for a volume of that particular person’s writings. You find what you are looking for, check it out, and use it in your paper. Have you ever wondered how those collections of documents are created? Very often what you have checked out is an edited collection of papers, not a complete volume.

Documentary editors seek ALL the papers related to a specific person. That does not mean, however, that they wish to publish every paper. What they will often do is release volumes of papers that are thematic such as, “The Presidential Papers of…”, “The Letters of…”, or “The Writings of…” These volumes are only a fraction of the correspondents or documents written by the historical figure. These volumes are very important to historians conducting research and the documentary editors themselves are often Public Historians. They have to have an interest in the subject matter, however, because it often takes decades to complete such a project. They also have to make the difficult decision of what gets published and what does not. There are volumes that include everything, “The Complete papers of…,” but most often only a selection of documents are published and that makes for difficult decisions.

That brings about some negative aspects of documentary editing. The fact that it can take a long time means that the projects often eat money. The research required very expensive and time consuming. Today, the National Archives and University Libraries have become a repository for these types of documents. Universities can use students or interns to go through the papers and make them available. With new technology, however, documentary editing has become an online project. The University of Virginia is working on the Papers of George Washington. A project that has been going on for decades. What they are doing today is making many of his documents available online. This saves the cost of printing and eliminates the difficult decision as to what gets published and what does not. With online archives, everything can be scanned and placed online for the reader/researcher to sift through.

There are drawbacks to online documents, however. Most common is credibility. Sites with the suffix .edu or .gov are usually safe and reliable but sites that end with .com and .org require a little research into the organization running the site. Bias can dictate what documents are published and what documents are not. Be wary of ALL sites and do some research into who is running them before using or citing them as a source.

Documentary editors have a difficult job in collecting the papers of an individual and determining what should and should not be published; however, new technologies, are making it possible for the documents to be published as a complete collection in an online format. This allows greater access to documents, but can create a credibility issue. Nonetheless, documentary editing is extremely important to historians and should be considered by those interested in conducting research.


NOTE: This is the fifth in a ten part series on Public History. The posts from the series will be presented on Wednesdays and Saturdays from now until April 6. A wide variety of aspects will be covered and I will try to present an unbiased account of the positive and negative aspects of each subcategory of Public History.


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