Tag Archives: documents

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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Public History Series: Historic Preservation

I have written about Historic Preservation in a previous post, but I wrote about the course I am taking and how we work to preserve buildings.  There are, however, different types of preservation.  The areas of preservation include buildings, books/documents, and artifacts.  I will go through them one-by-one.


As I mentioned in my previous post about HIST 593, in order to preserve a building, you must first learn how it was constructed.  This will allow you to identify the period in which the building was constructed, but will also help you determine the areas that may be the weakest structurally.  When preserving a building, it is important to maintain its character.  Putting aluminum windows or siding on a historic brick building would be inappropriate and would make it ineligible for the National Register of Historic Places.  The key to preserving any historic building is insuring the preservation of its character.

There are many aspects to preserving a historic building including replacing the building materials with traditional parts, decorating the house as it would have originally been, and preserving the outer appearance of the property.  That is the key for the National Register.  They understand that the inside will have been modernized (bathroom, kitchen, etc.), but the outside of the house should look as it did when the structure was constructed.

So how do we determine whether or not a house is eligible for National Register?  First the building has to meet one of the following qualifications: 1. significance by date (e.g. Plantation House), 2. significance by person (e.g. Monticello), 3. cultural affiliation (e.g. Slave cabin), or 4. significant architect/builder (e.g. Falling Water).  One of those qualifications must be chosen on the National Register Application, but that is not enough to justify the listing of a building.  The building must maintain integrity in several aspects including: 1. location (has not been moved), 2. setting (the landscape has not changed significantly), 3. design (no major additions that detract from the building), 4. materials (cannot be aluminum siding), 5. feeling (must convey a feeling of being historic) and 6. context.  None of these categories are concrete, of course, so it may be possible for a structure that has been moved if it maintains other forms of integrity.

Preservation and the National Register are not exact sciences, but there are a series of steps to insure the process is done correctly.  First, the National Register nomination is submitted to the State Historic Preservation Office (yes, every state has one!).  They research the building and insure the facts are accurate.  If they are, the structure is added to the State Register.  A committee than decides if the building is worthy of listing on the National Register.  If so, they send it on, but there is not guarantee that it will be listed.  The process is very long and requires someone with specific knowlege to research, and Public Historians fit the bill.


Declaration of Independance as it appears today

The preservation of books and documents are equally important and are very specialized.  These techniques often require certification and/or and degree in Library Science.  However, many Public Historians seek this type of degree or certificate after completing their Master’s Degree.  This is a very technical process, one that I have little experience with, so cannot elaborate too much on the subject.  Archives and libraries often employ paper conservators to ensure their collections are properly preserved.  One of the best examples is the National Archives.  They are responsible for some of the most important documents of our nation’s history: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  Both are old documents and require regular maintenance, but they also require someone with specific knowledge to ensure that they do not degrade further.  This is a very important task and one that often begins with Public Historians.


As with books/documents, I have limited knowledge on this subject, but it is equally important.  Historians often specialize in knowledge of clay pots, etc. when they work on archaeological sites.  Their job is to responsibly clean artifacts that have been unearthed.  They may also have to piece together many pieces of a clay pot to get an idea of its shape and, therefore, its significance.  At Montpelier, there is an archaeology department that are working to uncover items that belonged to the Madison’s and their slaves.  They have archaeologists and conservators on site, but they also use students from JMU.  This gives the students hands on experience with artifacts and the processes involved, but is also moving the project forward at a rapid pace.

Preservation is a multi-facited sub-discipline within Public History that requires specialized knowledge.  I am sure there are others types of preservation that I have not included, but these are the most common.  Preservation is an important part of history because it ensures an objects survival for future generations.


NOTE:  This is the fourth 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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Filed under History, Public History