Online Publishing of Historical Records

The NHPRC has long been focused on providing public access to the nation’s most significant historical records. With this purpose in mind, it has funded documentary editions of those records for many years, first in print editions and later as well in digital formats online.

The Commission wishes to expand its support of online publishing to enhance online public access to primary sources.  Grants will be awarded for all stages of publishing historical records online, including, compiling, digitizing, transcribing, and annotating documentary source materials. In particular, the Commission seeks applications that focus on digitizing, transcribing, annotating, or any combination of these core activities. Digitizing activities are included in this program as a preliminary form of publishing online. Applications are welcome from both documentary editing projects and from archives and other repositories with primary source materials looking to publish major collections of historical records online.

Both traditional documentary editions which publish in print and online formats and new digital projects are encouraged to apply for support.  The NHPRC will not support print-only editions in this grant program.

All ongoing documentary editions that have received NHPRC grants but do not publish an online edition or do not provide free public access to your edition should apply for support in the Publishing Historical Records Online: Transition Support grant program.  Our hope is that grant funds will assist you in going online. However, there are a small number of projects that cannot publish online editions or provide free access. We may provide funds for print-only projects that currently receive NHPRC support, as long as their completion date is no later than FY 2018.

Projects may focus on the papers of major figures from American life or cover broad historical movements in politics, military, business, social reform, the arts, and other aspects of the national experience. The historical value of the records and their expected usefulness to broad audiences must justify the costs of the project. The Commission will not consider proposals that charge for access.


Further details about Online Publishing of Historical Records:

  • Draft (optional):   TO BE DETERMINED; Final Deadline:   TO BE DETERMINED

Award amounts can range from $20,000 to $175,000 per year. The Commission expects to make as many as 35 grants in this category, for a total of up to $2,500,000

Please read the Online Publishing of Historical Records draft announcement.

Further details about Publishing Historical Records Online: Transition Support:

  • Draft (optional):   TO BE DETERMINED; Final Deadline:   TO BE DETERMINED

Award amounts may range from $30,000 to $175,000. The Commission expects to make as many as 8 grants in this category, for a total of up to $700,000.

Please read the Publishing Historical Records Online: Transition Support  draft announcement.

We welcome your comments here on the NHPRC blog – please supply any comments by March 31st. 


The first webinar was held on February 20, 2014: To listen to a digital recording of this call, dial the USA Toll-free telephone number 877-471-6587 or USA Caller Paid telephone number 1-402-970-2667 and enter program ID 215031941001.

The second webinar was held on  February 25, 2014. To listen to a recording, go to

5 thoughts on “Online Publishing of Historical Records

  1. It seems reasonable that both of the applications should require a sustainability plan and a data management plan. NEH-ODH guidelines would serve as an example.

  2. I applaud the move of the NHPRC to require free public access to works funded with its resources. Citizens deserve to be able to access the research that their taxes support. The NHPRC decision is entirely in line with the proposal advanced by the Office of Science and Technology Policy that requires that science funding agencies of a certain size offer free access to the results of funded research: see

    Free access is not enough, however. For the public to be able to fully learn from and utilize the research that it has funded, it is important that the resulting product be properly licensed. The NHPRC should, as well, stipulate that the copyrighted products generated with NHPRC funding be licensed with either a Creative Commons 0 dedication (CC 0) or anAttribution (CC BY) license, in conformance with the Berlin Open Access definition. An explanation of why open access is important for scientific research is found at A similar analysis for archival and documentary materials lies behind the OpenGLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums) Principles found at

    With a proper license, students and scholars will be able to reuse and build upon the work that the NHPRC has supported. Documents can be remixed and mashed up; new virtual thematic collections can be built; and the public impact of NHRPC funding will be maximized. None of this can happen easily if the NHPRC only requires that people be allowed to read (but not re-use) material.

  3. As a participant in the recent online webinar on the proposed NHPRC Online Publishing of Historical Records program, I am writing to express my concerns. I do so as director of the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition, as someone who sees tremendous value and potential for digital editions to advance new research and intellectual access to the nation’s documentary heritage, and as the current secretary of the Association for Documentary Editing.

    First, as the webinar seemed to make clear, transcription and annotation may be no longer understood as fundamental to the “publishing” of historical records. Under the new program, proposals will need to “make a strong case for” transcription and annotation. During the webinar, I commented that these editorial tasks had traditionally been the hallmark that distinguished the work of documentary editing from mere digitization. NHPRC staff admitted the term “publishing” was being used rather more loosely in the proposed program description. Moreover, the subsequent Q&A gave me the strong sense that the program, as currently defined and considered, has opened the door to archives-driven digitization projects. Coupled with the new stance toward transcription and annotation, this development has the potential to greatly diminish the funding available for the more substantive work of documentary editors—even for “born-digital” projects that otherwise meet the demand for free public access. Beyond the latter question, something more fundamental is at stake here—the “intellectual access” to historical records that documentary editors provide.

    Second, in other ways, it seems clear that the NHPRC envisions an expanded role for the archival community, which—again—seems likely to come at the expense of the concerns of documentary editors, and with the result that fewer funds will be made available to support the editorial work of transcription and annotation. In the webinar, NHPRC staff seemed potentially open to the suggestion of one participant (a state archivist) that the state SHRABs become integrated somehow into the vetting of proposals for this program. The Q&A on this issue seemed to portray SHRAB involvement as a balanced counterweight to the current use of peer-reviewers who, according to NHPRC staff, tend to be documentary editors. To my mind, such a vetting process would mean a significant shift in the criteria for selection, significantly tilting the program away from the scholarly concerns of documentary editors and the creation of authoritative editions. As Dan Feller and other documentary editors have made clear elsewhere on this blog, providing digital access to document images (however searchable) does not mean that the historical records included in “digital collections” are intellectually accessible, comprehensible, or useful. In the long run, what appears to be a cost-saving measure may well prove a penny wise and a pound foolish. The proposed changes, in their current form, suggest that the NHPRC is retreating from its longstanding commitment to fund the essential work of documentary editors, and with that, its longstanding commitment to promoting historical understanding among the broader citizenry.

    R. Darrell Meadows, Ph.D.
    Director, Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition
    Secretary, Association for Documentary Editing
    Director, Division of Research and Interpretation, Kentucky Historical Society

  4. As director and editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, a born-digital edition committed to free access, I should perhaps be the least concerned of my editorial colleagues about the proposed NHPRC grant guidelines. After all, the Papers of Abraham Lincoln should be a poster project for NHPRC’s new direction, right? Hardly.

    Since the beginning of our project, I have exhorted my colleagues that just because we were publishing electronically did not mean that we could relax the rigorous scholarship that goes into print documentary editions. We would uphold the standards of rigorous scholarship that are the hallmark of the well-crafted documentary editions of the last half-century, the quality that will make them valuable for generations to come. The ability to correct mistakes easily in the electronic environment should never be an excuse for sloppy or half-done scholarship.

    Despite my commitment to first-class scholarship, I have long been concerned that if we published images online (providing virtual access), the funding agencies would thank us and tell us we were done. Several years ago, NHPRC first encouraged and then mandated that we put images of documents online. We reluctantly did so for documents from the National Archives and the Library of Congress for which there would be no permissions issues in reproducing images. My next concern has been that if we provided rough transcriptions (providing textual access), the funding agencies would thank us and tell us we were done. Recently, NHPRC has asked us about putting up transcriptions before annotation is complete. How long before it is mandated? Several of my colleagues are actively working on XML markup and annotation (providing intellectual access), but I have serious doubts that the funding agencies will support us for the time that process will take (despite economies provided by the digital medium).

    My colleagues and I at the Papers of Abraham Lincoln all hold advanced degrees in history; we are not archivists. We do the research and discovery, the arrangement, the transcription, and the proofing as necessary precursors to what we are trained to do—assemble documents into historical contexts and aid users in understanding the contexts of the documents. If overannotation is the editor’s besetting sin, NHPRC’s prescribed penance seems to be to do away with annotation in the name of early access.

    The application of the MPLP mantra (“More product, less processing”) to enormous archival collections from the latter half of the twentieth century makes a great deal of sense for archivists. Its incongruous application to documentary editions suggests another acronym—MMLS (“More mediocrity, less scholarship”). I have learned early and repeatedly in my career that it is far easier to raise money to digitize something, anything, than it is to improve something already digitized. Funders will give organizations money to digitize a collection, but it is rare indeed to find a funder that will provide money to improve an already digitized collection by adding or standardizing metadata, transcriptions, or (perish the thought) annotation!

    Others have rightly raised concerns about developing and maintaining the infrastructure and interface to serve up digital editions in perpetuity. I share their concerns and want to add an additional one. Leaving aside the question of free access for a moment, the University of Virginia Press’s Rotunda project has successfully converted printed volumes to an online format that provides sophisticated access to these editions. However, to my knowledge, most or all of these editions were born analog. What of those editions, like ours, that hope to make use of extensive XML markup in the transcriptions? I am skeptical that a centralized interface would take effective advantage of such markup. Rather, it would likely be a variant of word searching that flattens each digital edition to a set of common denominators in functionality. Conversely, it could involve a(n unfunded) mandate for extensive markup that would require editors of digital editions to go back through their electronic documents to add or modify markup. It seems exceedingly unlikely that NHPRC (or NEH, for that matter) will have the funds available to develop sophisticated interfaces for various born-digital projects, in addition to providing continuing support for the projects’ ongoing editorial work.

    If NHPRC adopts the proposed guidelines, I suspect that within a year or two, I will face the catch-22 of acceding to demands to place unproofed transcriptions online with little hope of ever annotating them or maintaining fidelity to scholarly standards, declining federal funding, and laying off experienced colleagues. It is not a choice I wish to make.

  5. A couple of weeks ago I attended a very interesting panel discussion on Digital Humanities: New Roles for Libraries that speaks to the issue of online publishing of digital editions. One of the participants was Monica McCormick, who holds a very unique position as the Program Office for Digital Scholarly Publishing for both New York University Libraries and NYU Press. In response to a question I asked she was very clear that the kind of merging of online publishing that seems to be envisioned by the new grant programs at NHPRC is not in line with the ways that University libraries and publishers are thinking. They are not merging their publication programs. Instead, she sees each as having a particular role to play. University publishers are interested in scholarly production, such as the editions that NHPRC has been supporting from its beginnings. But presses cannot provide free access without subvention. Even though University publishers often have subsidies from their universities in order to continue to operate, they are expected to earn income from their publishing programs. She also made it clear that university librarians should understand that nothing they do is free even if they are providing free access. In fact, she argued that librarians needed to figure out their costs and how to support this kind of publication or they will be overwhelmed by the costs.

    I was not surprised by this statement based on my conversations with the Rutgers University Libraries regarding making the Edison Papers digital image edition available through RUCore, the repository established by the RU Libraries for work by faculty. They are very clear that something the size and complexity of the Edison Papers will cost a substantial amount to incorporate into RUCore. These costs include converting our metadata to their metadata and delivery structures and building a front-end for users, as well as additional costs for long-term storage and maintenance of the collection. No one at the library thinks it will be cost-free even if the access to users is ultimately provided for free. Thus, I will have to work with the libraries to figure out how to cost out the entire digital edition, including a still significant amount of material that we will be adding over the next five or six years.

    One of the reasons that I have begun having these conversations with the RU Libraries is the question of long-term stability of the edition. It has been argued that because universities are supporting ongoing documentary editing projects that this will mean that they will maintain digital editions created by the projects in perpetuity. I have seen no evidence that this is the case. Indeed, the likelihood is that once the Edison Papers no longer exists as an active research project at Rutgers its website and digital image edition is unlikely to be maintained by Rutgers Computing Service on the Rutgers departmental server, where it presently resides. Right now I am trying to determine if Rutgers Computing will even be able to support the hosting of the much larger number of higher quality image files that we are planning to add over the next several years. There are good reasons to think that the RU Libraries will be a better permanent repository if the edition is to be maintained at Rutgers. But, regardless of which venue ends up becoming the “publisher” of our digital image edition, I am certain that I will need to raise funds in order to ensure that the edition outlives the project.

    The issues regarding digital publishing of our book edition of transcribed and annotated documents is equally complex. But I would like focus on one issue that, while not unique to the Edison Papers, is of greater concern to us than probably any other edition. An important part of our book edition has been the incorporation of images of sketches and drawings into hundreds of transcribed notebook entries. When we first began we provided our publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press with photographs but since the advent of our digital image edition we provide digital images. Nonetheless, this does not make the design issues any less complicated for our book edition. This will continue to be a critical design issue for digital publication of transcribed documents. Presenting transcriptions without the images does a disservice to anyone trying to use them and incorporating them is unlikely to be cost free for the project. Yet, if the edition is to be made available for free, costs such as these need to understood as part of the production of an edition whether it be book or transcribed online documents. JHUP had to invest quite a bit in order to develop this crucial design capability. It would make sense for the press to be involved in the transition to electronic publication but how can they be if they cannot recover any of their costs. The question for the book edition as for the image edition is how to pay for the upfront costs of production even if access is free at the other end.

    Finally, I want to speak to the issue of digital literacy. The Edison Papers are used by a wide range of users including scholars interested in the history of technology, the management of technological innovation, and in design and creativity, as well as a range of public users including teachers and students, journalists, collectors, and the broad general public. One of the things that has become apparent is that many of them are both delighted by and intimidated by the large number of documents in our digital image edition. Finding material that will answer their questions is not easy if they are expected to essentially read through the archive. We offer some tools for doing so but often the best way to provide them with useful materials is to begin with the transcribed and annotated documents from our book edition. Indeed, we have begun curating some essays that link to pdfs of our book documents and to select documents in our digital image edition in order to make the Edison Papers more accessible, especially for teachers and students as well as the general public. The complexity and size of the image edition has made it one of our long-term goals, which has been a part of our grant proposals to both NHPRC and NEH, to develop an electronic edition of our book edition that can serve not only as a resource for scholars but a gateway into the massive image edition. This I think is an important point when considering the role that editions of transcribed and annotated documents can play not only for scholars but for the larger public.

    Paul Israel
    Director and General Editor
    Thomas A. Edison Papers
    Rutgers University

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