Documentary Editing: The View from There to Here

Two months ago I joined the staff of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, where I oversee the agency’s Publishing Historical Records in Documentary Editions program. As I learned right away, there would be no “easing into” the position. With the latest grant deadline for the program just days before my physical arrival, I needed to hit the ground running. There were reports to process, reports to write, closeouts to perform, and sundry other ins and outs of the job to learn. Oh, and a site visit to boot! With thanks to a great team of colleagues who patiently answered every question, and helped to anticipate others, I began to manage the day-to-day work of a federal grants administrator.

But my role as Director for Publishing also involves gaining a better understanding of the world of documentary editing and publishing as it exists today—its challenges, its opportunities, its practices, and not least, its impact—in order to help the NHPRC to consider future directions for the publishing program and to convey the broader significance and impact of its work.

I have been intimately involved with the field of documentary editing for some six years now: as project director for the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition, a large, multi-year, “born-digital” documentary edition; as the former Secretary of the Association for Documentary Editing; and as a co-instructor at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute. I am once again gaining a fuller and deeper understanding of the documentary editing community from an altogether different perspective.

So, how are the concerns of a program director different from that of a project director?

As a project director, I decided that our edition would be “born digital,” and so worked diligently to understand the methods and standards of other nationally-recognized documentary editing projects, as well as engaging actively in the growing field of digital humanities. I did so with an eye to developing a project that not only met the highest standards of the NHPRC and the Association for Documentary Editing, but would make significant contributions to how documentary editions are conceptualized and implemented in the digital age. But try as I might, I can see now that my view of the broader landscape was limited by the local context of my project and institution. As a program officer, my self-education continues apace, but I am now better placed to view the full range of methods currently employed by the nation’s leading documentary editors, and to explore new and emerging platforms (such as Islandora, Drupal, and Omeka) and best practices across several domains. As we continue to encourage projects, “whenever possible and appropriate, to provide access to these materials in a free and open online environment,” the need for the program to be informed by a fuller understanding of the emerging digital ecosystem will be essential and ongoing.

How can I and my colleagues work to encourage a new generation of documentary editing projects that meet the ongoing needs of current and future scholars, classroom teachers, and citizens?

Because my former project was “born digital,” the challenges we faced were different than those faced by print editions, who are now struggling to navigate the transition to digital platforms. Fortunately I come to this position having served on the editorial board of the University Press of Kentucky, where I gained a deep appreciation for the challenges university presses are also working to overcome. Already in the past couple months, however, it has been encouraging to see that a number of projects (such as the Frederick Douglass Papers and The George Washington Financial Papers) are developing robust plans for experimenting with new platforms and models for digital publication and access. Understanding the current and near-term environment in which documentary editions must plan and implement their work will require close attention to at least four intersecting domains:

  • the evolving publication practices of university presses (print and digital);
  • the emerging phenomenon of open-source and university library publishing;
  • developments in open-source and other platforms for editing, publishing, and hosting digital editions;
  • the growing influence of the digital humanities;
  • and trends within the broader scholarly editing community.

The unique perspective I’ve gained these first eight weeks with NHPRC has reinforced for me the enduring value of our collective work to contextualize and make accessible the nation’s documentary heritage, and the great potential that lays in store as we continue to find mutually beneficial partnerships and new ways of working that bridge communities, while ensuring broad intellectual access to the sources of our nation’s history.

My sleeves are rolled up and I’m jumping in with both feet!

2 thoughts on “Documentary Editing: The View from There to Here

  1. Congratulations, Darryl, on your new position and your quick (but not surprising) transformation from a project director to a program director! I look forward to hearing more about NHPRC’s plans for the future, and to collaborating with you here at NARA.

  2. Thanks, Pam! I look forward to learning more about the work you are doing at the Eisenhower Presidential Library!

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