Thomas Jefferson Prize for Founders Online

On Saturday, wearing my Chair of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission hat, I accepted the Thomas Jefferson Prize from the Society for History in the Federal Government for the NHPRC in creating Founders Online. This is a particularly meaningful award because of the caliber of the professional community represented among the Society. There was great joy in “my house” when we received the good news!

In accepting the award on behalf of NHPRC, I said:

As the steward of Federal Government records, the National Archives has provided leadership in the archives and records management field for over 75 years. As far back as 1939, the American Archivist summed up the central challenge: “Just as librarians promote the use of books, and as teachers defend before the public the value of education, so archivists have as part of their duty to give stimulus and guidance to the use of archives, and to their use not by the few but by the many.”

I take that as our biggest challenge and opportunity. How do we ensure that as many people as possible can find and use the historical records held not only by the National Archives but by the nation’s archives?

One way is to continue opening our doors to the public. Every day I am lucky to witness the crowds of people in the Rotunda of the National Archives lined up to see the Charters of Freedom and other documents. More than 9,000 people, for example, came by to see the Emancipation Proclamation on the 150th anniversary of its signing. And all across the country in our many facilities, ordinary citizens get to examine original records in their family history journeys, researchers use originals to track down evidence, and hold our government accountable for its actions.

But what about the many who cannot come to Washington, DC or who are searching for records far from home?

In a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, Walter Isaacson describes the “tingling sensation” people feel in the company of the original documents, but he also describes the power of providing access to the many through digitization and online publishing “when millions of curious people, with new technologies in hand, get to dive into the papers of historical figures.” And he then he holds up our Founders Online as a model for thinking about the whole question of access.

Founders Online really is a remarkable achievement built out of the tireless work of many. From the print publication of the very first volume of the Papers of Thomas Jefferson to decades of collecting, transcribing, annotating and publishing the papers of Franklin, Washington, Adams, Hamilton, and Madison. The print editions alone make access happen.

But through the leadership of our National Historical Publications and Records Commission and with our partners at the Rotunda project at the University of Virginia, we realized that not only could we broaden the audience for these records by making them freely available online, we could also improve and deepen that use through the ability to search across the papers of six Founders, including early access to currently unpublished letters.

The hybrid result is this massive database—currently at 167,000 separate documents—that changed fundamentally how people can find and use these historical records. Gone are the days when a search might take hours—or days or weeks—across multi-volume sets and indexes. Now scholars and students and lawyers and genealogists and enthusiasts for the history of federal government, now faceted searches pull up results in the blink of an eye. Speed and accuracy increased, and the capacity for analysis has improved.

And we are seeing great results. Since its launch in June 2013, over 1 million people have visited Founders Online. We regularly get emails from researchers excited by the results and engaged in improving the site.

The White House has featured the site twice on its blog since the launch, and the site is regularly cited on Facebook, twitter, and other social media. National Journal used the site to identify Thomas Jefferson’s activities as a brewer of beer. The New York Times’ Art and Culture blog announced the site with the headline: “Founding Fathers Go Electric.”

But here’s what really excites me. Educators of all kinds at all levels are using Founders Online in the classroom. University of Virginia historian Peter Onuf used Founders Online last spring to teach his first massive, open online course (MOOC) entitled, “The Age of Jefferson,” attended by several thousand participants. And one high school history teacher writes, “This resource is breathtaking in its scope and value. I already have students accessing it for their class projects. It defies description. Powerful, powerful, resource.”

The education staff at the National Archives has linked the material to facsimiles on our site for teachers. The National Endowment for the Humanities includes it on its EDSITEment webpages. The National Humanities Center in Research Triangle, NC offers faculty webinars and interactive lesson plans using this new resource exclusively. Monticello also uses Founders Online for some of its online lesson plans.

At least one course at Smith College requires students to investigate Founders Online. The site is also on the reading list for courses at George Mason, Brandeis, Furman, and more.

Scholars are beginning to make use of the site. “Citations have appeared in The American Historical Review, Constitutional Commentary, and The Journal of Church and State, among other journals.

New books that use Founders Online include The True Geography of Our Country: Jefferson’s Cartographic Vision (UVA Press), Thomas Jefferson’s Philosophy of Education: A Utopian Dream (Routledge), and Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships That Built America (Simon and Schuster). Scholars such as Ron Chernow, author of bios of Washington and Hamilton and Jill Lepore on Benjamin Franklin’s sister Jane have spoken out about the value of combining the “tingling sensation” of seeing the original documents but also of the enhancements of online access.

I, like Walter Isaacson, “…hope that archives will remain inspiring places to visit and to meet people with like-minded passions. They can blend the virtual world and physical space to become 21st-century museums for the mind.”

With more than 12 billion pieces of paper and 42 million photographs—and a goal of digitizing everything—the National Archives will long blend the physical and virtual worlds. And I am also convinced that “tingling sensation” that can be achieved in seeing for the first time a piece of history through Founders Online.

I’ll close with a well known citation from Mr. Jefferson. In a 1791 letter to the editor for the first collection of the nation’s historical records, Jefferson wrote, “Let us save what remains; not by vaults and locks which fence them from the public eye and use . . . . but by such multiplication of copies, as shall place them beyond the reach of accident.”

Jefferson, and the other Founders of the nation, readily understood that the value of historical records lies not primarily in the paper artifacts, but in the ideas embodied within the words, and the public’s ability to understand and use those records. It is those ideas that give us that tingling sensation in the museums for the mind.