NHPRC and Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Launch Digital Publishing Initiative

On February 14, we made a great match. Together with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and our own National Historical Publications and Records Commission, we announced the eight planning-grant recipients for our joint Digital Edition Publishing Cooperatives Program. These eight cooperatives will test out new ways of making historical records more readily accessible to scholars, students, and the American people.

Our business since 1934 has been not only to preserve records but to provide public access to them. Rather than sitting in boxes (or up in the cloud), records are most valuable when they are used.

That’s the whole point of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission: to find the best ways to make historical records public, to enable people to easily find, understand, and use the primary sources to tell the American story. Through grants by National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), the National Archives has for decades played an essential role in building the nation’s historical infrastructure, funding hundreds of archival projects, microfilm editions, and some of the nation’s most important documentary editions in print and online.

Perhaps the best example is our long-time support of six major Founding Fathers projects, first through bound print editions available at libraries but now freely available via Founders Online.

Founders Online
Founders Online

Other projects like the Freedmen and Southern Society Project and the papers of Thomas A. Edison, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King, Jr are also exploring new ways of doing time-honored work.

Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project
Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project
Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project
Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project

This new NHPRC-Mellon partnership will help more documentary editing projects navigate the ongoing transformation from print to digital publication. Individual scholarly editions continue to find it difficult to build and maintain their own digital infrastructure for creating and disseminating their work, and most producers of digital scholarly editions lack access to predictable, affordable, and sustainable publication channels. That’s why, in fall 2016, NHPRC staff convened a working group on “Building a Sustainable Digital Edition Ecosystem” for the Mellon-funded Scholarly Communications Institute, held each year at Duke University. The TriangleSCI working group included historians, documentary editors, archivists, digital humanists, programmers, and university press / library publishers. Each brought new insights for building a sustainable future for the digital edition.

Scholarly Communication Institute
Scholarly Communication Institute

The NHPRC-Mellon Digital Edition Publishing Cooperatives Program, which we first announced in 2017, was a direct outgrowth of their deliberations. The initiative is notable for several reasons. First and foremost, it “does not seek to create or impose a specific framework or platform. Rather, it proposes a process for project teams to build—from the ground up rather than from the top down—a cooperative infrastructure for publication based on their own needs and capacities.” Further, the initiative seeks ways to “exploit the synergies among editions” that “enable them to interact.”

True to the vision of the TriangleSCI working group, the “infrastructure” includes more than just “technological systems (such as digital repositories or discovery tools).” It also includes human infrastructures–“shared standards, semantics, practices, and policies”–that can only be arrived at through discussion and compromise.

Recognizing that “modern digital scholarly editing practice does not take place in isolation,” the initiative addresses issues of longstanding concern here at NARA and in archives across the nation. How can digital editions take advantage of shared information resources–such as the Social Networks and Archival Context (SNAC) Research Tool, which is addressing a long-standing research challenge: discovering, locating, and using distributed historical records? A key premise of the initiative is that “a strong network of projects working cooperatively can help overcome the limits of single projects.”

As Chair of the Commission, I am proud to see NHPRC taking a leading role in catalyzing what is sure to be a far-reaching, and much-needed, experiment in how to build a sustainable publication infrastructure for ongoing and future scholarly historical editions. These Cooperatives are the R&D for new ways of thinking about our work to preserve and to publish. We have a great partner in the Mellon Foundation, and we have eight projects to see how we together can revolutionize the ways we build and sustain new digital editions of historical records.

Learn more and see descriptions of the eight grant winners here.

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