An early goal of The Washington Papers was to make George Washington’s business and household records accessible. Given the complexity of these documents and the means of publication available at that time, very little was done: several cash accounts from the ledgers were published in print as part of the Colonial Series of The Papers of George Washington during the 1980s, and others have been occasionally published as standalone documents or used in annotations. As the digital edition of the letterpress volumes moved forward, solutions for the financial papers began to emerge as well. These solutions have continued to evolve in step with exciting and ongoing advances in the field of digital humanities.
In 2010 we collaborated with the developers of DocTracker (DT) to explore how that system could be customized to handle complex financial documents. Beginning in July 2012 we partnered with the DT development team, along with the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition, to expand DocTracker’s menu of core functions, and to tackle data entry and output requirements of complex documentary materials. A significant part of this expansion included the development of solutions for editing, representing (both transcription and data), and publishing financial documents. The National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) provided funding for the development work and eventual release of the beta and final versions of DocTracker.
In 2013 work began on The George Washington Financial Papers Project (GWFPP). Funded by a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the two main objectives of the GWFPP were to develop a freely accessible digital edition and open-source editorial platform. Over the course of three years, the following goals were accomplished:
- Developed a platform to edit and publish financial documents.
- Transcribed documents held in the George Washington Papers, Series 5, 1750-1796, collection at the Library of Congress.
- Created a digital edition of George Washington’s three ledger books of accounts.
- Worked with the editors of the Gouverneur Morris papers project to prepare Morris’ 1811-1816 account book for digital publication.
- Developed a web prototype that allows users to perform simple queries and download data.
- Conducted user testing of the digital edition.
- Held a conference to discuss discoveries and lessons learned.
- Wrote and distributed (forthcoming, to be submitted to an open-source journal) a guide for creating editions of financial papers.
The GWFPP exists at the intersection of two challenges editors currently face: managing complicated editorial work and navigating the world of digital publication. By focusing on a particularly difficult and dynamic dataset—financial documents—work has advanced on three interconnected fronts: 1) developing document templates for both traditional financial documents, such as account books and ledgers, as well as receipts, journals, and memoranda; 2) developing taxonomies and data visualizations; and 3) constructing an open-source content management/editorial/publication platform. The work has resulted in the development of both an open-access digital edition of Washington’s financial documents as well as the groundwork of Drupal for Editors prototype—a Drupal-based, open-source, editorial/publication platform—providing editors with a stable, flexible, and powerful platform to build engaging digital editions of financial documents.
We determined Drupal to be the best publication solution for several reasons: 1) at its core, Drupal is a database in which imported content can be mapped to fields, allowing for robust displays and searching, querying, and browsing; 2) both the backend (content/data) and frontend (website interface) are managed in the system; and 3) Drupal is open-source and its core and add-on (module) code are developed and actively maintained by a large international developer community.
Drupal has allowed the project to confront the numerous challenges inherent in these documents: (1) different types of financial documents are formatted in distinct, though mostly standardized, ways, and the formatting of financial documents carries implied meanings; (2) transactions are full of dittos, abbreviations, and short hand, that raise a question of what kind of fields should be created to capture the transcription and clear text, thereby making both the text and content searchable; and (3) a hierarchy of documents exist, and therefore the same transaction may be recorded in a day book, journal of accounts, and ledger book of accounts, etc., generating multiple instances of the same transaction.
Indeed, one of the primary goals of the GWFPP is to make accurate transcriptions of the documents available, in keeping with the long tradition of the Papers of George Washington documentary editing project. However, the types of information, or the “data,” contained in these documents are not easily accessible using common search and query techniques. The challenges, as described above, make it impossible to simply transcribe and put online, ready to be searched and understood document transcriptions. The solution involves a combination of transcription and corresponding data fields (where dittos, abbreviations, and short hand have been expanded), node references associating various content types, and term references connecting taxonomies. Additionally, Drupal provides a place to develop and manage taxonomy lists for specific content types, such as financial documents, to enhance the grouping and sorting of content and be used to identify relationships between different types of content.
The digital edition, released in 2017, allows users to:
- Read transcriptions of GW’s three ledger books of accounts.
- Perform simple and advanced searches on the documents and data.
- Explore documents by people, places, ships, occupations & titles, services, food & beverages, agriculture, and place types.
- Download search results, transcriptions, and data.
- Follow links to related correspondence in The Papers of George Washington Digital Editions (Rotunda and Founders Online).
- Additionally, those interested in editing and publishing financial documents can use the open-source editing platform to build robust, accessible documentary editions.
Developing this system has challenged us to think creatively about all aspects of the editorial and publication process, resulting in innovative ways for users to explore, analyze, and interact with the documents. To learn more about the Project and see the edition, please visit: financial.gwpapers.org.