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Nearing Completion, the George Washington Financial Papers Project Will Expand Scholarship on Washington and the Versatility of the Digital Humanities

By Jennifer E. Stertzer, Senior Editor
January 29, 2015

Making George Washington’s financial papers accessible had been an early goal of the Washington Papers, but given the intricacies of the financial papers and our means of publication, very little had been done. In the 1980s, the Washington Papers published several cash accounts (in print) from the ledgers in the Colonial Series of the Papers of George Washington. Over the years, we included a few others as documents and used them for our annotations where possible. Things began to shift as we moved forward with our digital rendition of the letterpress volumes. We began to think about solutions for the financial papers, and our ideas grew and evolved with the huge advances made in the field of digital humanities in the last few years.

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 GWFPP is an innovative documentary editing project working to develop a free-access, open-source digital edition and editorial platform containing transcriptions of Washington’s three main ledgers.

When complete, users will be able to:

  • Read transcriptions of the ledgers
  • Search those documents for people, places, commodities, and currencies
  • Browse documents by account, place, ships, currency, occupation, and services
  • Perform searches that trace and compare transactions by type, individual, and content over any time period
  • Download data
  • Follow links to related correspondence in the Papers of George Washington Digital Edition

Additionally, those interested in editing and publishing financial documents will be able to use the open-source editing platform to build robust, accessible documentary editions.

01-29 JES Ledger A

A screenshot of the GWFPP website.

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:

  • Developing document templates for both traditional financial documents, such as account books and ledgers, as well as receipts, journals, and memoranda
  • Developing taxonomies and data visualizations
  • Constructing an open-source content management/editorial/publication platform using the content management system Drupal

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 a 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 more robust displays and searching, querying, and browsing
  2. Both the backend (where content and data are managed) and frontend (i.e., the website with which users will interact) are managed in the same system
  3. Drupal is open-source, meaning that its code is collaboratively 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 standardized ways, and the formatting of financial documents carries implied meanings
  2. Transactions are full of dittos or duplicate entries, 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
  3. A hierarchy of documents exist, and therefore the same transaction may be recorded in a day book, account, and ledger, etc., generating multiple instances of the same transaction
01-29 JES Ledger A (Image 1)

A screenshot of the GWFPP website.

On January 14, 2016, the GWFPP team hosted a day-long conference in the Rubenstein Leadership Hall at Mount Vernon, bringing together individuals who are engaged with financial documents. These experts are also familiar with digital approaches that can make these important records both available and intellectually accessible. At the meeting, participants presented current work and the GWFPP team presented the project’s history, methodology, discoveries, and lessons learned, as well as next steps and possibilities.

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. Work will continue over the next six months to perfect both the digital edition and platform, and both will be available in the fall of 2016.