Topic: Erica Cavanaugh

Making the Case for Drupal

By Erica Cavanaugh, CDE Project Developer
October 27, 2017

Digital publication remains a challenge for many documentary editing projects, especially when dealing with complex documents such as farm reports, financial records, and ship logs. Traditionally, editors have relied upon TEI-based solutions (an XML format for humanities projects), often omitting those more complicated documents and focusing instead on correspondence, speeches, and diary entries. Beyond that, these TEI-encoded documents need additional work. The documents need to be transformed from TEI into another code and then a custom publication environment needs to be developed. As a result, many projects struggle to use that model as a solution without external support. In order to address this issue, the Center for Digital Editing (CDE) has turned toward the open-source content management system Drupal.

Drupal is a freely available, open-source content management system. Its flexibility has allowed for the creation of diverse websites, including,, university websites, and e-commerce sites. While it has a steep learning curve compared to other content management systems, it can be fully customized, giving users complete control over the types of metadata captured, defining relationships between content, displaying content, and developing user interaction. These features make Drupal ideal for digital humanities projects, such as digital documentary editions.

At its core, Drupal is written in PHP (a server-side scripting language) and uses MySQL (an open source relational database) to store its content. Customizations are then introduced with the installation of modules, which extend core functionality, and themes in order to modify site appearance. Conveniently, Drupal’s active user and developer community has contributed code, modules, and themes useful for digital documentary editions and other scholarly projects. These modules thus alleviate the need for projects to create custom code and significantly reduces the amount of “code” maintenance on the site. Module updates are fairly easy to install, too. (Those familiar with WordPress will find these updates to be similar to the process of using and updating plugins.)

For the CDE, these modules have allowed us to capture various types of metadata, develop an editorial interface, manage document workflow, and create a digital edition for both traditional types of documents and the more complex ones. Let’s look at our work in creating a user-friendly editorial apparatus.

So far, we have created fields for capturing metadata and the various elements of a transcribed document including dateline, salutation, body text, closing, and signature. Using these fields has made it easier to digitally transcribe documents as well as standardize their formatting. Moreover, by fielding each aspect, it is easier to export documents in various formats: they can be printed as PDFs, exported as Word documents, CSV files, or even mapped to XML schemas like TEI.

Another feature we have customized is the WYSIWYG or text editor. For many Drupal users, the standard WYSIWYG editor works well enough as is, making it easy to bold, italicize, underline, strikethrough, and superscript text, as well as list items. But documentary editors often need to do more than that. For some, it is important to apply small caps, indent the text, align bits of text left and right, or even replicate marginalia written sideways. While it is possible to enter the HTML and CSS by hand to implement this formatting, editors frequently are not familiar enough with HTML and CSS to do so. Such high-level customizations would also make it difficult for students to significantly contribute to these editions. Minor customizations to the WYSIWYG editor style sheet that are shared between Drupal installations, however, make it easy for editors and students to edit text as needed.

Drupal also simplifies the management of document workflow and the tracking of editorial changes. In order to do this, we have incorporated a couple of modules. One of these includes the Workflow module, an installation that allows for the creation of a customized document workflow. Using this module, we can create stages tailored to individual projects, identify the number of documents in a particular stage, and define which users can move a document from one stage to the next. Additionally, we can see who has done what and when, create a search interface to find documents in a particular stage, establish a student work portfolio, and bulk-publish groups of documents based on their stage.

Another module allows us to see versions and changes made to a document or other record, such as an identification. For ease of document management, each version of a record includes information about the date and user. Additionally, versions can be compared side-by-side, making it possible to tell what was changed. This feature is particularly useful when dealing with difficult-to-read words and transcriptions, as well as when drafting identifications.

For many projects, capturing metadata, completing editorial work, and managing the documents are all performed in an environment separate from the publication platform. With Drupal, however, we are able to digitally publish documents in the same environment in which the materials are prepared. Any number of documents or transcriptions can be published at the click of a button, and information need only be captured one time in order to create multiple, dynamic displays of the content, such as timelines, maps, and other site-generated visualizations. As we continue to advance, we can also look for ways to engage more with the public user.

Visualizing George Washington’s Voyage to Barbados

by Erica Cavanaugh, Research Editor
August 3, 2017

In anticipation of the upcoming edition of the diary George Washington kept during his trip to Barbados, I worked with editors Lynn A. Price and Alicia K. Anderson to create an interactive map of Washington’s voyage. The map not only illustrates the ship’s progress and landing but also describes the weather encountered and the food eaten during the journey. Such details are revealed by selecting from the various elements included on the map. Users can customize the display by toggling the selection of these elements on the legend or by zooming in and out on the map.

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Testing the Financial Papers Website

by Erica Cavanaugh, Research Editor
March 17, 2017

One of the primary goals of the George Washington Financial Papers Project (GWFPP) has been to make Washington’s financial records freely accessible. The GWFPP team has worked tirelessly to provide accurate transcriptions as well as to build and illustrate relationships among people, places, and themes. However, what would be the point of all this if no one could use the website? In order to make sure the GWFPP site is accessible, efficient, navigable, and meaningful, we conducted usability testing in December 2016. Using the University of Virginia’s Scholars’ Lab, we invited students and some faculty members to explore the site and assess its navigability and accessibility.

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Documentary Editing at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute

By Cathy Moran Hajo, Director of the Jane Addams Papers Project
July 1, 2016

IMG_20160617_124340732-300x222Since 2001, the Digital Humanities Summer Institute, held annually in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, has been an annual gathering of technologists, scholars, librarians, graduate and undergraduate students…and editors. For the past three years, Jennifer Stertzer (Washington Papers) and Cathy Hajo (The Jane Addams Papers Project), joined this year by Erica Cavanaugh (Washington Papers), have offered a course titled “Conceptualising and Creating Digital Editions,” one of a rich slate of hands-on and theoretical week-long immersions into digital humanities.

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The George Washington Financial Papers Project: Building Content-Specific Taxonomies and System Specifications

By Senior Editor Jennifer Stertzer & Research Editor Erica Cavanaugh
April 28, 2016

One of the many interesting challenges the George Washington Financial Papers Project (GWFPP) team has faced is how best to make content accessible, or more accurately, intellectually accessible. This is hardly a new challenge, though, as editors have always worked to move beyond mere availability.

Regardless of approach (whether print or digital), documentary editions are created to make documents and content accessible: transcriptions make hard-to-decipher text readable; annotations provide contextualization and aid in understanding; and indexes allow users to search for both explicit text as well as indirect references, concepts, themes, and ideas. Indeed, several of the project’s goals relate directly to this intellectual accessibility: to provide accurate and understandable transcriptions and manuscript images, to supply context for these materials, and to create an opportunity for reader/user engagement.

What makes this challenge particularly interesting for the project has been the opportunity to create accessibility while developing a content management/publication platform. This allows us to experiment with how best to organize and structure the content within the system so that we can build a variety of access points. We will explore the different aspects of this process in the next few blog posts from the GWFPP team, beginning with our work with taxonomies.

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The Financial Papers Project Visits the Library of Congress

By Erica Cavanaugh
January 23, 2015

Erica is a Research Assistant for the Financial Papers Project.

The Financial Papers Project at the Papers of George Washington focuses on GW’s numerous account books, which illustrate the financial aspects of his everyday life. We have primarily worked with scanned digital images from the Library of Congress website when doing transcriptions, and have been trying to gain a better understanding of Washington himself. Recently however, I was given the opportunity to visit the Library Congress with Senior Editor Jennifer Stertzer, in order to actually see, touch, and use the original financial documents housed there.

Upon arrival, we were able to walk through the closed stacks, seeing the vast number of volumes and documents, which are no longer open to the public. The documents covered a variety of topics, including a number of the presidents. Many of the documents have been microfilmed and are also available online for public use. After seeing the closed stacks, we made our way to the reading room for the manuscript archives. We were assigned a locker where our bags, jackets, and anything other than a phone or laptop were stored, and were then provided with paper and pencils. Once settled, a cart with the financial volumes we requested was brought out and we were able to begin.

Each of the financial documents and books were in different physical conditions. Some of the account books were in their original bindings and relatively easy to manage considering their age, while others were extremely fragile and delicate. Additionally, there were a few books that had been repaired and rebound by the conservation department at the Library of Congress. Due to the fact that a number of the books were in the original binding and were fragile we needed to take certain precautions. These precautions included the use of cradles to view a number of the materials. The cradles stopped the books from opening too far, preventing any additional cracking of the pages or spine of the books.

While viewing the original material and handwriting was interesting and allowed us to fully comprehend the various sizes of the account books, the purpose of our visit was to verify the order of the material online, which we were using for our transcriptions. Jennifer and I went through a number of the volumes page by page in order to make sure we hadn’t missed anything. By doing this, we realized that some of the material had been difficult to scan due to its fragile state. Because of this, numbers or text written towards the center of the book did not always show in the digital image. By using the original documents, we were able to update the transcriptions in the database with the previously unknown text.

Our final goal of visiting the Library of Congress was to gain some deeper insight into the material by conversing with Julie Miller, an Early American Historian at the Library of Congress who is also currently working on this material. By conversing with one another, we were able to see what we each thought about particular documents and account books. A number of questions were asked, some of which were as simple as “what is this,” and “why is it here.” Some questions we were able to answer for one another and others still remain unanswered.

Overall, our visit to the Library of Congress was both fascinating and insightful. We were able to handle the original documents, and update and correct some of our transcriptions. Additionally, we gained a better understanding of the numerous account books George Washington kept, how they may have been related to one another, and at times the purpose of particular books. As the project progresses, I hope we are able to visit again.