Senate Panel Holds Hearing on Founding Fathers Papers

On February 7, 2008, the Senate Judiciary Committee convened a hearing to discuss the length of time it was taking for the completion of the compilation and annotation of the papers of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, John Adams and two projects encompassing the period prior to and during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, as well as his post-presidency. Also at issue was the limited public accessibility to the finished products, especially via the internet.

In late-December, Congress released the contents of the omnibus-spending bill that would fund federal agencies through the remainder of fiscal year 2008. Tucked inside the massive report accompanying the bill, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees expressed concern about the length of time it was taking to complete the publication of the Founding Fathers historical papers. They instructed the Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein to “accelerate the process” for completion of the projects and to develop a plan to make the papers available on-line “within a reasonable time frame.” The Archivist was given 90 days to report back to the committees, which will be late-March.

The leadoff witness was noted author David McCullough, who extensively relied on the Founders papers for his Pulitzer Prize winning biography of John Adams. McCullough was effusive in his praise of the published papers of the Founders. “Their value is unassailable, immeasurable. They are superbly edited. They are thorough. They are accurate. The footnotes are pure gold—many are masterpieces of close scholarship.”

However, McCullough made clear he was not merely endorsing expediting processing. Speaking of the work of the documentary editors, McCullough said, “They are the best in the business and the high quality of the work they do need not, must not be jeopardized or visciated in order to speed up the rate of production.” McCullough instead argued for doubling the investment in the project, which would allow the hiring of additional skilled scholars, “and thereby pick up the pace with no change in quality.”

Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein agreed that the process needed to be accelerated and made available on-line. But he stopped short of revealing what his plan to Congress for reaching those goals would be.

Dr. Weinstein did note that producing on-line versions of the Founders’ papers would require negotiation for the electronic rights with the copyright holders, namely university presses. He said that the presses and projects “have a long-standing financial interest in these collections as well as a commitment to thorough scholarship. At the same time scholarly presses have at the core of their mission open access to knowledge.”

Dr. Deanna Marcum, Associate Librarian for Library Services at the Library of Congress, urged committee members to consider allowing the Library of Congress to serve as the host for the digitized collections of the Founding Fathers papers and to make them accessible in a single website. She noted that the library has already digitized microfilm and made available all of the presidential papers of Washington, Jefferson and Madison available online.

Ms. Rebecca Rimel, President and CEO of the Pew Charitable Trusts, was the next to testify and stated, “the failure fo complete these projects has become a national embarrassment.” While echoing the views of the other witnesses that editing and annotating not be sacrificed to speed, she harshly criticized the pace, lack of oversight and costs to the consumers of the finished projects. “There are no benchmarks or reporting requirements, and no one has every questioned the efficiency of these programs or the pace of their progress.” She noted that the cost of a full set of the 26 volumes of the Papers of Alexander Hamilton costs $2,600.

Ms. Rimmel set forth three objectives for Congress to follow. First, Congress should draft a plan for the completion of the projects and conduct regular oversight until they are finished. Second, she urged the expedited completion of the letterpress projects, but accompanied by sufficient funding and more accountability and efficiency. Finally, she urged that the published volumes be digitized—along with the original, unannotated documents—and placed on a single, easily accessible website, such as the one proposed by the Library of Congress.

Dr. Stanley Katz was the next to testify. Dr. Katz is chairman of the board of the Founding Fathers Papers Inc., a nonprofit group that represents the editorial projects established to publish the papers of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. Dr. Katz noted that by their nature these projects take a long time. He noted that while the projects are proceeding with all deliberate speed, they have must be “speedy but deliberate.” He pointed out that these are works of scholarship that require craft skills and are not “an industrial process.” Dr. Katz noted that the pace has increased to the point that each project is publishing a volume per year. He also said that every one of the Founding Fathers projects is involved in the planning for or actually preparing its materials for digitization and subsequent electronic publication.

The controversy over the subject is far from over. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee may possibly hold an additional hearing on the subject and certainly the congressionally-mandated report by the Archivist in the spring will generate more discussion.