Project History

The Papers of the War Department 1784-1800 is a significant legacy digital public humanities project. Conceived in the early 1990s as a collection to be distributed on CD-ROM, it was an early example of an open-access documentary collection and of community-sourced transcribing.

The idea for this project formed in the late 1980s when project founder Ted Crackel began observed that. although many archivists and historians believed that the records of the War Department were completely destroyed by the fire in November 1800, there were many collections that contained copies of War Department documents. Crackel decided to undertake the effort of creating a virtual reconstitution of the scattered documents through a detailed index and finding aid. He soon realized, however, that the index would be too large to print, and that publication on the then-emerging medium of CD-ROM better suited the project. Moreover, such an electronic publication could include page images of the documents themselves. Crackel decided to put the directory and digitized document images on a CD-ROM, and to include in the database keywords and phrases from the documents—the persons, places, things, ideas, and issues mentioned.

From 1993 to 2002, funding from National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) allowed Crackel and a staff of researchers at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania to consult more than 3,000 collections and visit more than 200 repositories in search of copies of the documents that were destroyed in the 1800 fire. Digital images of those documents became the Papers' first database, but in 2004, Crackel left the project to accept a position as editor of the George Washington Papers.

The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM) took over the project in 2006 with funding from NHPRC and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and began two major phases of the documentary editing project. The first provided for the long process of migrating data from an Access database and hundreds of thousands of high-resolution digital images to a custom PHP database, and then for web-based publication of over 40,000 documents with basic finding data. The second phase funded the addition of several thousand more documents and more detailed descriptions by a group of talented editors to include the people, places, and items mentioned in each document, along with a summary of that document. The documentary editing phase of the Papers ended in 2012, while a third phase began: the community transcription project.

In July 2010, with an NEH Office of Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant and support from NHPRC, RRCHNM embarked upon an effort to build a generalized tool to facilitate the crowdsourcing of documentary transcriptions from cultural heritage materials. The result of that software development, design, and user testing was Scripto, a free, open source tool that enables content providers to crowdsource the transcription of their content.. The tool offers a lightweight, easy to implement way for cultural heritage organizations and digital archives to engage their users with the work of transcription. In March 2011, RRCHNM launched the first implementation of Scripto with the Papers. The addition of Scripto’s transcribing mechanism in 2011 boosted online visitation to this collection of early American federal documents, and the number of document views increased tremendously.

Since 2011, both the documentary collection and the community-sourced transcription project have engaged a variety of audiences, including scholars, students, genealogists, and history enthusiasts. The volunteers who have invested their time - from a few minutes to dozens of hours - engaged in close reading of documents through transcription because of their desire to do history. The project has been cited in scholarly research and used in countless classrooms.

In 2017, a desire to ensure the long-term sustainability of the project, and to better serve the audiences and transcribers, spurred RRCHNM to apply for funding to redesign the site’s interface to reflect the needs of its audiences, to move from the custom-built system to something which would better support upgrades and long-term maintenance. With the support of the NEH Office of Digital Humanities and the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), the Papers migrated to the Omeka S web publishing platform, with a new version of Scripto to integrate with the new platform.

The funding also enabled RRCHNM to improve the resources for the site’s users, including expanded guides for navigating, searching, and transcribing the collection as well as the addition of teaching modules which highlight material from the collection to teach about broader themes in the history of the early United States. The refreshed site launched in May 2019, setting the project on a stable foundation as it entered its third decade.