First Monday

Letter to the


On Documentary Editing

Date: Tue, 28 Oct 1997 22:27:54 -0500
From: "David R. Chesnutt" (
Subject: Richard Cox on the subject of Documentary Editing

Dear Mr. Valauskas:

In the abssence of a response link on Richard Cox's recent article [Editor's note: in the August, 1997 issue], I address my comments to you:

As usual, Richard Cox has linked the purpose of publishing the papers of Americans who have played central roles in shaping our nation's history to the preservation of their papers. Publishing the papers George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson - or for that matter Samuel Gompers, Susan B. Anthony, and Margaret Sanger - is not about the preservation of their papers. Publication is about helping us understand the past.

I find it ironic that Richard Cox as an archivist fails to understand the purpose of publishing source materials which document our history. One has only to browse the Web to see that many of our state archives are rushing to put their primary source materials on the Internet.

As for the question of money well spent, we could easily argue that publication is far less costly than preservation. But that should not be an issue. The real issue is whether or not we as a nation should preserve the important records of our heritage and make them available so those who come after us can understand their roots.

For what's it's worth, it seems to me that preserving the records of our past and selectively publishing them are equally worthwhile goals. Thomas Jefferson once remarked that we should not keep those records in "vaults." Instead, he said, we should publish them widely. I expect that most archivists would agree, even if Richard Cox does not.

There is much more to be said about the importance of publishing America's documentary heritage and making it available to high schools which offer Advanced Placement Courses, to public libraries, and to libraries in colleges ranging from two-year institutions to universities at the highest levels. But that is another story and one which is tangential to Cox's arguments.

For the present, we must be content with print publications which serve to inform scholars, students and the public. But as we look toward the future, the publications of archivists and scholars alike will reach even greater audiences as we begin to publish on the Internet. In short, it's time to quit bickering over money and join forces to preserve and publish America's documentary heritage.

[David Chesnutt is a past president of the Association for Documentary Editing, senior editor of the Papers of Henry Laurens, and Director of the Model Editions Partnership ( Responses should be directed to

On Documentary Editing: Reply

Date: Wed, 29 Oct 1997 15:14:33 -0500 (EST)
From: richard cox (
Subject: Re: First Monday
To: "Edward J. Valauskas" (

Dear Mr. Valauskas:

I appreciate Dr. Chesnutt's response to my essay and the opportunity to reply to it. My reply is brief.

Dr. Chesnutt suggests that I have misread the purpose of the documentary editions. These editions are "not about the 'preservation' of . . . papers." Their "publication is about helping us understand the past." However, as I documented in my own essay, the appeal of many of the editors and their allies to continue support for these editions was on the basis of preservation. My own critique was in response to one of their own fundamental arguments. Indeed, in Dr. Chesnutt's own letter, he writes that the "real issue is whether or not we as a nation should preserve the important records of our heritage and make them available so those who come after us can understand their roots." Fine. My argument is that the long time and great expense currently being devoted to these editions is NOT the BEST way to accomplish such an important goal.

Dr. Chesnutt also chastizes me for being against publishing these records "widely." I am NOT against this at all. I believe that all of our archival records and historical manuscripts should be widely accessible, but of course not all can be published. Microfilm, digitization and placement on Web sites, and selective print publication can all play a role in this process. But, taking a century to publish the papers of one historical figure or one family in expensive letterpress editions does not seem to me to be the best solution for increased accessibility. The editors of these projects first should consider how to make these papers as accessible as possible through other means of dissemination and second reflect on the fact that the quantity of records that they are able to publish in traditional print means is but an infinitesmal portion of the our nation's documentary heritage. Actually, in this sense, I agree with Dr. Chesnutt that we should "join forces to preserve and publish America's documentary heritage" over the Internet and in other expeditious ways, but this may require documentary editors to be willing to re-evaluate their stance that documentary editing is a process resulting in bound volumes taking decades to produce.

I am a firm advocate for the maintenance of our documentary heritage, as my many writings over the past quarter of a century all support. My reason for writing my First Monday essay was to advance the same objective that editors like Dr. Chesnutt say they support. But my vantage point is looking out from the thousands of repositories with millions of pages of archival records and the hundreds of thousands of institutions and individuals producing future archives in electronic form and needing intervention now.

Richard J. Cox
Associate Professor
Department of Library and Information Sciences
School of Information Sciences
University of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, PA 15260 USA
Voice: 412-624-3245
FAX: 412-648-7001

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