Mary Nelson describes the archival work that lies behind Quill's digital editions.


Mary Nelson describes the archival work that lies behind Quill's digital editions.


One of Quill’s most valuable contributions to understanding formal negotiations is the archival research which takes place before a project begins, and often carries on throughout the course of the project. There is a misconception that the records of conventions and negotiations are neatly organized and ready for review at any given moment. In our experience this is far from the case. Considerable effort must be invested at the outset to discover which documents have been preserved and where they can be accessed. Mary Nelson has led the student research team on a number of Quill projects. She takes us through the process of tracking down documents and liaising with the relevant archives.

I joined the Quill Project team at Utah Valley University (UVU) in September 2018. The editors on the project were a few months into modelling the Utah 1895 Constitutional Convention, and it was while working on material for this convention that I first discovered the importance of archives. The team at UVU had been fortunate enough to work with a record that was online in a simple text format. This had made starting the project fairly straightforward. However, as the modelling progressed, it became clear that there were gaps in the official record. By the time I joined the team, the project lead was working with the Utah State Archives to review the material from the State Convention held in the Archives. She was able to obtain three docket books which contained the information needed fill the gaps in the official journal: two were dockets of propositions relating directly to the Constitution, and the third was the Docket of Reports of Standing Committees of Constitutional Convention. For every file introduced or committee report made, the docket books were referred to. For example, the Proceedings of the Convention stated that “Mr. Eichnor offered for insertion in the Constitution an article on preamble and bill of rights.” (Quill, e7015) The Proceedings of the Convention did not offer a detailed account but they did provide the missing information we needed: the date that the proposal was made, the proposer, and the title of the proposal. Using that information, we were able to conclude that the corresponding file number in the docket book went with the proposal in e7015. This early encounter with archival material and the work of the State Archives in preserving it and preparing it for use taught me how vital archives were to the work of Quill.

Since then, I have had the opportunity to work with a number of different archives and archivists. As part of the preparation for the projects to be completed under the National Endowment for the Humanities grant, we made contact with archivists in eleven western states. These conversations highlighted for me the different attitudes to document preservation between U.S. states. My experience with the Utah State Archives had led me to assume that every state would have similarly well-organized and well-maintained archives. I could not have been more wrong. One state informed us that the original draft of their state constitution, as well as the majority of documents relating to the state convention, were in a water-damaged box and growing mold. Another state only had the journal. They believed other documents and records existed, but had no idea where they might be held. Some states had digitized all their records; others had preserved the documents but they were only available in hard copy on site. There was no consistent approach to preserving and maintaining documents across different state archives.

Our archival research has also taken us beyond state archives. Another project I had the opportunity to work on was the Reconstruction Amendments. When we were first considering the viability of the project, we were unsure if a digital copy of the official record was available. We had access to the journals of the Senate of the United States and the United States House of Representatives. These were essentially bullet points or highlights of proceedings during the congressional sessions. We were able to use them to decipher how long discussions surrounding each amendment lasted, but they did not provide enough information to model the complete negotiations.

After a bit of research, the editors discovered that the University of Northern Texas (UNT) Digital Library had made available online scans of documents held in the National Archives. This was a different kind of archival work for us. After some digging we were able to find the pages we needed to model the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Although we were using the digital library at UNT, we were working with documents housed at the National Archives. We were then able to play our own part in improving access to the original archival materials by completing transcriptions of the records obtained from UNT and modelling them in the Quill platform.

One of the most extensive archives I have worked with is held in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois. In summer 2019, students at the Center for Constitutional Studies were embarking on a project on the Illinois State Constitutional Convention of 1970. In line with Quill practice, the first step was to see whether sufficient records existed to make modelling the Convention viable. As there was little information available online, we contacted the Illinois State Archives. They in turn directed us to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. We were able to locate a few boxes in their online catalogue that might relate to the Convention, but they could only be accessed on site in Illinois.

After a few weeks of preparation, we travelled to Illinois hoping there would be sufficient documentation to model the 1970 Convention. We had identified several archive boxes that contained documents relating to the Convention or personal belongings of Convention delegates and had planned on two days at the Library to sift through the material in the boxes. Halfway through the second day, the Library’s manuscript manager came to talk with us to see if there was anything he could help with before we left. As we explained the Quill platform and the work we were hoping to do, he walked over to a shelf and pulled out a binder with a list of sixty-three 10”x12”x15” boxes containing the full records of the Convention, each committee, and other supplementary material. The records held in the Library exceeded all expectations. To date, this is the only project that will be completed with committees modelled from their own records. These documents had not been digitized and were only available on site so we made arrangements with the manuscript manager to return and digitize the material.

Over the weeks that followed, we met with archivists at Utah Valley University and neighbouring Brigham Young University to discuss the different technologies available and methods of scanning historic documents. After several weeks of preparation, we travelled back to Illinois with a flatbed scanner, one feed scanner, and a camera stand. We managed to scan twelve boxes in the two days we had available. From the materials scanned on that trip, our research team have been able to work on the Illinois Convention project for almost two years. The collection of digital materials we produced in those two days has has enabled everyone to carry on working remotely on the project during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the future, another trip to obtain the remaining records will be necessary.

When embarking on a new project, it is essential to allow sufficient time for planning and preparation. It is very unlikely that the records of a convention or negotiation will be preserved in one place. More likely, it will take several weeks of work to pull together the materials needed to fully understand a particular text. By allowing sufficient time to gather the records at the outset, editors ensure that a detailed and rigorous project is produced in the most efficient way possible. However, even after taking the time for significant preparatory work, it is not uncommon to uncover gaps in the record as the modelling proceeds. When this happens, the solution is to return to the starting point and identify resources in the archives to plug the gap. The ease with which the end-user is able to navigate and understand a negotiation within the Quill platform belies the meticulous and detailed work of editors locating and presenting documents from the archives, and the vital work of archivists in preserving and maintaining those documents.

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