Documentary Editing (What We Do)

The mission of a documentary editing project is twofold:

  • provide accurate, readable, and accessible transcriptions of historical documents
  • provide readers with the proper information to understand and use the text through the process of annotation

The Documentary Editing Process

Step 1: Authenticating the Manuscript
Before preparing a document for publication, editors must verify the signature, handwriting, date and content of the manuscript.  Editors must also ensure that the paper and ink used in the manuscript align with the standards of the day.  Finally, editors secure the provenance, or proven history, of the manuscript  in question.  Although this process takes a tremendous amount of time, it is crucial in maintaining the integrity of the papers and the project.

Step 2: Selecting Version of Document
For documents from the 18th century it is common to find multiple drafts or copies of letters in bound volumes called letter books, in which individuals would copy the text of letters they had sent and received. Editors prefer to utilize the document that was physically sent but when the official document is unavailable they may use copies from letter books. In this case, they then have to decide which of the copies to utilize, as there may be differences in terms of content and date.

Step 3: Transcribing the Document
The style of 18th-century handwriting, along with abbreviations, spelling, capitalization, and grammar that had not yet been standardized make the process of transcribing a document very difficult.  Deciphering handwriting and sentences in 18th-century documents is made difficult by a lack of formal education and proper training amongst many individuals in this time period. In addition, physical conditions of the document-such as faded ink, damage to the manuscript, and unclear photocopies-can be problematic to transcription.  The editors’ goal is to preserve the original spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and paragraphing of the manuscript, as well as the author’s intentions and words.

Step 4: Annotating the Document
In annotating documents, the editor identifies people, places, and events that the reader probably wouldn’t know, in addition to any further information that would help the reader understand the document. This process requires thorough research, which is then used to write short, concise summaries on specific points. Annotations also contain information about where the original document is located, what textual problems the editor may have found in the manuscript, and what alternative versions of the document may exist. Annotations can also include other substantive information mentioned within the document, such as attached maps or illustrations, or relevant letters and enclosures.

The work of properly annotating and indexing each document is one of the most time-consuming tasks the editors perform.
– Philander D. Chase, Editor Emeritus of the Papers of George Washington