Isaac and Kitty were a married couple who were enslaved at Mount Vernon. Unfortunately, as a result of being enslaved by the Washington and Custis families, there are not many records that document the lives of Isaac and Kitty. In reviewing and visualizing George Washington’s correspondence and financial papers, we can recover some information about them—from the family and community they cultivated to the independent labor they pursued.
One of the most fun projects I have contributed to since coming to work at Mount Vernon as the in-house Washington Papers editor was the creation of The Situation Room Experience, an interactive game that requires users to assume the role of historical actors during George Washington’s presidency. A few presidential library sites have developed Situation Room scenarios as a tool to educate visitors and enliven their learning experiences. Mount Vernon’s version focuses on the neutrality crisis of 1792-93, often called The Citizen Genet Affair, after the French minister, Edmond Charles Genet, who tried to pressure the U.S. into supporting revolutionary France’s wars against Great Britain and the monarchies of Europe.
Every volume that The Washington Papers produces, we publish in print and digital formats. Our subscription-based digital edition, which is published by the University of Virginia Press’s electronic imprint Rotunda, is one of several online resources that result from our work. Used by thousands of people every year, the Papers of George Washington Digital Edition (PGWDE) is an especially valuable tool since it includes a cumulative index, which spans all volumes and series. The PGWDE also links readers directly to any document referenced in an annotation or editorial note, making it easy for users to discover other pertinent information. The nature of digital publication furthermore enables authors—or, in our case, documentary editors—to emend material after publication.
The zeroing in on the Washingtons’ lives that the financial papers provides is incredible; small details are captured and preserved, down to the exact day that sundries were purchased or that employees were paid. Even beyond the numbers, the language and phrasing of these documents provide a glimpse into the world of colonial Virginia.
George Washington has loomed large in my professional life, even though I only joined The Washington Papers’ full-time staff in 2017. This is because my work as an editorial assistant during graduate school on Presidential Series volumes 13 and 14 led me to my dissertation topic. One of Washington’s last great projects was founding the city named in his honor: the capital of the United States, Washington, D.C.
In late June, numerous textual-editing scholars will travel to Olympia, Washington, to attend the Association for Documentary Editing (ADE) Annual Meeting. This year, the ADE Seminar on Critical Issues will discuss the difficulties of digital publication of documentary editions, which can be exacerbated by limited financial and technological resources. As the moderator of this seminar panel, I have begun to consider what insights might result from this much-needed conversation.
Digital publication remains a challenge for many documentary editing projects, especially when dealing with complex documents such as farm reports, financial records, and ship logs. Traditionally, editors have relied upon TEI-based solutions (an XML format for humanities projects), often omitting those more complicated documents and focusing instead on correspondence, speeches, and diary entries.
In anticipation of the upcoming edition of the diary George Washington kept during his trip to Barbados, I worked with editors Lynn A. Price and Alicia K. Anderson to create an interactive map of Washington’s voyage. The map not only illustrates the ship’s progress and landing but also describes the weather encountered and the food eaten during the journey. Such details are revealed by selecting from the various elements included on the map. Users can customize the display by toggling the selection of these elements on the legend or by zooming in and out on the map.
One of the primary goals of the George Washington Financial Papers Project (GWFPP) has been to make Washington’s financial records freely accessible. The GWFPP team has worked tirelessly to provide accurate transcriptions as well as to build and illustrate relationships among people, places, and themes. However, what would be the point of all this if no one could use the website? In order to make sure the GWFPP site is accessible, efficient, navigable, and meaningful, we conducted usability testing in December 2016.
While the financial records detail Washington’s purchases, and thus his belongings, it is difficult to gain deeper meaning from the records in their raw form. We could look at each document line-by-line—discovering that Washington bought twenty bushels of corn one day in 1790 and then sold four pounds of beef the next—but we do not gain any broad historical insight from such information. In order to see meaningful patterns and trends, we must look at the data as a whole.