What I Learned from Camp Edit: A Glimpse into the Practice of Documentary Editing

TOPICS: Documentary Editing, Editors in the Field

by Katie Blizzard, Communications Specialist
July 25, 2018

In June of this year, two of my Washington Papers colleagues (Kim Curtis and Dana Stefanelli) and I attended the Institute for the Editing of Historical Documents (IEHD), sometimes affectionately referred to as Camp Edit. The five-day workshop, held each year prior to the Association for Documentary Editing (ADE) conference, introduces new editors to a mix of technologies and strategies for creating a scholarly edition. And so, in an effort to provide a glimpse into documentary editing, I would like to share what I learned at Camp Edit.

Syllabus and notes from the first day of Camp Edit 2018.

Broadly, Camp Edit examines the three goals of editing, common to all projects: (1) the production of an authoritative text (2) that illuminates significant records (3) for use by a wide and varied audience. In other words, the primary considerations involved in developing an edition include content, purpose, and audience since they influence most, if not all, editorial decisions. These decisions include the selection of documents, the process of transcription, the form and intent of annotation, and the method of publication (i.e., digital or print; if digital, which digital platform). Each option, of course, brings unique opportunities and constraints that can discourage, favor, or generally affect the other areas of consideration.

So, now that documentary editing has been defined, what does the process look like? It includes document collection, selection, transcription, and annotation, with each step often overlapping another. The first step, document collection, begins with a survey of known materials. The documents found then reveal the larger picture of materials that may exist and suggest where they may be located. By tracking information about these records—such as the date and place of writing, correspondents, topics covered, or changes in material ownership—editors may be able to identify the location of more elusive papers.

An introductory exercise to coding in XML.

Once all efforts have been made to locate digital images or photocopies of the documents, editors then choose which documents should be included and how they should be organized. As we learned from our readings as well as through engaging with other members of the class, an edition is not limited to the traditional chronological presentation of a singular individual’s or family’s papers; they can also be organized by theme or according to the original author’s intent.

Following the selection process, a project then begins (or in many cases, dives deeper into) transcription. Editors must record their methodology along the way in order to ensure consistency in presentation as well as to carefully balance the competing needs of accessibility and accuracy. A typical element of a project style guide (the standards of transcription formatting and presentation defined by the project), for example, details how abbreviations should be represented. For some projects, it is necessary to expand abbreviations, even though the original text does not, because they are no longer in common use and thus would be difficult for the modern reader to understand. One of our assigned readings, A Handbook of Practice, illustrated the variety of options possible for handling the transcription of complex or archaic text, with each unique style accompanied by a compelling argument for its use.

Concluding the editorial process is annotation (though numerous additional steps, such as indexing, may follow). Like transcription, annotation can be represented in numerous ways, such as footnotes, essays, glossaries, or a combination of these elements. IEHD faculty members, who are experts in the creation of both print and digital editions, advised us that the two methods of publication can affect editorial decisions very differently. Without the same physical restrictions as a print edition, for instance, a digital edition can display more content. As a result, editors may include more documents or annotation than they would in a print edition.

Editors discuss how project support and advocacy begins with networking at events.

In order to create a strong edition, editors must always consider the purpose of and intended audience for their editions. Ideally, these elements are determined before any step of the editorial process substantially begins and then examined again during each phase. Those seeking to create digital editions may respond to these needs by creating wireframes or outlines in order to visualize the layout and components of their editions. Near the end of the process, digital editors may then seek feedback regarding their decisions by undergoing user testing, like the George Washington Financial Papers project did in November 2016.

By planning in advance for purpose and audience, editors not only strengthen their edition, but also their ability to cultivate financial, institutional, and public support, as they can more easily articulate how their work directly impacts scholars, teachers, students, and others. Such advocates can be fostered through a myriad of activities, from building personal connections with other editorial projects, to educating the public and scholarly communities about project developments and insights, to engaging private donors or state and federal representatives.

As outgoing ADE President Paul Israel concluded in his Camp Edit graduation speech, when done well, editions serve as “interventions in [the corresponding] subfield of history.”

For more information about our editorial process, see our page on documentary editing and read our blog posts for additional insights.