J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, November 14, 2008

A New Adams Archive at the M.H.S.

In addition to the Coming of the American Revolution web project that I’ve been writing about, this season the Massachusetts Historical Society unveiled its Founding Families: Digital Editions of the Papers of the Adamses section. This is still a work in progress, but it shows big promise.

The Founding Families: Digital Editions project, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and Harvard University Press, aims to put all the content of the published Adams Papers volumes and (eventually) the Winthrop Papers online in a searchable form.

This is separate from the M.H.S.’s long-standing (in web terms) Adams Family Papers: Electronic Archive, though the two overlap. Each has material and features that the other doesn’t.

The Adams Electronic Archive:

  • contains John Adams’s diary and autobiography and the letters he exchanged with his wife Abigail.
  • can be searched with modern spellings of words; those have been hidden in the H.T.M.L. coding, no doubt at great effort.
  • offers views of the actual documents.
The Founding Families Adams archive:
  • contains many more documents: the contents of every volume published in the Adams Papers series so far, including letters from other people besides John and Abigail, John’s legal papers, notes from the Continental Congress, and so on.
  • has an index that links to all the relevant documents in all the volumes.
  • can’t be searched with modern spellings, only with the spellings, misspellings, and abbreviations the correspondents actually used. Plus, there are still a few bugs in the search function programming as of this week. As a result, the index is the better way to go.
  • shows where documents fall in the printed volumes, in case you’re looking for a document by page number rather than date.
  • replicates the exact text of the printed volumes, and doesn’t show images of the documents themselves.
At this point, I find the first archive familiar and user-friendly while the second is frustrating, but that could change as more of its features are locked into place. That second contains much more information that can’t be found anywhere else online. (Everything in the first archive was published, albeit in an edited form, in the 1800s and is therefore in the public domain.)

As a test, I went looking for one of John Quincy Adams’s earliest preserved letters, asking his father (who was in Philadelphia) to buy him a notebook. First I had to figure out that I should look up my boy in the index under “JQA” rather than, oh, “Adams, John Quincy.” I couldn’t find a working chronological list of his letters, so I browsed the alphabetical topics list. I found a tantalizing index entry for “JQA / loses breeches,” but that led to a document about some diplomatic spat in France. Is that an error in the printed version? In transfering data to the digital? In my mind? By this time I’d given up on finding that early letter.

TOMORROW: I get lucky and trip over the trail of those breeches.

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