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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Saturday, June 15, 2013

Founders Online Live—Will Its Parent Agency Die?

This week the Founders Online website went live in beta form. This is a big deal, something I’ve been awaiting for years. I’ll let the site explain itself:
The National Archives, through its National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), has entered into a cooperative agreement with The University of Virginia Press to create this site and make freely available online the historical documents of the Founders of the United States of America.

Through this website, you will be able to read and search through thousands of records from George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison and see firsthand the growth of democracy and the birth of the Republic. . . .

Founders Online also includes transcriptions of thousands of documents that have not yet appeared in the published volumes, provided via our Early Access program.
The John Adams Papers have been available online freely for years through the Massachusetts Historical Society’s website. The Library of Congress made an older version of Washington’s papers available for free, but the University of Virginia’s newer, larger edition required a subscription. For the Franklin Papers, I believe that all one could read for free were the indexes. But now anyone can read and search every document that’s available in digital form.

Our tax dollars have long funded the scholarly projects to collect, edit, and publish important historical documents, including the papers of these national founders, for the benefit of the public and the world. The National Historical Publications and Records Commission is the agency that makes those grants, not just for Founders Online but for many smaller projects around the country. And for the past several years that agency has been targeted by congressional budget-cutters.

The National Humanities Alliance explains the situation:
For FY 2014, we urge Congress to provide at least $5 million (level funding) for the grants program of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. The Administration’s FY 2014 budget requests only $3 million for the NHPRC, an amount that will not support the ongoing programs and mission of the Commission at even a minimal level. It is up to the Congress to preserve this program, which has already been cut substantially in previous fiscal years.

Under the sequester, NHPRC’s funding declined to $4.75 million from $5 million under the CR [continuing resolution], which was a $2.0 million cut from the FY 2011 level of $7.0 million (and a decrease of $8.0 million from the FY 2010 level of $13.0 million).
Again, in 2010 the agency that’s bringing us Founders Online was funded at $13.0 million. In the current fiscal year (after sequestration), its budget is at $4.75 million, or far less than half. And there are further declines possible next year. If historical projects like this are a priority for us as a nation, we have to be ready to pay for them.


John L Smith Jr said...

I was just on this Beta Release Web site page ... I agree! For a researcher or a book writer, this source is a NATIONAL TREASURE. In the 1970s when my friend, Dr. Page Smith, was writing his two-volume mega-series on the American Revolution minus the Internet or any online resource (of course), he could only have dreamed on Founders Online! Thanks for the word, Mr. Bell!

Anonymous said...

These websites are invaluable to knuckleheads like me who are doing family history research with almost no financial resources. I simply can't afford to pay hundreds of dollars a year to subscribe to a website that may only have one or two documents that I need. I've actually gotten more help at no cost from the Frick Photoarchive and the MHS website than from other well-known sites that charge a fee.

I'll never know how my 5th great-grandfather's 1st Lieutenant commission ended up in John Adams' possession, but I'm grateful that the people at the Adams Family Papers sent me a scan of it, even though it wasn't available electronically!

I think these important bits of our personal and national history should be freely accessible to all Americans.