The project where I work, The Papers of James Monroe, is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities. A large part of our (very lean) budget comes from the NEH; we have an editor, an associate editor (me), and a part-time editorial assistant, plus students who transcribe original writings for us. Our project, like the other founding fathers papers projects, transcribes historical documents, researches annotations that help explain the content of the documents, and publishes them.
My NEH-funded position as a documentary editor has meant more than employment; I have learned and grown as a historian in my five years at the Monroe Papers. Graduate school training is focused on big-picture arguments and mastering historiography, but documentary editing zeroes in on the personal and granular pieces of history. It’s not just a question of the chronology of large events; my research can be as specific as locating a person in the morning, afternoon, and evening of the same date two hundred years ago. This attention to detail has made me a better storyteller in both my teaching and writing.
The research that documentary editing requires has added both breadth and depth to my historical knowledge. On a given day I might need to track down a speech in the British parliament, the story of the failed annexation of a Pacific Island, and the fate of an escaped slave. Particularly in the case of James Monroe, who spent many years as a diplomat and then Secretary of State, my work as an editor has vastly expanded my knowledge of diplomatic and world history. I am also comfortable doing research in government archives, which I had not done before, and have a much better grasp of the ins and outs of how government worked in early America.
I have enjoyed doing a job that I know is producing resources that will be used by present and future generations. Our volumes make scattered correspondence in poor handwriting readily available to historians. Beyond the published editions, the work we do informs interpretation at the James Monroe Museum and Monroe’s Highland, adding enormously to the editions’ impact. The Monroe Papers is only one of many such documentary editing projects doing the nitty-gritty, behind-the-scenes work that makes the writings and lives of the founding generation accessible, all thanks to the NEH.