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Documentary Editing

Posted in DH Blog

By: Hayley Brazier and Heidi Kaufman

Welcome back to the blog! DH@UO is hosting two-part series on Excel Basics for Humanists. The second workshop is this Friday, May 11, from 3:00-4:30 in Knight Library 267b. We still have spots available! If you are interested in attending, please head over to this website to RSVP and to download the two programs you will need for the workshop. If you missed the first workshop, not to worry! On May 11 we’ll review the concepts we covered in the first workshop.

A grey and blue flyer stating time and date of the Excel Basics for Humanists workshop

Today we are discussing documentary editing, a field that has developed since the mid-twentieth century and has, in more recent years, deeply integrated tools from the digital humanities. While you might at first associate the term “documentary editing” with the film genre, “documentaries,” the term actually refers to historical documents, the kind you find in archives. According to the Association for Documentary Editing, “Documentary editing is the craft of preparing historical writings for publication in print or online. The goal is to produce an authoritative edition of the material, with an accurate transcription of the original manuscript and an editorial framework that facilitates understanding of the text and context.”

Documentary editors curate a selection of documents that paint a holistic, historical picture of the person or topic at hand. These curations are often annotated and published in books, sometimes in multiple volumes. University presses then usually publish these volumes, or, the documents are published online. Wherever the documents are ultimately published, in print or online (or both!), the major goal of documentary editing is to make historical documents more accessible to researchers and the general public. Hence, documentary editing is noteworthy because it functions as both a form of scholarly editing and public humanities.

In an average day of work, documentary editors will catalog, digitize, transcribe, proofread, annotate, and edit a collection of papers for publication. And because many archival collections contain thousands upon thousands of documents, this is a difficult task that requires editors to have expertise not only in disciplinary literacy, but also in digital literacy. Documentary editions are published on a variety of publishing platforms.  Two of the most prominent platforms are Drupal and Omeka.  Editors working with these sites learn how to build the site in ways that reflect the historical significance of the content.  Yet, editors of documentary editions also have to develop a workflow practice that enables them to publish content with accuracy and consistency.  Every handwritten document has to be digitized, either reproduced as an image and/or transcribed into a format that can be made searchable and accessible.  To complicate matters, documentary editors are often responsible for thousands or millions of pages of primary materials.  In some cases they may also be working with other media forms, such as taped radio shows, photographs, or record albums. Each item must be reproduced, transcribed, edited, and published consistently and accurately.  Knowing how to use a site’s digital affordances helps the editor to draw out the special features of the texts they’re creating.  But knowing how to translate paper documents into another format, and how readers use those formats, is obviously just as important.

Screenshot of Einstein Project Papers homepage with a picture of Einstein smiling
The website homepage of the Einstein Papers Project, a large documentary editing project at California Institute of Technology (Photo source:

Two ongoing projects are fantastic examples of documentary editing. First, a team at the California Institute of Technology are working on the Einstein Papers Project, which organizes, digitizes, contextualizes, and publishes Einstein’s papers. The team includes historians, physicists, translators, IT specialists, and administrative assistants. So far, the project’s team has published fourteen volumes of materials under the title, The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, which “provides the first complete picture of Einstein’s massive written legacy.” The volumes span roughly two years each, the fourteenth volume ending in the year 1925 (meaning there are sixteen more volumes to come!). For researchers and the public interested in Einstein’s life and times, these published books are an invaluable place to find primary source materials.

Another exciting documentary editing project is taking place at George Washington University, where a group of documentary editors are working on the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project. This documentary editing project will publish its sources in both print and online. The five-volume print series will cover Roosevelt’s political life, while the online publications will cover Roosevelt’s journalism and public speeches.

So far, the University of Virginia Press has published the first and second print volumes.

Screen shot of the homepage of the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, with a picture of Roosevelt standing and smiling at microphone
The website homepage of the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project at George Washington University (Photos source:

The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project is also drawing on the public for help by asking them to submit any primary source documents they may own concerning Eleanor Roosevelt, a form of public humanities crowdsourcing. When the American public wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt she often wrote back, meaning many families have Roosevelt’s response letters sitting in their attics! These personal response letters could be integrated into the project’s print and online publications. 

Documentary editing is a fantastic career for humanities scholars with an interest in editing, history, archival studies, cultural preservation, and the digital humanities. Documentary editing exemplifies both the public humanities and the digital humanities fields. Head over to the Association for Documentary Editing to learn more about developing a career in documentary editing.


  1. Lorraine Berreth

    It is amazing that the paper generated with and about Einstein is so voluminous. But more fascinating to me will be when the project is completed on Eleanor Roosevelt. Fun thinking that an old correspondence from Eleanor, pressed between the pages of an old book, or tucked into a shoebox with old photos and passed down through the family, will now be contextualized and appreciated!

    • hbrazier

      We are glad you enjoyed the post, Lorraine! And I would agree, the idea of having an unpublished Eleanor Roosevelt letter sitting in your attic is beyond cool.


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