Founding Fathers to make jump from history book to Web

Wednesday - 10/5/2011, 12:21pm EDT

Kathleen Williams, executive director, National Historical Publications and Records Commission

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By Jack Moore
Federal News Radio

The next thing you know, the Founding Fathers could be on Facebook.

The National Archives has inked a deal to provide access to thousands of the historical papers of Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and more — online.

The National Historical Publications and Records Commission, part of the National Archives and Records Administration, signed an agreement with the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities to provide access to some 68,000 historical papers.

Kathleen Williams, executive director of NHPRC, which is part of the National Archives, joined the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Amy Morris to discuss the "Founder's Online" project — a "pretty vast" undertaking, she said.

"The whole effort, in a nutshell, is to put these materials, in one place online: the papers of six principles figures of the founding era of our country," Williams said.

The latest agreement deals only with the previously unpublished papers of the Founders, she said. A previous agreement governing published documents brings the total to something like 185,000 documents, she added.

The material posted online will be transcripts of documents, not scans of the actual documents themselves. But this is actually an advantage, Williams said.

"If you've ever tried to read an 18th-century handwritten document, it's often extremely difficult to do so, and you can lose patience and not even understand what's going on," she added.

Editorial teams have been working for years to painstakingly transcribe the original documents and provide context, she said.

The first spate of materials — about 70,000 documents — will be made available starting in June 2012, Williams said. The fully searchable database will be available from the National Archives website.