So, You Want to Create a Digital Project

Have you found a hidden gem of a collection that you want to share with the world? Thinking of creative ways to actively engage your students in the work of history? Want to attract students to your department and develop diverse career skills for history majors?

If you have answered “yes” to any of these questions, a digital project might be in your future. But how exactly do you do start?

Here are a few tips, based on my experience launching the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition, which will contain 10,000 transcribed, searchable documents by fall 2016.




Go local. Travel costs balloon budgets, reduce the amount of student help you can expect, and are a harder sell to an administration looking at the project bottom line. Mark Cheathem and the Papers of Martin Van Buren have gotten around this rule and have great levels of student involvement and institutional support. Most projects, like The Seward Family Papers Project, find success sticking closer to home.

Digital doesn’t mean free. Every item you handle takes time and costs money. How big is the collection? Is it all in one place, or will you have to gather? Are there images to be described and letters to be transcribed? Civil War Governors estimates an average of 4 hours of editorial work for each of our documents. We have 23,000 in hand, and we’re not done collecting.

Quality comes with a price. The staff working on Civil War Governors scans about 15 documents per hour and spends that much time again cropping, rotating, and saving a working copy separate from the archival master. We produce around 3.5 documents per hour in our initial transcription phase. Before we publish a fully edited text, we proof, do markup, and orally double proof the coded transcription against the original. All of that happens at about the same rate—for each additional step.

Watch the overhead. The bigger the item set, the more management, oversight, and support it will require. And that falls on you. Getting the work done is important, but budget for staff hours spent in setting and policing editorial policy, designing databases and websites, and grant writing and fundraising to support the work.

Be firm. You will have to leave neat things that don’t fit your scope sitting in the archives, untouched. You will have to say no to a new digital tool that will require you to redo the work you’ve done to date. Make your rules. Set your policies. And enforce them. Think carefully about the demands you make on yourself, your staff, and your hosting institution.



The scale of the project will shape your digital workspace. That workspace must contain

  • A digital archive (where you keep the stuff)
  • A management system (how you keep track of the stuff)
  • A set of editorial tools (where you prep the stuff for distribution)
  • A publication platform (for showing off the stuff)

Digital archives

For Civil War Governors, our archive is a shared drive on a state server. It hosts our archival TIFF images, working copies of each document, and our project records and editorial policies. All of that runs a whopping 40 terabytes (40,000 gigabytes, or about a hundred of my computer’s hard drives) all with a daily, weekly, and monthly backup schedule to make sure we never lose a thing.

Management Systems

To manage workflow, use a customized version of the open-source editing platform like DocTracker, which was developed in collaboration with a number of other projects with funding from the NHPRC. DocTracker is designed to manage every step in the editorial process, from identification of relevant items to transcription, proofing, annotation, and preparation for digital publication—including assigning tasks to individual staff members and monitor progress.

CWG-K XMLThat might be overkill. Google Docs makes keeping track of items, and management of collaborative workflow between students, staff, and outside partners ridiculously easy. You can always scale up. The enviable Six Degrees of Francis Bacon project started as a series of spreadsheets to record social network information, then moved into a larger database, and finally evolved into a PostgreSQL relational web database.

Editorial Tools

Obviously, your editorial toolbox will vary based on what you have and what you intend to do with it. For us, DocTracker includes a transcription module that presents as a standard word processor but exports TEI-XML, a standardized language developed by humanities scholars to digitally describe the form and content of books, library collections, and manuscripts. Products such as oXygen make editing XML easy, but for small classroom projects you could just as easily transcribe in Word or go directly to the web and transcribe in WordPress.

If your items to digitize are objects or photos, check with the digital librarian at a nearby university library. They’ll have experience with management systems like CONTENTdm or PastPerfect, which are more at home with subject headings and short descriptions than lengthier transcriptions.

Publication Platforms

Some of these digitization platforms blend seamlessly into a public display. Others require more work. George Mason University’s Omeka, which we used as the launching pad for Civil War Governors, starts simple enough for student developers but also has a suite of neat tools that can scale up functionality and include GIS analytics, conversion into a host of metadata schemes.

Regardless of the platform you choose, building in some open-ended ways to incorporate more data—see Visualizing Emancipation for a Civil War example—helps projects live and grow, one of the strengths of the digital world. Crowdsourcing platforms like that used in Chronicling Illinois blend production and distribution. Re-conceptualizing the “crowd” as the students in your U.S. survey or Civil War seminar is a great way to populate a new project and teach some historical and digital skills.



Make friends! Even if you don’t see your project scaling up to need federal funding or don’t think you’re ready to submit a grant application, talk to the people who run the editing and digitization programs. They see the breadth of the field, know who the up-and-coming players are, and can help you refine your idea.

Civil War Governors has been funded twice by the NEH Scholarly Editions and Translations program, which posts very helpful sample applications and lists of funded projects. If you think you will work closely with local libraries, look into CLIR, which funds archival digitization projects.

The NHPRC, a wing of the National Archives, funds both collections and editing proposals. A new strategic initiative has retailored their funding priorities towards digital projects. Civil War Governors has received funding in the Publishing Historical Records in Documentary Editions program, and SCWH members will want to be on the lookout for opportunities in the Literacy and Engagement with Historical Records line. Virginia Tech’s Mapping the Fourth of July in the Civil War Era has just received funding from that program.

NHPRC also supports training through the annual Institute for the Editing of Historical Documents, administered by The Association for Documentary Editing. At “Camp Edit,” you will meet people from the large, prestigious Founding Fathers editing projects and those who are starting up a new and creative project out of their history department. Institute faculty have a firm grasp of project management and can point you in the direction of colleagues who are starting up similar projects to your own. The networking is superb.


Final Thoughts

By no means do the editors at Civil War Governors claim to have figured everything out—but we have learned from our project’s mistakes and growing pains.

Fortunately, none of us are in this alone. Whether you envision a project to build the digital skillset of your grad students like CSI: Dixie, want to share a dataset that supplements your latest research like Mapping Occupation, or want to do both like the seminal Valley of the Shadow, our SCWH colleagues have a wealth of experience to share.

If you want to hear about where Civil War Governors is heading next or want to talk through the questions I didn’t answer here, my digital door is always open.


Patrick A. Lewis is Project Director of the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition at the Kentucky Historical Society and author of For Slavery and Union: Benjamin Buckner and Kentucky Loyalties in the Civil War (Kentucky, 2015).