presidents’ day

Few would disagree that Presidents’ Day, though in theory a celebration of the nation’s highest office, is actually one of our blandest holidays — not so much about history as the resuscitation of commerce from the post-holiday slump. Yesterday, however, brought a refreshing change.

dolley madison.jpg
Daguerreotype of Dolley Madison

Spending the afternoon at the institute was Holly Shulman, a historian from the University of Virginia well known among digital scholarship circles as the force behind the Dolley Madison Project — a comprehensive online portal to the life, letters and times of one of the great figures of the early American republic. So, for once we actually talked about presidential history on Presidents’ Day — only, in this case from the fascinating and chronically under-studied spousal perspective.
Shulman came to discuss possible collaboration on a web-based history project that would piece together the world of America’s founding period — specifically, as experienced and influenced by its leading women. The question, in terms of form, was how to break out of the mould of traditional web archives, which tend to be static and exceedingly hierarchical, and tap more fully into the energies of the network? We’re talking about something you might call open source scholarship — new collaborative methods that take cues from popular social software experiments like Wikipedia, Flickr and yet add new layers and structures that would better ensure high standards of scholarship. In other words: the best of both worlds.
Shulman lamented that the current generation of historians are highly resistant to the idea of electronic publication as anything more than supplemental to print. Even harder to swallow is the open ethos of Wikipedia, commonly regarded as a threat to the hierarchical authority and medieval insularity of academia.
Again, we’re reminded of how fatally behind the times the academy is in terms of communication — both communication among scholars and with the larger world. Shulman’s eyes lit up as we described the recent surge on the web of social software and bottom-up organizational systems like tagging that could potentially create new and unexpected avenues into history.
A small example that recurred in our discussion: Dolley Madison wrote eloquently on grief, mourning and widowhood, yet few would know to seek out her perspective on these matters. Think of how something like tagging, still in an infant stage of development, could begin to solve such a problem, helping scholars, students and general readers unlock the multiple facets of complex historical figures like Madison, and deepening our collective knowledge of subjects — like death and war — that have historically been dominated by men’s accounts. It’s a small example, but points toward something grand.

2 thoughts on “presidents’ day

  1. Daniel Anderson

    I wonder how much missing the bus on social software has to do with a blind spot at Universities in general. I’m amazed, for instance, at how some of the technology leaders on campus–not academics–are in need of educating on the second Web. Here, they have just been focusing on ubiquitous computing–getting machines and networks set up and I think there has been a relaxation of attention after the big expansions of a few years back–a sense that technology had finally made it to campus. Unfortunately, that was the Web as document delivery mindset, not as activity space.
    It is even scarier to think that resistance in disciplines has not even begun to wrestle with the new modes. But it is comforting to know that some academics can recognize the potential value in these alternative approaches. We’re not a lost cause, completely 😉

  2. Holly Cowan Shulman

    This past Monday I had a wonderful – and eye-opening – talk with Bob Stein and his crew. My admiration for them abounds. But I would like to distinguish between “The Dolley Madison Project” and “The Dolley Madison Digital Edition” (DMDE) – and a future edition of women of the founding era.
    The Dolley Madison Project is freely accessible online. It is also a static, html site that I did nearly ten years ago with the help of a then undergraduate at the University of Maryland (Victoria Scott), where I was teaching at the time. I began the DMDE after moving to the University of Virginia, becoming a program director at the Virginia Center for Digital History, and getting my project peer reviewed and accepted by the Electronic Imprint of the University of Virginia Press. The DMDE is a fully searchable electronic documentary edition of the complete correspondence of Dolley Madison. You can search by word or word string, but also by key word, person, place, organization, and title. It utilizes the capacity of xml to structure information and thus allowed me to “annotate” (for lack of a better word) with information that could be asked for but was not attached to any document – unlike a print edition. It is the first of its kind, a born-digital historical documentary edition, and it attempts to use the capacities inherent in tagging to structure information in a very different way than a paper edition can. To find it go to, and to find the Electronic Imprint (called Rotunda) go to
    I agree that this remains a highly structured environment, and in that sense is derivative of the book, rather than an intentional networking of thoughts and information. I also believe that this hierarchical structure has its use and place. It is easy to use, it holds the readers’ hand, is grand for students and general readers who may not know enough to find their way around a network playing field, and is an easy way for scholars to find information. The DMDE has a lot of value-added information, as I determined from the beginning to make each letter intelligible to an ordinary reader, which meant identifying every person, place, and so on, and explaining complicated, or insider messages within the text. So, I am the author and thus it is, I agree, a reworking of the concept of the book.
    My next project is to build a collaborative edition of women of the founding era, in which the edition of any single woman is discrete, but at the same time seamlessly bound to the other women’s papers. Rotunda has built into its platform the capacity for the user to search across all their founding era editions, which will include George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, the Adams family, and so on. Thus the end result should be a very sophisticated and useful kind of concordance never before possible.
    My meeting with Bob and the team at the future of the book team, however, opened up a whole series of interesting ideas which I would greatly like to pursue. How can I open this edition up in a way that allows new connections to be made by different scholars individually tagging the documents they choose to use? How can I open my work up to the knowledge of non-academics, such as genealogists and local historians, as well as other historians? How do I make my product, at least in part, a community effort and knowledge community? This is why my meeting on Presidents’ Day was so exciting for me.

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