The George Washington Financial Papers Project

"Another thing I would recommend to you; not because I want to know how you spend your money; and that is to keep an Acct Book, and enter therein every farthing of your receipts & expend[it]ures. The doing of which wo[ul]d initiate you into a habit, from which considerable advantages would result. Where no account of this sort is keptthere can be no investigation; no correction of errors; no discovery from a recurrence thereto, wherein too much, or too little has been appropriated to particular uses. From an early attention to these matters, important & lasting benefits may follow."

GW's advice to George Washington Parke Custis, 11 January 1797.
AL (incomplete), ViHi; Custis, Recollections, 79–81.

Project Background

An early goal of The Washington Papers was to make George Washington’s business and household records accessible. Given the complexity of these documents and the means of publication available at that time, very little was done: Several cash accounts from the ledgers were published in print during the 1980s as part of the Colonial Series of The Papers of George Washington, and others have been published occasionally as standalone documents or used in annotations. As the digital edition of the letterpress volumes moved forward, solutions for the financial papers began to emerge as well. These solutions have continued to evolve in step with exciting and ongoing advances in the field of digital humanities.

Beginning in July 2012, The Washington Papers partnered with the DocTracker development team and the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition to expand DocTracker’s menu of core functions and to tackle data entry and output requirements of complex documentary materials. A significant part of this expansion included developing solutions for editing, representing (both transcription and data), and publishing financial documents. The National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) provided funding for the development and eventual release of the beta and final versions of DocTracker.

In 2013 work began on the George Washington Financial Papers Project (GWFPP). Funded by a grant from the NHPRC, the GWFPP's two main objectives were to develop a freely accessible digital edition and an open-source editorial platform. Over the course of three years, the project accomplished the following goals:

  • Developed a platform to edit and publish financial documents.
  • Transcribed documents held in the George Washington Papers, Series 5, 1750–1796, collection at the Library of Congress.
  • Created a digital edition of George Washington's three ledger books of accounts.
  • Worked with the editors of the Gouverneur Morris Papers project to prepare Morris’s 1811–1816 account book for digital publication.
  • Developed a web prototype that allows users to perform simple queries and download data.
  • Conducted user testing of the digital edition.
  • Held a conference to discuss discoveries and lessons learned.
  • Wrote and distributed a guide for creating editions of financial papers (forthcoming, to be submitted to an open-source journal).

Project Overview

The GWFPP exists at the intersection of two challenges editors currently face: managing complicated editorial work and navigating the world of digital publication. The project focuses on a particularly difficult and dynamic dataset—financial documents. Work has advanced on three interconnected fronts: 1) developing document templates for both traditional financial documents, such as account books and ledgers, and for more esoteric texts, including receipts, journals, and memoranda; 2) developing taxonomies and data visualizations; and 3) constructing an open-source platform for content management, editing, and publication. In the course of tackling these challenges, the project has not only developed an open-access digital edition of GW's, but also laid the groundwork for a Drupal for Editors prototype. This Drupal-based, open-source, editorial/publication platform will provide editors with a stable, flexible, and powerful platform to build engaging digital editions of financial documents.

Drupal is the best publication solution for several reasons: 1) At its core, Drupal is a database in which imported content can be mapped to fields, allowing for robust displays and searching, querying, and browsing; 2) Both the backend (content/data) and frontend (website interface) are managed in the system; and 3) Drupal is open-source, and its core and add-on (module) code are developed and actively maintained by a large international developer community.

Drupal has helped the project to confront the numerous challenges inherent in these documents. Different types of financial documents are formatted in distinct, though mostly standardized, ways, and the formatting of financial documents carries implied meaning raising questions about standardized digital formatting. Transactions are full of dittos, abbreviations, and shorthand, which challenge editors to create fields that capture the transcription and clear text, thereby making both the text and content searchable. Finally, documents exist in a hierarchy, so that the same transaction might be recorded in a day book, journal of accounts, and ledger book of accounts, for example, generating multiple instances of the same transaction.

Indeed, one of the primary goals of the GWFPP is to make accurate transcriptions of the documents available, in keeping with the long tradition of The Papers of George Washington documentary editing project. However, the types of information, or “data,” contained in these documents are not easily accessible using common search and query techniques. The challenges, as described above, make it impossible to simply transcribe and publish those direct transcriptions online. The solution involves a combination of transcription and corresponding data fields (where dittos, abbreviations, and shorthand have been expanded), node references associating various content types, and term references connecting taxonomies. Additionally, Drupal provides a place to develop and manage taxonomy lists for specific content types, such as financial documents, to enhance the grouping and sorting of content and to identify relationships among different types of content.

The digital edition, released in 2017, allows users to:

  • Read transcriptions of GW's three ledger books of accounts.
  • Perform simple and advanced searches on the documents and data.
  • Explore documents by people, places, ships, occupations & titles, services, food & beverages, agriculture, and place types.
  • Download search results, transcriptions, and data.
  • Follow links to related correspondence in The Papers of George Washington Digital Editions (Rotunda and Founders Online).

Additionally, those interested in editing and publishing financial documents can use the open-source editing platform to build robust, accessible documentary editions. Developing this system has required and inspired creative thinking about all aspects of the editorial and publication process, resulting in innovative ways for users to explore, analyze, and interact with documents.

Project Timeline