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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the purpose of this website?
If you are interested in the ideas behind the founding of our democracy, you can use Founders Online to go straight to the source. Founders Online collects in one place the papers, written by or addressed to, six key figures of the era: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin. All citizens can now access annotated first drafts of the Declaration of Independence, the spirited debate over the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and the records of the very beginnings of our national story. You can also read firsthand the details of the Founders’ personal lives as told in their own voices.
Where are the original versions of these documents?

The documents are from archives across the United States and around the world, and some are owned by individuals. Many of them are housed in the Library of Congress and the National Archives. As a result, it is almost impossible for any individual to see all the original documents.

You can usually determine the location of the original version of an item by looking at the source note for the document. The source note is a series of abbreviations located in the notes section at the end of each document. The abbreviations are shorthand for the type of document and the repository where the original is located. For example, a source note that states “ALS, DLC:GW” means that the item is a signed letter in the author’s own handwriting (known as an autograph letter signed) that is located in the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress. If you mouse over an abbreviation, a pop-up text will appear that provides these details.

Why are these documents transcribed?
Most of the original documents are handwritten and are difficult to read. Transcriptions make them legible for you. Yet at the same time, they preserve the original spellings, terms, and editing of their writers. High-quality digital images of manuscript pages are not available for most of the thousands of documents reproduced here.
Who created the transcriptions and notes?
The massive work of locating, transcribing, and annotating all of the documents has been done by the editorial staffs of the six Founding Fathers projects at the University of Virginia, University of Chicago, Princeton University, Columbia University, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the American Philosophical Society, and Yale University. You can read the About page for an overview of their work and links to information on each project. For the past fifty years the National Archives, through its National Historical Publications and Records Commission, has supported these projects.
Who did the work that went into this site?

The University of Virginia Press directed the digitization of the printed volumes (for the Adams Papers, in collaboration with the Massachusetts Historical Society). The text of each volume was rekeyed or, for the most recent volumes, extracted from digital files, and then marked up in XML (using the guidelines of the Text Encoding Initiative ). (The documents from Thomas Jefferson’s retirement period are a special case: they were created from the start as XML by the staff of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series.) The rich XML markup permits linking of notes and cross-references, mouseover expansion of abbreviations, and querying on features such as names and dates. The core programming that runs the search and display interface of Founders Online was also done by UVA Press technical staff.

The Ivy Group of Charlottesville, Virginia, was responsible for the preliminary user surveying, site navigation and graphic design, web styling, layout, and most of the JavaScript underlying Founders Online.

What software powers this site?
Founders Online uses the MarkLogic database and application server to index, search, and deliver content stored natively as XML. This system provides the faceted search facilities that make it easier to find the documents you want.
Will more content be added in the future?

The contents of the first 39 volumes of The Papers of Benjamin Franklin will be added by the end of 2013, along with the latest completed volumes from the ongoing editorial teams, and additional early access material. Content from the front matter of the volumes is also scheduled to be included in a future release.

Because this additional material is to be added, you may find documents missing for certain periods or years. These items will appear as “early access” documents, or as final versions when the published volumes are completed.

The banner says this is a Beta release—what does this mean?
Certain features and standardization of appearance are still being finalized. Some documents with complex formatting may not appear in a final format. In addition, you may notice times where the same person appears with a different form of a name. For each document in Founders Online, the names for author and recipient are in the form given by the original editorial project where they appeared. Standardizing the names across all the projects may happen in the future. In addition, content will continue to be added. Finally, we wanted you to use this site and tell us what improvements to make to it.
Why are there duplicate copies of some documents?

Mainly because they are represented in more than one of the Founding Fathers published editions. Consider a letter from Thomas Jefferson to George Washington: it will naturally appear in both The Papers of Thomas Jefferson and The Papers of George Washington, and we reproduce both versions here. You may notice that transcriptions differ slightly (sometimes because different source texts were transcribed), and of course the annotations will be unique to each project. In the case of Washington’s letters, much of his Revolutionary War correspondence is reproduced or summarized in the Hamilton Papers because Alexander Hamilton, as Washington’s aide-de-camp, actually drafted them. And there are duplicates in the Madison Papers of some diplomatic communications that were sent in multiple copies.

In addition, for diary volumes from the Adams and Washington Papers, we have split each daily entry into a single document for granular results in searching, but also created single documents for entire months, to make it easier to read larger segments. (For example, the year 1788 from John Quincy Adams's diary.) This means that search results may include both the single-day and the whole-month context from the same volume.

What do special marks in the transcriptions like brackets and deletions mean?

In order to prepare transcriptions of these original documents, each editorial project had to agree on how to indicate where a writer revised the text. In general, brackets or superscripts will indicate additions to the text in the documents. Words or letters that are crossed out in transcriptions were also crossed out in the originals. These changes can help you see the changes made by each author as he wrote his thoughts. In some documents, mousing over words in brackets will provide a tooltip explanation of the editorial change.

We plan to add links to more explanatory material concerning the different projects’ editorial policies in a future release.

Why do some items appear in search results as “not found”?
In some cases, if the editors know that a letter or document existed because of other references to it, they include what information they know about it. If they never found an item (perhaps because it was lost or destroyed), they want to share this fact with users.
How did you come up with the look for the website?
The floral border is based on wallpaper from James Madison’s Montpelier estate. See “About the Art” for more information.
If I notice a bug in the website or a possible error, how do I let you know about it?
Please refer to our contact page. (If you find a misspelling in a document, keep in mind that 18th/19th-century spelling was less regular than our own. But do report possible errors in the editorial notes.)