Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

When the Jane Addams Papers started work in 2015 at Ramapo College, in many ways it felt like a brand-new project. We were focused on the digital edition, developing metadata rules, learning how to read Addams’s charming handwriting, and immersing ourselves in turn of the century Chicago and the work of Hull-House.  But we were not a new project. We built our edition standing on the shoulders of the original Jane Addams Papers Project, founded by Mary Lynn Bryan in 1975.

Working with a team of dedicated editors, Mary Lynn produced an amazing microfilm that became the basis for our digital edition. We scanned that microfilm in 2015 and started working with the images, beginning in 1901, on our digital edition. The  microfilm edition represented decades of work; they  conducted an international search for Addams documents in archives,  private collections and published sources, organized the documents and indexed them. At the start of our project, they had published two volumes of the Selected Papers of Jane Addams (since then Volume 3 has been published).

The microfilm headers that her team created gave our undergraduates a real head start when working with the texts. A letter to “Alice” was in fact a letter to Addams’ sister “Sarah Alice Addams Haldeman,” carbon copies of letters that had no signatures were identified clearly in the targets. They also identified the place where the letter was written from and sometimes the correct date.

We left the microfilm headers on the scans showing the work of the founding project.

And even more, we had the index to the microfilm. Unlike most other editing projects, the Jane Addams Papers Microfilm Index identified not just the authors and recipients of letters, but most time, the people mentioned in those letters, and in some cases the subjects. So, if “Edith” was mentioned in a letter and the students (or editors!) did not know who Addams was talking about, we could consult the microfilm index, and with a little adjustment, convert a microfilm reel and frame citation to our digital image files. This really helped in the early days of the project, when most of the correspondents and associates were not in our system.

This January, Assistant Editor Victoria Sciancalepore took a road trip to North Carolina to get some of the archives of the original Jane Addams Papers Project. We brought the precious boxes, filled with index cards, copies of the documents and targets that were used to create the microfilm, and archival search records. It was exciting to unpack them and fill our file cabinets (and then some!) with these records, which we immediately put to use.

While most of the scans from the microfilm are good quality, there are some that are difficult to read. In the past we identified documents with poor images with an “Onsite” tag. Slowly but surely we contacted or traveled to the archives to get a new image. Some were penciled originals or light blue carbon copies that had been copied, then microfilmed, and then scanned. To our delight, we were able to substitute the copy in the Addams Project files for a number of light scans, which will save us time and money.

Even more valuable, and appreciated by student transcribers, many of the files also included handwritten transcriptions for some of the more difficult to read handwritten documents. While the first three volumes of the Selected Papers only carry the story to 1900, these transcriptions are throughout the collection. It has helped clear up a lot of [illegible]s from our early transcriptions.

Our debt to the editors that went before us, finding, organizing, transcribing and editing these documents cannot be overstated, and we want to thank each and every one of them!


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