Holly Cowan Shulman, founding director of Documents Compass and editor of the <i>Dolley Madison Digital Edition</i>. Photo by Luca DiCecco.
Holly Cowan Shulman, founding director of Documents Compass and editor of the Dolley Madison Digital Edition. Photo by Luca DiCecco.

With the Dolley Madison Digital Edition, Holly Cowan Shulman forges a new path for documentary editors

By Laura Baker

Holly Cowan Shulman, founding director of Documents Compass and editor of the Dolley Madison Digital Edition. Photo by Luca DiCecco.
Holly Cowan Shulman, founding director of Documents Compass and editor of the Dolley Madison Digital Edition. Photo by Luca DiCecco.

“New tools should do something,” Holly Cowan Shulman says emphatically as she explains her pioneering work on the Dolley Madison Digital Edition (DMDE), the only comprehensive anthology of the First Lady’s correspondence. “The whole point of digital publication is not to show off a new gadget, but to provide quality content to a wide audience.”

What, then, does Shulman’s DMDE do? Like a traditional print documentary edition, the project collects, annotates, and publishes the 2,500 letters that Dolley Payne Todd Madison wrote and received between 1788 and 1849. (As of December 2013, more than 1,800 of the 2,500 letters have been digitally published.) Unlike a traditional print edition, however, or even a digital book, the born-digital DMDE allows the user to explore the world in which those documents were written. The letters in the DMDE can instantly be browsed by time period, location, subject, and person. The project ambitiously identifies every named person in Madison’s letters, and offers insight into relevant historical contexts and social conventions. “Dolley is a perfect candidate for this new form,” Shulman explains, “because her world is a ball full of unknown customs and characters that history has forgotten. Readers need a dance card, and that’s what we have been able to provide for them.”

Shulman is currently a research professor at the University of Virginia and the founding director of Documents Compass, a program of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (VFH). She has a PhD in history and is the former associate director of the Science, Technology, and Society Honors Program at the University of Maryland, College Park. And as the daughter of a radio-producer-turned-television-executive at CBS, it is not much of a stretch to say that Shulman has spent a lifetime considering innovative technology. “TV is not radio with pictures,” Shulman says, smiling and recalling her mantra as she worked with the University of Virginia Press’s electronic imprint, Rotunda, to determine how a digital publication could illuminate Dolley Madison’s world.

Shulman had to create her own roadmap for the Dolley Madison project because there were no digital presses at the time. “Nobody was doing what I wanted to do, and the people at Rotunda [the University of Virginia Press’s electronic imprint] were just starting out, too. They were willing to build something with me.” That process included considering a wider audience and a broader scope than a typical print volume might have. “This is a new platform,” says Shulman. “We have the space to identify everybody and everything, but we have to think about it differently. I identify George Washington, for instance, in the case that someone in Japan decides to read these letters.”

Shulman credits much of the success of her work on the Dolley Madison Digital Edition to the project’s early supporters, which include the Virginia Center for Digital History and VFH. Shulman was a VFH fellow in 1996 and again in 2000, working on the DMDE; it was the first digital project ever supported by the Foundation. Current VFH program associate Rob Hewitt encountered Shulman’s work as a VFH fellow in 2000. Even then, he says, it was clear that she was forging new paths. “At that point, web content was really uneven in terms of quality, and I was impressed with Holly’s work because it was creative and scholarly at the same time.”

Ten years later, VFH’s digital initiatives include groundbreaking efforts like Encyclopedia Virginia and Documents Compass, the documentary-editing program that Shulman cofounded with Susan Holbrook Perdue. Documents Compass has helped create scholarly reference works such as Founders Online, a fully searchable and freely available National Archives website, and People of the Founding Era, which builds on Shulman’s concept for the DMDE by profiling more than 12,000 people who were born between 1713 and 1815 and are referenced in the papers of the Founding Fathers. (Both sites are copublished by Rotunda.) Perdue explains, “Documents Compass continues to mine new technologies in order to bring scholarly publications into the digital era.”

Shulman’s interest in technology and documentary editing is broad, and she hopes to influence a movement that will make digital tools more accessible to editors without extensive technical backgrounds or deep financial support. And while her primary ambition remains completion of the Dolley Madison Digital Edition, she also has plans for future projects, including a book on Madison’s years as a widow.

Shulman ultimately believes that digital innovation is about trial and error, and says anyone can participate who is willing to “work on a shoestring budget, and persevere.” After some thought, she adds, with a wink, “You also need chutzpah.”

About the Author

Laura Baker is assistant editor at Documents Compass and comanager of the National Archives Founders Online Early Access project.

VFH - 40 Years, 40 Stories

About VFH

Since its founding in 1974, VFH has produced more than 40,000 humanities programs serving communities large and small throughout Virginia, the nation, and the world.

These stories celebrate our 40th anniversary by sharing a few of the ways VFH has helped connect people and ideas to explore the human experience and inspire cultural engagement across the Commonwealth.