The Why of the Primary Source Cooperative

[Other related pages still to come include “The What of the PSC”—which will provide a publishing system overview AND details, with concrete tech info; proposal guidelines and review process for new member editions; and governance documents, including bylaws and MVV]


The purpose of the Primary Source Cooperative the Massachusetts Historical Society (the Cooperative, MHS) is to provide a platform, designed and governed by consensus, to assist the digital publication of documentary editions led by scholars who study the American long 19th century (1789–1914) and who would not otherwise have a portal for online publishing that is affordable and supportive. In that form it can serve the needs of people who are preparing the content of relevant archival materials for distribution, and it can enrich the work of scholars and other users who are seeking to understand more about this critical period in American history, when revolution and reform were causing fundamental changes in social and political culture.

More broadly, the creation of this cooperative is meant to be reproducible, making available a model of publication that runs on human and organizational collaboration that can be adapted to varying circumstances. Working toward the goal of a federated network of cooperatives, we see our cohort as one in a landscape with a rich diversity of overlapping systems, each with its own topical parameters, administrative arrangements, maintenance and sustainability plan, tools and infrastructure, and scale. Within that framework, we believe the Cooperative demonstrates the functionality and value of a system, built at a relatively small scale, that foregrounds robust communication and support among the editors and with the host institution.

The Cooperative’s modest size need not impede the reach of the valuable historical content prepared by the member editions. The Cooperative website exists in connection with the MHS ( and with the Digital Scholarship Group (DSG) at Northeastern University (NU). The latter partnership is building Lab Space as an environment for analytical visualizations of Coop edition data. (More information about this work appears here.) In order to pursue what we understood to be the most pressing goal of the Digital Edition Publishing Cooperatives initiative, the organizing team at the MHS envisioned a publishing platform that would be of direct service to editors who lacked the on-team expertise and/or the institutional resources needed to meet the perceived digital edition mandate—that is, the expectation that any documentary edition seeking federal grant funds must have a plan for digital publication. The impediment these editors face is also then a detriment to researchers who would benefit from the content of these source documents, since the digital medium is the first—and sometimes only—point of access most people now use to find historical sources. We also believed that the goal should be a digitization plan that makes use of the editorial richness provided by text encoding, making an XML-based workflow desirable.

The Long 19th Century

Thematically, the four founding editions of the Primary Source Cooperative span the timeline of the American long 19th century—from the 1780s to 1911—and create potential for a more holistic view of that period. This periodization frames events that took place between two important catalysts of change in society, the beginning of the French Revolution and the outbreak of World War I, and the editions overlap along well-established axes such as the antebellum period and the Civil War. Taken together, these editions can promote insights about the 19th century that are both broad and integrative, particularly as the Cooperative gives researchers the ability to locate thematic issues throughout the participating editions.

The edition cluster unites the historical timeline between the two ages of protest and reform, usually broken by the 1850s and 1860s, thus acknowledging the Civil War’s impact but moving beyond it to discern social transformations throughout the century at the individual level. The broader periodization provides a historical and ideological bridge between the first age of reform (antislavery movements, temperance, women’s rights) and the second age of reform (emancipation, prohibition, and the 19th Amendment). The thematic focus of this Cooperative is purposefully broad both to encompass the current editions and to allow for new edition partners adding to the breadth of topics and perspective.

To support research across all the Cooperative’s content, each edition encodes individuals mentioned and historical topics discussed in every document, and all editions supply data about how they use those entities to the shared Names and Subjects databases. These resources can provide the basis for searches and social network analysis, especially for national and international relationships among political figures, authors, and reformers. Through this collaboration, the full scope of the Cooperative’s documents has much greater discovery potential than any one edition on its own. For example, the conversations—literal and figurative—among the Cooperative’s editions can improve how readers understand the cultures of change and reform in the long 19th century, especially since hindsight may cause modern readers to see the outcomes of social movements as inevitable. Studying the similarities and disparities among our documents can allow all of us to see these authors in the uncertainty of their own moments and to see how those moments span the decades.

Member Editions and the MHS

The four founding members are also well matched with the collections of the MHS, though this would not be a requirement for new member editions. Among the papers destined for the Cooperative, the MHS holds not only the diaries of John Quincy Adams and an expansive collection of Sedgwick family papers, but also collections of correspondence and papers relating to Ellen Swallow Richards and Roger Brooke Taney. Even with that overlap, however, the editions are not Massachusetts-bound. Taney lived and worked primarily in Maryland and Washington, D.C., and Adams spent years of his childhood overseas, which prepared him for more than a decade of diplomatic service abroad later in life. That breadth reflects the Society’s position as a national collecting institute and research center, as articulated in its vision, including the goal to “continue to be widely recognized as a preeminent institution of American history, a thriving center for research and learning, and a respected voice for the importance of understanding our nation’s past.”

Coming soon: information about how to apply to become a member edition.