Rotunda Showcases History by Looking to the Future

Thomas Jefferson designed the iconic Rotunda building as the academic center of his newly founded University of Virginia, "demonstrating [his] belief that a university should have as its focus a collection of academic achievements."1 Appropriately, the electronic imprint of the University of Virginia Press takes its name from the campus landmark and fills that same role for the university in today's digital age. Rotunda has been a stable flagship in the ever-changing realm of electronic publishing since its inception in 2001.

The original grant proposal to the Mellon Foundation for the Electronic Imprint, conceived by Nancy Essig, the former director of the press, and John Unsworth, the founder of the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, called for publication of born-digital scholarship. Mark Saunders, Manager of the Electronic Imprint, explained that suitable born-digital projects were scarce at the time. In response, the press's new director, Penny Kaiserlian, along with a team of senior managers, decided to add digital editions of existing print publications to the imprint's list, focusing on the press's strength in critical and documentary editions.

By the start of 2009, Rotunda had published six projects in the 19th-Century Literature and Culture collection and four in the American Founding Era collection, with three more in active development. Two of the 19th-century projects, comparative textual editions of Herman Melville's Typee and Emily Dickinson's Correspondences, were in fact born-digital, and benefited from Rotunda's extensive experience and expanding capabilities. The imprint is also "exploring a new collection in architecture with our colleagues at the Society for Architectural Historians."

Kaiserlian has described the American Founding Era project as Rotunda's "most ambitious collection yet."2 This collection brings together documentary editions of the primary and secondary materials that constitute The Papers of George Washington, The Dolley Madison Digital Edition, and The Adams Papers, all in digital format. Forthcoming digital editions include The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, The Papers of James Madison, and the Papers of Alexander Hamilton. Beyond this invaluable content, however, the project is notable for the broad scope of its collaborations with other university presses and historical societies and the extent of its interoperable capabilities.

Early on, the staff at the Imprint made a pivotal decision to develop a more costly platform based on emerging standards for XML rather than focus on PDF delivery as most publishers were doing. This has proved a major boon to Rotunda's electronic publishing projects, as it has allowed maximum "functionality, flexibility, and scalability." The staff took advantage of the "significant expertise in textual markup [that] already existed in various digital centers at the University of Virginia." The staff felt that the nature of the content in the document editions necessitated "that we code at as deep a level as possible." To achieve this end, the editorial and technical staff chose to go with the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) standard, which has been developed by an international collective. David Sewell, leader of Rotunda's staff on XML coding, now sits on the TEI Board of Directors.

Collaboration is an integral aspect of the American Founding Era project. In November 2008, Rotunda announced the release of a newly consolidated Founding Era platform, which makes the various documentary editions fully interoperable. Such a project would have been impossible without the cooperation and collaboration of the various project editors and sponsoring institutions and presses, as the various collections of papers are housed and edited at a variety of institutions. The Rotunda staff was responsible for the platform and the XML coding behind it, and drew up standards for conversion of the print volumes in conjunction with the documentary editors. Saunders described the varieties of expertise provided by some of the other participants:

In the case of the Adams Papers, conversion of the print volumes was managed by the staff of the Massachusetts Historical Society. The editors of the Washington Papers worked for many hours to disambiguate index entries to create a cumulative index for their 52-volume project, among other contributions of time and knowledge. The editors of the Jefferson Papers performed display proofreading on the converted files, and the staff of Princeton University Press contributed publishing expertise in rights, permissions, and marketing.

This many-layered collaboration resulted in a platform that allows users to navigate across editions in various ways. Saunders explained that the platform retains the ability for users to "see the documents as they are arranged in the print volumes" while enhancing the experience by also facilitating the ability of users to "search, navigate chronologically, and access the intellectual investment reflected in the indexes."

The Dolley Madison Digital Edition, Rotunda's first publication, is the only born-digital edition in the American Founding Era collection. Forthcoming volumes in the collection will be available in print first, to be followed in twelve to twenty-four months by inclusion in the digital edition. The Electronic Imprint's institution of an XML workflow is enhancing the viability and ease of these dual editions. Commenting on the recent subventions awarded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), Saunders explained that while these were traditional publication subventions for the print volumes, the XML workflow allows forthcoming editions to "be published in print and digital formats using the same underlying edited files, so in effect the continuing investment of the NHPRC in these editions will now pay off in new ways."

Rotunda's Founding Era project has been cited by AAUP as an important example of publisher-added value in debates on various models of open access (see AAUP's Letter of Support for the Fair Copyright in Research Works Act). Saunders said that Virginia has been closely following the debates over various forms of open access "for most of Rotunda's existence." In February 2008, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on an issue of open access directly impacting Rotunda and its publications: "The Founding Fathers' Papers: Ensuring Public Access to our National Treasures."

In April 2008, Allen Weinstein, then Archivist of the United States, released a report to Congress at the request of the Committees on Appropriations entitled "The Founders Online: Open Access to the Papers of America's Founding Era." Appropriately, Thomas Jefferson's ink and pencil drawing of the South Elevation of the Rotunda is featured on the cover of the report. Weinstein details the ongoing efforts to produce documentary editions of these historical papers that have been in progress for years, or even decades, at various universities, university presses, and historical societies. He outlines two possible responses to the government's call for online access to the papers: in the first, the government would scan the completed volumes as they become available, but "the volumes would not be electronically marked or indexed, making them difficult to search, and such an effort by a Federal agency would provide an inferior duplication of online publication efforts already taking place outside of Government." The second option, recognizing the valuable work done by organizations currently involved in the process, Rotunda primary among them, suggests that the government provide support for these efforts including "engag[ing] a sole service provider to undertake transcription and document encoding for all Founding Fathers papers that have not yet been edited." The staff at Rotunda has appreciated the report's respect for the work of the project editors and the attention to finding an access model that is sustainable for the university press publishers of the print editions. They expect to resume these discussions with the arrival of a new Archivist and a new Congress.

University presses today are testing a variety of funding models as they attempt to find a balance between providing access to research and information and the necessity of covering operating costs. Saunders says of Rotunda's business model, "Our interface has always promoted free discovery of our content, but our perpetual access business model has remained largely constant during the debates surrounding the Archivist's report. At the document level, we remain a fee-based site." This perpetual access model makes access to Rotunda's publications available for varying fees, determined by a university's Carnegie classification, with rates also available for other research institutions, high schools, and unaffiliated individuals. All users are able to browse the contents and conduct searches of the full text, although log-in is required to obtain access to the full contents.

Rotunda's primary funding has until this point come from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the President's Office of the University of Virginia, but Saunders explained that its ultimate mandate is to be self-sustaining. As described earlier, Rotunda's projects are often indirectly supported by entities like the NHPRC, which has provided subventions for the documentary print editions. After the current grants expire, Rotunda's sustaining revenue is expected to come from sale of its products and from grants for development of future individual projects. In an entrepreneurial move, Rotunda has also started Oculus, "which offers consulting services to other publishers and to digital projects that are in development," also with the support of the Mellon Foundation.

Rotunda is well poised to continue in its role of presenting the academic achievements that are at the center of a university, both to the academic community, and with the American Founding Era project, to the nation at large.

1 "The Rotunda: History," The University of Virginia,

2 Penny Kaiserlian, "University of Virginia Press," in "University Presses 2008: Snapshots in Time," compiled by Rebecca Ann Bartlett, Journal of Scholarly Publishing 40 (Oct. 2008): 26-28.

Meredith Benjamin
Communications Coordinator, AAUP