By ISAAC BLUE, COREY FILIAULT, DAKSHA KHATRI, CHRIS MARKHAM, LYNSY SPROUSE and MIKE BLACK
Since 1999, the University of Mary Washington has been home to a documentary editing project called The Papers of James Monroe.
Now, the school is considering transferring the research project to the University of Virginia.
Over the past three months, the current editor of the Monroe Papers, Dan Preston, has had several discussions with Edward Lengel, the director of the Papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia about transferring sponsorship of the papers.
Preston clarifies that the Monroe Papers are not physical historic documents. Rather, it is a research project funded by a National Endowment of Humanities grant and the university to document the career and life of the United States’ fifth president.
The project aims to work with copies and images of documents that remain in locations such as the Library of Congress, National Archives and the James Monroe Museum in Fredericksburg. Researchers work on transcribing the documents into print form and publishing those transcriptions.
“I know about a conversation that took place concerning the possibility of the transfer of the Monroe Papers project to UVA,” President Rick Hurley wrote in an email to a student reporter. He did not provide his opinion. He added that all that would move is the researcher and funding source for the project. Many members of the UMW community think that the project refers to a physical collection of documents.
Rumors about the project were circulating among members of the university community for the last few weeks, but the discussions about the project’s possible move were not publicly disclosed by school officials. Students confirmed the rumors through a Freedom of Information Act request, which produced email conversations between Preston and Lengel about a possible transfer of the project.
The FOIA request revealed that Preston, who is in charge of managing the papers project and was spearheading the discussions with UVA, had only discussed the projects with four people at UMW. Some portions of the documents produced from the request suggest that many school administrators would not be informed until the fall.
The reason for Preston’s discretion was that similar transfers have been discussed with other universities in the past and have fallen through, he said later.
His main reason for considering a transfer has to do with funding, he said. Currently, the papers project is co-funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and UMW. In 2014, the project received $295,000 from the endowment for three years of work. The school’s portion to run the project is about $75,000 each year, Preston said.
The funds go toward paying the salaries of two full-time historians and one part-time editorial assistant. Money also goes toward office supplies and travel expenses. Currently, the project is housed in the old University Apartments and in an office in the Department of Historic Preservation.
Preston is unsure whether the National Endowment will agree to continue its funding beyond 2017, when the current grant is over. He said UMW may not be able to fund the project entirely on its own.
“It’s simply a question of resources,” Preston said. He added that he would have considered any school that could offer funding to complete the project. If the Monroe Papers project were transferred, it would probably happen in September 2017, at the end of the endowment’s current grant cycle, he said.
UVA, on the other hand, is in the process of creating a Center for Documentary Editing, which plans to handle many projects that are similar to the Monroe Papers, one of a few projects the center is exploring taking on.
According to an email received through the FOIA request, Lengel said that he is confident he will be able to secure the funding for project. The emails also reveal that UVA also plans to apply for the same NEH grant, should the transfer go through. Lengel hopes to have a definite answer by the summer, according to the documents. The funding would go toward maintaining a long-term work-space for researchers on the papers project.
“The goal is to make access to information more widely available, not the reverse,” said Lengel in an email to a student reporter.
The Papers of James Monroe aims to publish a total of 10 volumes about the life and story of the United States’ fifth president. Each volume provides the transcribed and annotated chronological correspondences of Monroe. Volume 6 is set to be published in 2017. “It’s looking at the world through the eyes of one particular person who played a major part in it,” Preston said.
According to Preston, the Monroe Papers help bring prestige to the school. “We can put Mary Washington’s name into more arenas,” Preston said. “We can put it on a different level.”
It also provides a scholarly resource. Each semester, the project employs two to three students who transcribe the letters, providing them with hands-on experience in documentary editing. A few of these students have gone on to write their senior theses about these letters. Some history and historic preservation classes have also collaborated with the Monroe Papers.
Preston wrote in an email to Lengel that he was “100% sure there will be no objection to the transfer on the part of UMW.” He added in an interview with a student reporter that he wasn’t sure why the public cared about the potential move.
Emails received from the FOIA request show that there is at least one opponent to the transfer of the project.
Scott Harris, the director of the James Monroe Museum, sent an email to Jonathan Levin, the provost of UMW, that urged for adequate on-campus office space for the Monroe Papers staff to keep the project at UMW. “I earnestly hope that the University of Mary Washington will help sustain and promote its share of the Monroe legacy to a more substantial degree,” he wrote.
Harris, a 1983 graduate of Mary Washington College added: “I wish this situation were different.”
This story was gathered and written by the Principles of New Writing class at UMW under the supervision of journalism professor Sushma Subramanian