The James Madison Papers

Building the Digital Collection

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Digitizing Microfilm

The James Madison Papers at the Library of Congress is one of several manuscript collections to be digitized in its entirety from the Library's vast collection of microfilm. The collection was microfilmed onto 28 35-mm microfilm rolls in 1964 as part of the Presidential Papers Project. Instituted by Congress in 1957, the project was designed to microfilm and disseminate the presidential papers held by the Library of Congress.

Microfilm collections of historical documents present a number of challenges to digitization, the most significant being the image quality of the microfilm being scanned. In addition, there are issues of original document condition, a wide range of tonal values, document sizes, and document orientation on the microfilm. For optimal capture of detail, the James Madison Papers microfilm was raster scanned from a duplicate negative microfilm generated for this purpose. Scanning from the negative microfilm can reduce the likelihood that flaws such as dust will be reproduced in the digital image. The negative was printed directly from the archival microfilm and produced for scanning by the scanning contractor, Preservation Resources. Great care was taken in the duplication process in order to compensate for the master microfilm’s high-density range.

The scanning was performed offsite by Preservation Resources in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The digital images were produced in JPEG File Interchange Format (JFIF), a compressed grayscale format often used in digitizing historical manuscript documents because of its ability to capture and display a wide range of tonal variations from those in the document paper itself to diverse qualities of pencil and ink. This 8-bit grayscale capture was also found to suppress the bleed-through typical of handwritten documents in the collection. There are approximately 72,000 digital images in the James Madison Papers, consisting of 36,000 each of JPEG and a series of JPEGs sized for viewing in the American Memory page-turner display.

The physical collection is primarily manuscript leaves mounted in "conservators' volumes." Some of these items were originally filmed in open-book format with two pages to a frame. In digitization such frames were split into single-page images to improve visual access without compromising the viewer’s sense of the original artifact—with a few exceptions (such as account books) in which splitting would have made it more difficult to understand content. Individual manuscript leaves, originally folded to make two to four pages or writing surfaces, have not been split.

Custom cropping was applied to the Madison Papers' varying formats, which range from letters, newspaper clippings, and account books to individual manuscripts mounted in bound volumes. Occasionally, a cropping margin does not exist on film and the one-inch margin rule on the document for the digital image is unattainable.

Book or manuscript pages containing text not oriented for reading in the microfilm were reoriented for reading as digital images. Pages containing texts oriented in a variety of directions, with no clear majority in one direction, were left in their original orientation.

Database Access

Access to the James Madison Papers is through a database created from the printed Index to the microfilm edition of the Papers. Every record in the database contains, when available, the name of the author of the document, the associated date, and a link to the set of document images. Two other fields capture the correspondence recipient's name and a title or brief explanatory statement. The printed Index was prepared in 1965 and reflects the contents and knowledge of the microfilm collection at that time. For the online collection, the entries were compared whenever possible to the authoritative documentary edition of Madison’s writings, William T. Hutchinson et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1956- ).

Digitizing Text

Text transcriptions taken from The Writings of James Madison, Gaillard Hunt, ed. (9 vols.; New York: G. P. Putnam & Sons, 1900-10), were converted at an accuracy rate of 99.95 and encoded with Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) according to the American Memory DTD. Text was translated with an OmniMark program to HTML 3.2 for indexing and viewing with Web browsers. Linking from text transcriptions in The Writings of James Madison to individual manuscript documents in the James Madison Papers was accomplished by inserting a unique identifier from the encoded text into the bibliographic database record for the document images.