Founding Fathers 2.0

Posted May 16, 2008 at 3:18pm

The hundreds of thousands of letters, essays and official documents from America’s Founding Fathers may one day be easily accessible online.

[IMGCAP(1)]The National Archives released a report last week outlining options for making the documents publicly available.

Currently, they are spread across the nation in different universities, libraries and institutions — making it hard for anyone but the most dedicated scholars to access.

That inaccessibility became clear earlier this year, when the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on a project to organize, transcribe and annotate the correspondence of George Washington, John Adams, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.

Congress has helped fund the project for decades, but completion may still be as far away as 2050. In the end, each Founding Father will get as many as 90 volumes of annotated documents.

Some Members want the raw material available before then.

The Archives report, requested by the House Appropriations Committee, recommends that all the documents be put on one searchable Web site. It will be difficult; some of the documents still aren’t annotated and contain handwriting that can only be read by experts. And there still are questions about how much it will cost and who is going to foot the bill.

The University of Virginia already is attempting to create a similar Web site, and the Archives hopes to help such ventures by hiring someone to prepare all the unedited documents for the Web.

Baby Steps. The Smithsonian Institution is on its way to correcting the mismanagement that resulted in several

spending scandals last year, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report.

Last year, then-Secretary Lawrence Small resigned amid allegations that he misused funds for extravagant trips and expenses. He was followed be several other Smithsonian officials who spent thousands of dollars on trips to lavish hotels and locales.

But the GAO report notes that the institute’s Board of Regents — which includes six Members of Congress — has put in several reforms. Those include a compensation policy (and lower salaries) for top Smithsonian officials, a new code of ethics and a standardized leave system.

In a statement, Sen. Dianne Feinstein commended the Smithsonian and the Board of Regents on their efforts. The California Democrat heads up the Rules and Administration Committee and the Appropriations subcommittee with oversight of the institution.

She also said the institution needs to address the $2.5 billion maintenance backlog for their museums. In recent months, she has asked that Smithsonian officials find private donations to help Congress pay for it.

“The first big test of the newly reorganized Board will be finding new and innovative solutions to close the growing facilities and maintenance backlog at the Smithsonian,” she said in the statement. “Their recent decision not to proceed with a public/private partnership to redevelop the historic Arts and Industries building concerns me. But I do believe they are better equipped now than ever to tackle this growing problem head on.”

The GAO report lists several things the Smithsonian still has to work on — namely, communications with stakeholders. The board needs to engage advisory boards more, it states, and consider more information when making decisions.

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