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University Libraries Launch Virtual Archive of 'The Papers of John Jay'

By Kari Smith

John Jay

Columbia Libraries has launched "The Papers of John Jay, 1745-1829," an image database and indexing tool comprising thousands of pages scanned from photocopies of original documents gathered from over 50 repositories during the 1960s and 70s. This new access tool links users to Jay's unpublished papers (correspondence, memos, diaries and diplomatic papers) written by or to Jay, diplomat and first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and Columbia graduate from when the school was known as King's College.

The Papers include letters to and from many of the central figures in the struggle for independence and the early history of the United States -- among them George Washington, John Adams, James Monroe, Louis XVI of France, the Marquis de Lafayette, Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry, Gouverneur Morris, Abigail Adams and Benjamin Rush. Correspondence between Jay and his lively, astute wife Sarah Livingston Jay captures the flavor of domestic life in the Federal period and serves to document the complex interplay between private and public interests that characterized the political scene.

"John Jay is the forgotten man among the Founding Fathers," says Richard L. Bushman, Gouverneur Morris Emeritus Professor of History. "His name is rarely placed in the great pantheon."

Yet in addition to being Chief Justice, Bushman notes, Jay was also Secretary of Foreign Affairs of the Confederation, an author with Hamilton and Madison of several issues of the Federalist, a leader in the fight for the ratification of the Constitution in New York and George Washington's prime negotiator in the struggle with Britain that resulted in the controversial 1794 treaty that bears his name.

"The publication of the Jay papers in electronic form will permit scholars everywhere to learn more about the achievements of this eminent figure," says Bushman.

John Jay served as governor of New York State from 1797-1801, in addition to his prominent national and international roles, and was instrumental in the establishment of the Protestant Episcopal Church in America. A founder of the New York Manumission society, he introduced legislation prohibiting slavery in the state as early as 1777, and, with his sons Peter and William, continued his anti-slavery activities after his retirement from public life.

"Perhaps the most significant accomplishment of the Jay Papers project is the creation of a "virtual archive," bringing together the holdings of many different and widely-dispersed physical collections," said Stephen Davis, acting head of the Libraries Digital Program. "Because the project's technical design takes full advantage of Columbia's existing digital library infrastructure, including our locally-developed, SQL-based master metadata file, we were able to focus our energies on extending those tools to accommodate the specialized search, retrieval and display requirements of this new resource. For example, users of the Jay Papers database can not only retrieve all correspondence to or from specific individuals, and search through document abstracts by keyword, they can also step through each day, week, month and year of John Jay's life to study his and his correspondents' writings in context and in sequence."

Davis said of the technology used in developing the tools for the project, "The Jay Papers project has also provided us our first opportunity to use the newer 'mrsid' image wavelet compression technology. This was particularly important because of the wide variety of handwriting styles and document sizes involved. Using the multiresolution, zoomable image display provided by 'mrsid' technology, readers can themselves adjust the size of the page as needed to display and analyze individual documents."

These files, collected under the direction of the late Professor Richard B. Morris, were maintained as sources for items to be used in a planned four-volume letterpress series entitled "The Selected Unpublished Papers of John Jay. "Four essays, in addition to a biographical essay, introduce Jay: "The Jay Treaty," "Jay and New York," "Jay and Slavery," and "Jay and France," in addition to a biographical essay.

The original documents from which Morris made his copies are located at more than 50 repositories in the United States, Britain, France, Spain and around the world.

Approximately 23,000 pages of the nearly 12,000 documents have been scanned as images that are linked to the collection's index, enabling researchers to examine the handwritten texts online. Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and The Florence Gould Foundation, The Papers of John Jay, 1745-1829 make available to students and researchers primary resources that have in the past been difficult to find or link to one another.

Among the topics that may be explored are: farming, building, philanthropy, legal practice, the courts, education, political intrigue, health and what might be called "memorializing the revolution" in the early nineteenth-century.

Published: Jan 15, 2003
Last modified: Jan 15, 2003

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