Susan Perdue: Accounts and Ledgers: Retaining the Look and Feel of Thomas Jefferson’s Financial Documents. Abstract # 19 (random order)

“A nineteenth century biographer of Thomas Jefferson described him as “a gentleman … who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, dance a minuet, and play the violin. ” And that was “only a partial picture.” But one thing Jefferson was not was an accountant. Although interested in math and owning numerous volumes on the subject he did not appear to have an understanding of the rudiments of accounting. He began a ledger book of double bookkeeping in 1770 but gave it up before the year was out. His financial situation at any given point of time was precarious. As an compulsive record keeper, Jefferson did record every transaction made over the course of his lifetime in a series of eleven small bound notebooks. These notebooks were brought together in a two volume set called Jeffersons Memorandum Books, with the work beginning in the late 1950s and not concluded until 1986.

As part of a larger project for the National Archives to digitize and proofread more than 55,000 documents of the American Founding Fathers, we took on the task of digitizing the Memorandum Books so that they would be included on the freely available website, Founders Online. We began the project with the original typesetting files which we converted to TEI P5. We focused predominantly on building as much structure from the source as possible, given that structured text would enable us to take advantage of the digital content. That included encoding entities in the data such as names, titles, and cross references to external documents and internal cross references. We also mined the content for biographical statements about people identified in the text to be used in our prosopographical project called People of the Founding Era.

The most challenging aspect of the project is applying table-type formatting for each file in order to approximate the look of the print volume. We have made numerous passes across the content, confirming the text and adjusting the spacing. Spaces are critical in this document for conveying information. The idiosyncratic nature of the document which combines columns, tables, lists, calculations, and marginalia, requires that the original spacing and alignment be maintained.

Users of the digital edition of the Memorandum Books will have the advantage of full text search and hyperlinking cross references in the annotation. Less useful online is the extensive back-of-the book index which runs for 200 pages. The index includes more than twenty topical headings under which account book entries are grouped, although they are linked to a page and not to a single transaction. We did not have time or resources enough to encode each individual transaction. Are there ways that the index could be used to perform some kinds of quantitative analysis of transactions? This is just one of the questions that we have pondered as we convert this substantial work from print to digital form.”


 Susan Perdue (Virginia Foundation for the Humanities; Charlottesville, VA)

Presentation: Oct 23, 11.45 – 12.05 p.m., University of Regensburg, Großer Sitzungssaal des Philosophikums (PT 3.0.79) [PROGRAMME]


Picture credits: via S. Perdue

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Kathrin Pindl (October 21, 2015). Susan Perdue: Accounts and Ledgers: Retaining the Look and Feel of Thomas Jefferson’s Financial Documents. Abstract # 19 (random order). MEDEA. Retrieved July 21, 2024 from

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