The Papers of Martin Van Buren originally existed at Pennsylvania State University. This project was officially launched in 1969 and was headed by project director Walter L. Ferree. Previously, Van Buren’s papers were scattered among numerous repositories, and many were held in private hands. The editorial team at Penn State eventually formed a collection of approximately 13,000 documents from a total of 260 repositories.
The original goal of the Penn State project was to release a letterpress edition, which would be published in two series, totaling fifteen to twenty volumes. The team worked for three years, transcribing handwritten documents and beginning the editing process, before deciding in 1972 to shelve the print publication proposal and instead focus on producing a microfilm edition. At the time, the benefits of a microfilm edition made it appear as the only viable route: the publication cost would be far lower; the collection would be available in a period of four or five years rather than the decades it would take to release a letterpress edition; and the technology of the time was headed in a direction that anticipated microfilm as the best way to access resource material.
In 1976, Ferree retired, and George Franz of Penn State took over leadership. He worked on the project part time until a full-time editor was finally appointed to the project. Lucy Fisher West of Bryn Mawr College took this full-time position in 1986, and the project was completed in 1987. The microfilm edition was published by Chadwyck-Healey, Inc., as was an index compiled by West. The index to the microfilm edition does not provide a calendar and excludes documents not written by or to Van Buren.
About 6,000 of the documents in the microfilm edition are located in the Library of Congress' collection of Van Buren's papers and have been digitized. These digitized documents are not transcribed, annotated, or searchable, however. A 1910 index for most of the Library of Congress collection is available. It contains helpful descriptions of most documents and is mostly accurate; it does not, however, include documents added after 1905.