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Project History

The Papers of Martin Van Buren (PMVB) microfilm project was originally founded at Pennsylvania State University (PSU) in 1969. Dr. Walter L. Ferree headed the project, which sought to bring together the main Van Buren papers held at the Library of Congress with other Van Buren documents scattered in depositories and private hands across the United States. The project received endorsement from the National Historical Publications Commission (NHPC) in 1969 and received initial NHPC funding in 1971. A total of 260 repositories contributed the approximately 13,000 documents contained in the PMVB microfilm edition. 

Ferree and his editorial staff originally intended to publish letterpress volumes of Van Buren’s papers 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. Instead, based on the NHPC's recommendation, the editors focused on producing a microfilm edition. At the time, the benefits of a microfilm edition made it appear the only viable route: the publication costs 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, turning over leadership of the project to Dr. George Franz, also at PSU. Franz worked on the project part time until 1985, when the project’s advisory board, PSU administrators, and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) recommended the hiring of a full-time editor to finish the project. Lucy Fisher West of Bryn Mawr College was appointed project director in 1986. The project ended in 1987. The microfilm edition was published by Chadwyck-Healey, Inc., as was an index compiled by West. 

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 covering most of the Library of Congress collection is available. It contains helpful descriptions of most documents and is generally accurate; it does not, however, include documents added after 1905. The 1987 index to the microfilm edition does not provide a calendar and excludes documents not written by or to Van Buren.

In 2014, James Bradley and Mark Cheathem restarted PMVB at Cumberland University (CU), Cheathem’s home institution in Lebanon, Tennessee. Their goal is to produce, in partnership with the University of Virginia’s Center for Digital Editing (CDE), a free digital edition consisting of verified transcriptions of all of Van Buren’s papers; a multi-volume letterpress edition of his most significant political papers (The Selected Papers of Martin Van Buren); and a Rotunda digital edition of the Selected Papers volumes. The two editors assembled an advisory board of distinguished historians knowledgeable about Van Buren and his times. They also began cultivating private, public, and corporate donors to help fund the project both with seed money and long-term financial commitments. Additionally, former project editor George Franz facilitated the transfer of 337 microfilm reels pertinent to the project, including the complete Library of Congress and Chadwyck-Healey microfilm collections of Van Buren’s papers, from PSU to the project office, which is housed in CU’s Vise Library. In 2023, PSU also transferred ownership of the PMVB microfilm edition archives to CU.