Official launch of Quill Project Friday 14 October

Official launch of Quill Project Friday 14 October

A new digital platform developed by Oxford University collaborators was launched at a one-day conference on Friday 14 October. The Quill Project is designed to transform the study and teaching of the history of the 1787 Constitutional Convention and subsequent, negotiated, legal texts. It will transform access to the founding documents of American constitutional law, by making them available to a wider audience newly accurate and useful versions of the records of the Constitution's creation. It will establish a software platform, Quill, which will promote a new approach to the study of foundational, negotiated, legal texts.

The project is a collaboration between Dr Nicholas Cole (Faculty of History), Dr James Cummings  (IT Services), and the Centre's Research Associate Dr Alfie Abdul-Rahman. With the advice of colleagues at IT Services and Google, the basic platform was designed in 2014-5. Dr Abdul-Rahman has since been building a web-based front end to the editing interface for researchers, timeline presentation, and some initial visualizations. Work in subsequent years will allow for new editions of the underlying source material, as well as the creation of legal and historical commentaries, together with educational material. Material relating to the American State Constitutions (numbering 135 since 1776) will be developed in conjunction with colleagues at other institutions.

At the public launch, held at Pembroke College, Oxford, three panels discussed the historical problems presented by the records of the Federal Convention, which were most recently the subject of Mary Bilder's controversial book, Madison's Hand. More broadly, the conference and launch was an opportunity to discuss recent scholarship on the Founding.

The platform rests on an innovative database layer that models the parliamentary processes used by committees during formal negotiations. It transforms the utility of the records of such meetings for a range of users, by enabling them to be understood much more readily. A processing layer is able to reconstruct (from the formal proposals made and votes taken upon them) the state of documents before a committee, during each stage of the process of negotiation.

The relative complexity of particular negotiations, the influence of particular individuals or delegates over time (as their proposals are adopted or rejected, or as they are on the winning or losing side of votes), and the evolution of language can all be tracked by the system and presented intuitively to readers. The platform is also able to store details of variations in the underlying source material, enabling advanced users to get a more detailed understanding of any ambiguities that exist.

The platform has been written to cope with all of the problems presented by the specific manuscript material relating to 1787, but has much wider applications, and is a generalized tool for the study of all formally negotiated documents of this character. It has been designed from the start to encourage work-flows that allow for inter-institutional co-operation, and to be a hub that can not only host its own material and commentary, but link to resources available elsewhere.