The Quill Project's Approach to Constitutional History

Archives, Computer Models, and Unconventional Partnerships

Students sitting round a table with papersUVU Students working with Quill
Constitutional law underpins the notion of a free and democratic state, holding politicians to account and guaranteeing the rights of citizens. Quill focuses on the drafting of these legal texts, helping both scholars and non-expert users to understand the process and context in which wording was agreed, combining traditional approaches to the editing of manuscript material with a digital model of formal negotiations built from a study of parliamentary manuals, and bespoke visualizations designed to aid both research and education.

The range of material studied by the Quill project runs from a study of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, through the evolution of state constitutional law in the American west, to recent Parliamentary debates over Brexit. In the case of the 1787 Convention, the Quill edition has challenged traditional assumptions around the role of particular individuals and delegations and the nature of the records. In the case of state constitutions and the study of later federal constitutional amendments, the contribution is even more ground-breaking, as the work of these constitutional conventions is often being collated and made public for the first time.

Aside from contributing to understanding of constitutional law, one of Quill’s key innovations has been around teamwork and multi-user editing. Dr Cole has created an environment in which undergraduate students are able to collaborate with each other and academic mentors on substantive research questions and the production of the digital edition, most notably through a partnership with the Center for Constitutional Studies at Utah Valley University (UVU), an open-enrolment university in Provo, Utah, although the model is now being rolled out more widely.

The partnership with UVU originated as a small-scale project, using students to test and evaluate an early version of the 1787 project and help with bug-testing and other menial tasks. Within months, however, they had proved that they could be trusted with a more substantive contribution, and began to take a leading role in designing workflows and conducting archival research – in fact enabling sustained, years-long archival projects that would have been impossible to organize from Oxford in any other way.

Funders: Partnership agreement with Utah Valley University; National Endowment for the Humanities; Private donations.