Scouting and Scanning: CCS Students Go on the Road to State-Constitution Archives

Story by Hank McIntire 
Photos by Scott Paul and Hank McIntire

State-Archives Road Trip - March 2023Kaelie Bodily, Wood Research Assistant at the Center for Constitutional Studies at Utah Valley University, examines documents from the Wisconsin state-constitution convention of 1847 in March 2023.

Students working as Wood Research Assistants in the Center for Constitutional Studies (CCS) at Utah Valley University traveled to Florida, Georgia, Illinois, and Wisconsin in March 2023 to examine archives of these states’ constitutional conventions of 1968, 1982, 1970, and 1847, respectively.

Scott Paul, executive director of CCS, organized the “scouting and scanning trip"—as he called it—with Cashlyn English, Kiana McAllister, and Grace Yeager in Florida and Georgia, and he accompanied Kaelie Bodily, Nina Cattani, Eliza Olsen, and Adam Smith to Illinois and Wisconsin.

These individual-state studies are all part of the 50 in 10 project, where CCS and the Oxford University-based Quill Project are spearheading the effort to digitize the most recent state constitutional conventions of all 50 states by 2030. At present, studies of 12 state conventions have been started or

completed, including Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Massachusetts, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

“This and similar expeditions we have taken to various states involve assessing documents to advise potential 50 in 10 partners of what they’re getting themselves into and to lower potential barriers to entry,” said Paul.

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), helped fund previous constitutional-convention research in Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington, and Wyoming. CCS is looking to increase the number of collaborators in order to complete the remaining 38 states in the next seven years to meet the ambitious 50 in 10 goal.

On this trip, Paul and his team found a mix of hard-copy, handwritten or typed records, as well as those that had been transcribed and converted to electronic format.

“Most states have a convention journal in digital form and a digitized record of debates and proceedings—if we're lucky—but committee records are usually not digitized,” he said.

In Tallahassee, Florida, at the Museum of Florida History and State Library & Archives, the team found 40 boxes of records of the 1968 convention, which were all in hard copy. The Georgia State Archives, in Morrow, yielded more than 70 boxes of records (83 linear feet) for the team to go through.

“The Florida documents were originally created between 1966 and 1971,” explained McAllister, of Pleasant Grove. “Some were typed, others written by hand, and there were newspaper clippings and even some audio files. The Georgia records, from 1978 to 1982, were typewritten with handwritten notes in the margins.”

“Our goal in both Florida and Georgia was to survey which records they had, find out what holes there were and if there were committee records or correspondence that might help with our modeling in the Quill Project or make an interesting addition to what we already have,” she said.

At the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum in Springfield, team members looked for records to add to the extensive work already completed on the constitutional convention of 1970.

“We scanned and took pictures of documents and the complete digital archive, spending one day in Springfield and two days in Madison (Wisconsin),” said Smith, of Provo, and a Wood Research Assistant at CCS since February.

“We had some training from Scott Paul before the trip, how to do archival work, pulling folders, keeping records in correct placement, and using document scanners,” Smith recalled.

At the Wisconsin Historical Society, using three overhead cameras and some scanners, the team examined records from the 1847 constitutional convention, written in longhand in 19th-century cursive script. In addition to assisting students with their work, Paul photographed all the individual sheets of a 505-page journal.

“We were doing work ‘pioneer style,’” he said. “It was like we were planting crops for others to harvest.”

And Paul was impressed with the archivists at each location, who pulled files and records in advance and assisted with the team’s unique mission and needs.

“These archivists love to share their records,” he said. “These are not your stereotypical shushy librarians; they want you there. They are sharing and helpful people.”

“The archivists were really excited that students were doing research,” said McAllister. “They were impressed that undergrads were the ones conducting it. And in many cases, it was the first time these archivists had pulled these specific records. They are motivated because the records are disorganized, and they themselves are more interested in these records than before we reached out to make arrangements to see them.”

Paul believes students gained valuable skills that will help them in their work on the Quill Project and 50 in 10, especially in having to work in a world that has no universal archiving standards.

“We have our work cut out for us with 50 in 10,” said Paul. “Like federalism, each state is a law unto itself. There are differences in archival policies and procedures from state to state, but we have amazing students who can handle a lot. Field-research experience is just the first step in the process.”

Students were asked to wash their hands before handling Wisconsin’s historical documents, some records being nearly 200 years old.

“Someone actually sat down and wrote all this in the 1840s,” said Smith. “And it made me realize how much went into these conventions; it was not just an overnight thing. I felt the seriousness with which these founders approached their task. It was cool to see a piece of history in my hands—and not just to look at it but to feel it.”

“The work we’re doing is necessary and important,” added McAllister. “State constitutions are a very much overlooked topic in political science. It’s exciting. Not many undergrads get to do this kind of archival work. It gives us a leg up when looking at future careers and grad school and law school.”