@MHS the electronic newsletter of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Was John Quincy Adams a Tweeter?

Starting on 5 August 2009, the Massachusetts Historical Society will begin posting daily entries on the "micro-blog" site Twitter on behalf of John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States and son of John Adams, the second president. The project, which can be viewed here, is being launched in conjunction with the bicentennial of Adams's trip to Russia as the first US minister.

The idea for the project came about in May when a student on a tour of the MHS saw Adams's line-a-day diary notes and exclaimed, "It's like he's using Twitter." The Society's library staff realized the comparison was an interesting one, blogging about it in the MHS official blog, the Beehive. Once they recalled that some of the entries coincided with a trip Adams took to Russia exactly 200 years ago, the MHS staff decided that this was an opportunity too good to pass up. Beginning on 5 August, the JQ Adams project on Twitter will feature Adams's daily entry from exactly 200 years previous and, where possible, will be augmented with maps showing his location (Adams provided regular latitude and longitude readings), links to longer diary entries, and other information.

"Making Adams a voice in the social web conversation will definitely increase his profile--and ours too, for being willing to be innovative. We don't know of any other institutions using historical source material from their collections that so perfectly fits the format of Twitter. These posts are John Quincy Adams's own succinct comments about his day," stated Nancy Heywood, MHS digital projects coordinator and one of the staff members responsible for this project. "We certainly hope others will find Adams's journey as fascinating as we do," added her colleague on the project, Assistant Reference Librarian Jeremy Dibbell.

Twitter offers its users a platform to answer the question "What are you doing?" in 140 characters or less. Adams's line-a-day diary entries do just that, although unlike Twitter, they were neither meant for nor available for immediate public consumption at the time. Adams's succinct entries are surprisingly rich, full of details about his reading, meals, weather, and shipboard activities. For example, the entry for 6 August, "Thick fog. Scanty Wind. On George's Bank. Lat: 42-34. Read Massillon's Careme Sermons 2 & 3. Ladies are Sick." A single volume contains most entries and spans periods of time from 1 January 1795 to 12 May 1801 and 5 August 1809 to 30 April 1836.

Adams was a prolific diarist--filling 51 volumes over 69 years (amounting to nearly 15,000 pages)--and often kept multiple diaries simultaneously. The line-a-day entries and the rest of Adams's diaries are part of the Adams Family Papers and are available on the MHS website as "The Diaries of John Quincy Adams: A Digital Collection." This project was partly funded by a 2003 "Save America's Treasures" grant, which allowed the MHS to conserve the diaries and create the digital versions.

Through the JQ Adams project on Twitter, the MHS hopes to reach out to a new and different audience in an innovative, cost-effective way. This project will bring an interesting part of the American story to an online audience in conjunction with the MHS's mission to make the documents of US history more accessible to the public. In addition, the project will allow the MHS to address some of its strategic goals, including increasing the public's awareness of the MHS; publicizing the MHS's Adams Family Papers collections; and, on a technical note, adding transcriptions for the line-a-day entries to the existing digital collection of John Quincy Adams's diaries. In addition, the project will mark the bicentennial of this important trip, which represents the beginning of US-Russian diplomatic relations.