Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


Digital News You Can Use: Observations on Digitizing Historic Newspapers

One of the biggest challenges to digitizing archival and special collections material is to prioritize your projects. Budget pressures aside, there are the standard considerations of historical subject matter, material format, current preservation needs, technical limitations and institutional priorities. After directing several digital projects, I've realized that one guiding principle has always helped me to decide.

During one of my first workshops in digitization, the presenter advised the audience that whatever digital project you decide to create, you will marry it for life. The presenter that day was Liz Bishoff, founding coordinator of the Colorado Digitization Project, now the Collaborative Digitization Program. Most people don't think of a digital project as a long-term commitment, but that's exactly what it becomes. A digital project is a digital collection, and all collections need not only a vision, but also a commitment to accuracy, service and preservation.

With Ms. Bishoff's advice in mind, I considered a number of potential subjects for my first digital archives project at Franklin and Marshall College. I quickly settled on digitizing the college's student newspaper, "The College Reporter." Established in 1873, the Franklin and Marshall student newspaper already had a long-term relationship with the students, faculty and alumni of the college. Digitization would enable the paper to be indexed and keyword-searchable for the first time. In addition, full images from the paper would now be available for browsing via the Web, all completely free of charge. The appeal and benefits were obvious. It was now just a matter of contracting the scanning, distillation and hosting processes with Olive Software, Incorporated.

Digital News You Can Use: Observations on Digitizing Historic Newspapers


Chocolate: A Readex Sampler

Between the years 1998-2008 my large research team had the good fortune to be funded by a generous grant from Mars, Incorporated, to investigate the culinary, medicinal, and social history of chocolate (1). Our initial research focused on chocolate-related information from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, and the transfer of medical-related uses of chocolate into Western Europe. Between the years 2004-2008 our research shifted to the introduction, distribution, and social uses of chocolate within North America. To this end we paid special attention to cacao/chocolate-related aspects of agronomy, anthropology, archaeology and art history, culinary arts, diet and nutrition, economics, ethnic and gender studies, geography, history, legal and medical issues, and social uses.

Our research team drew extensively on Colonial Era and Federal Era documents available through Early American Newspapers, especially chocolate/cacao-related advertisements, articles, price currents, obituaries, and shipping news documents. As a scholar who formerly spent months using microfilm documents—winding and re-winding reels searching for specific documents on specific dates—I report here that the new technologies available through Readex have made my work and that of my students a hundred times easier. Now, with a click of our computer “mice,” team members can retrieve thousands of documents that previously would have taken weeks to amass.

Presented here are examples that provide a brief “taste” of these chocolate-related documents.

Chocolate: A Readex Sampler


Promoting Silkworms: Using Electronic Texts and Digital Images for a Historical Exhibition

The discovery of news articles published in the 1830s about a 139-acre silk farm in Framingham, Massachusetts—along with a stunning 19th-century image of bombyx mori, the silkworm, at several phases of its life cycle—opened the door to our first use of digital archives in a museum exhibit.

Staff and volunteers at the Framingham Historical Society and Museum were in process of organizing The Fabric of Framingham, an exhibition that weaves together the warp of the town's textile traditions with the weft of its vibrant social fabric. An important goal for the exhibition was to introduce visitors to primary source materials as historical context for the textiles and costumes from our collection.


Background image: Silk-worms. Letter from James Mease transmitting
a treatise on the rearing of silk-worms, by Mr. De Hazzi, of Munich. With plates, &c. &c.
February 2, 1828. Read, and referred to the Committee on Agriculture. Serial Set Vol. No. 172.

We gathered materials on Framingham's first industry, the manufacture of straw bonnets, and on the town's longest-lasting industry, wool and wool products. We traced the histories of cotton, linen, rubberized fabrics, ready-made clothing and even a short-lived attempt at making silk. The Historical Society's research team searched the digital Early American Newspapers collection and downloaded articles and advertisements related to these industries in Framingham.

Promoting Silkworms: Using Electronic Texts and Digital Images for a Historical Exhibition


Making Books Out of Ether: The Next Generation of Historical Research

The Constitution crackled as it burned, fifty of its avowed enemies looking on with gleeful eyes, the sweet stench of freshly fired muskets filling their nostrils. People love to burn that which they hate. Flames regularly consume effigies, flags, draft cards, braziers, and despised decrees. As a corollary, people hate to see that which they love go up in flames. Americans alive in the tumultuous 1780s were no exception. So there would be hell to pay for those who dared to set a copy of America's proposed frame of government aflame.
—Draft, "Birth of a Capital Market: The Life and Death of the First U.S. National Debt, 1776-1836"

Librarians, archivists, books, bibliographies and microfilm machines have long been the research historian's best friends, but there is a new name on the A-list—the digital collection. And what a friend! The digital collection does not compete with the historian's older buddies but rather complements them, bringing out their best qualities. The resulting party promises to be the highlight of the season and could summon forth a new, more consilient generation of historical research.

Making Books Out of Ether: The Next Generation of Historical Research


Reading the Lives of Women through Their Obituaries: With Tips for Searching in Historical Newspapers

"In the management of her household, she displayed every good quality necessary to form a prudent and beloved Mistress of a family—regularity and order, neatness and exactness," said the Pennsylvania Gazette about Ann Ross, who died in 1773.

Historical obituaries record what society deems to be of value in a person's life. Death may be the great equalizer but class and gender shape what is remembered and valued. Frederic Endres suggests that studying obituaries "may tell something about the cultural values of a given society, as well as something about the values and attitudes and vocational socialization of the editors who wrote and published the obituaries." [1] Although women's obituaries are generally shorter than men's and are shaped by gender stereotypes, they are one of the few sources that allow insight into the lives of women and their changing roles over time.

In the late 18th century, women were described mostly in terms of their domestic attributes and Christian virtue. Women were judged primarily in terms of three categories: as wives, mothers and as domestic managers. If a woman had a role outside of the home, it was primarily through church activities. It is common to find many obituaries where women are pictured as being blessed with many children, faithful, as a dutiful wife or daughter and praised for their regular church attendance.

Reading the Lives of Women through Their Obituaries: With Tips for Searching in Historical Newspapers


Measuring Time in a Blissful Dawn: William Wordsworth and American Newspapers during the French Revolution

In The Prelude, English poet William Wordsworth—who spent extended time in France during the 1790s—recounted his enthrallment with the French Revolution. "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive," reads a passage from Book Ten. "But to be young was very heaven! O times . . . When Reason seemed the most to assert her rights/ When most intent on making of herself/ A prime enchanter to assist the work/ Which then was going forwards in her name."1 As these famous lines make clear, The Prelude's power stems in large part from the way in which it evokes the experience of living through the French Revolution. During the Age of Enlightenment, "Reason" inevitably shaped the articulation of "rights." Yet the meaning of Gallic political upheaval cannot be fully understood without examining the emotional journey of those who lived through the 1790s. For sympathetic observers like Wordsworth, that journey encompassed an incredible sense of rapture, and the author frequently likened support of the French Revolution to an intense love affair.

Measuring Time in a Blissful Dawn: William Wordsworth and American Newspapers during the French Revolution


A Few More of These Egyptian Carcasses: The Beginnings of Mummymania in Nineteenth-Century America

The first entire mummy arrived in America in 1818 in the possession of Ward Nicholas Boylston as a souvenir of his travels. In an era of four-page weekly newspapers, this was such an important event that within six weeks of the mummy's original appearance in the Columbian Centinel of 16 May 1818 the news had spread from Syracuse, New York, to Columbus, Ohio, to Charleston, South Carolina.

It would be five more years before another mummy arrived. According to the Boston Daily Advertiser of 3 May 1823, the Yankee brig Sally Ann sailed into Boston with a mummy that was presented as a gift to the city from a merchant in Smyrna. Officials quickly decided that the Massachusetts General Hospital was the logical spot for the artifact, and it was promptly used as "an appropriate ornament of the operating theater." The mummy's name was Padihershef and he had been a stonecutter at Thebes, although these facts were not known until well into the following century.

A Few More of These Egyptian Carcasses: The Beginnings of Mummymania in Nineteenth-Century America


From Mascot to Militant: The Many Campaigns of Seba Smith's "Major Jack Downing"

Readers of the Washington, D.C. newspaper The Daily National Intelligencer witnessed a strange and disturbing transformation in 1847, when the nation’s most popular literary character freely admitted that he had become a greedy, cynical killer. Soon enough this beloved American hero, whose name was synonymous with Yankee Doodle, would threaten to stage a military coup to seize the Capitol and overthrow Congress! Readers of the Early American Newspapers archive can follow along, gleaning important hints to decoding contemporary political rhetoric.


Major Jack Downing.
(Portrait credit: Library of Congress Prints
and Photographs Division)

The Intelligencer, formerly a nonpartisan legislative record, became the flagship of the Whig Party when it split from Andrew Jackson’s Democrats in the early 1830s. But it was during the second year of the war between the United States and Mexico that the newspaper would green-light one of the most audacious political satires in U.S. history. If you imagine a sequel to Forrest Gump in which the benign protagonist masterminds the torture of the Abu Ghraib detainees, you might gather some sense of the controversy produced by the corruption of Seba Smith’s iconic everyman, Major Jack Downing.


Seba Smith (1792-1868).
American humorist and writer.

From Mascot to Militant: The Many Campaigns of Seba Smith's


The Importance of Newspapers in Chronicling the American Revolution

I used to think I knew quite a bit about the American Revolution—until I became a re-enactor. I certainly knew that the war consisted of more than the battles of Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, Trenton and Princeton, Saratoga, Camden, Guilford Courthouse, and Yorktown. I soon learned that even the most detailed history books don’t cover all the military engagements.

When I participated in the 225th anniversary re-enactments, I overheard fellow interpreters commenting about some of these events they knew nothing about. There had been no guidebooks published about the Revolutionary War since the nation’s bicentennial in 1975. Moreover, those guidebooks only covered the major, better known events. This compelled me to begin work on what I intended as a comprehensive, if not exhaustive, military history of the American War for Independence.

The Importance of Newspapers in Chronicling the American Revolution


Finding Fatalism and Overconfidence in a Cruel Port: The Bubonic Plague's First Appearance in Brazil

On October 18, 1899, Brazilian health officials declared that bubonic plague had arrived. Bacteriologists identified the bacteria in samples taken from sick patients in Santos, a port city that had grown rapidly due to Brazil’s coffee boom. For much of history, people reacted to the news of plague with panic, flight and violence. When plague struck Santos, however, the town did not empty of its residents, international ships were not quarantined outside the port, and authorities or militias did not form “rifle cordons” at roads leading out of town. In fact, according to one report, “the news that bubonic plague had broken out in Santos seems to have made an impression everywhere but here. Santistas are, as a rule, of a somewhat skeptic frame of mind and reports about sickness and epidemics do not frighten them unduly.”

Finding Fatalism and Overconfidence in a Cruel Port: The Bubonic Plague's First Appearance in Brazil


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