Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


Pirates, Spies and Dark Nights of the Soul: Entering the Wacky World of Early American Studies

A few years ago, a graduate student told me, "I'm changing fields. I'm switching to the wacky world of Early American Studies."

A few weeks earlier, I had sent her to the microfilm rooms in the University of Minnesota's library with assignments she could complete only by plunging into documents she found there in the two Early American Imprints microfiche series. Commonly called "Evans" or "Shaw-Shoemaker" after the authors of the authoritative bibliographies on which the series were created, they include more than 70,000 items—all extant material printed in the colonies and early republic from 1639 to 1819.

After many hours peering at those curious old documents and their funny typefaces, she surfaced and announced that, despite expecting a wasteland of dry and stupefyingly boring texts, she had discovered in the microfiche a nearly unexplored world of writing that she called wacky but nevertheless found oddly wonderful. Her phrase recalls a famous article about student reaction to early American studies that Daniel Williams published in "Early American Literature": "Not enough Rambo Action."

I find that if I can get students into the actual early documents, they discover that it's all Rambo Action: pirates, soldiers, spies, kings, queens, revolutions, dark nights of the soul, invasions, war and peace, politics, captures and escapes and what we too casually would call religious fanatics. I could have told her so beforehand, but she probably wouldn't have believed me.

Pirates, Spies and Dark Nights of the Soul: Entering the Wacky World of Early American Studies


An Undergraduate's Reflections on Original American History Research: How Online Access to Historical Newspapers Helped Prepare an Award-Winning Tea Party Study

Of all the events that occurred during America’s colonial era perhaps none more immediately conjures up images than the Boston Tea Party, when patriots boarded English ships to destroy taxed tea. Nearly a year and a half later, on April 19, 1775, the skirmish between those patriots and British Regulars at Lexington and Concord provoked the shot that was heard “around the world,” a story with which many Americans are also familiar. Undoubtedly, these events merit widespread recognition, for both were key developments in the establishment of the United States. However, by moving immediately from the Tea Party to the beginning of the Revolution, one neglects crucial moments during those intervening sixteen months that helped develop a pervasive unity necessary for a successful war with Britain. That unity derived in part from responses to the Tea Act of 1773, efforts that were spearheaded in Boston but not isolated there. Indeed, reactions throughout the colonies testify to Massachusetts’ importance as the first colony to act decisively in response to the tea’s arrival. That significance is manifested most clearly in the inspired attitudes of New Yorkers, whose actions affirm the influence of the Bostonians’ decision. 1

An Undergraduate's Reflections on Original American History Research: How Online Access to Historical Newspapers Helped Prepare an Award-Winning Tea Party Study


On the Trail of Crispus Attucks: Investigating a Victim of the Boston Massacre

If American history students can name any victim of the Boston Massacre, it is almost certainly Crispus Attucks. He became a symbol of African-American patriotism for the Abolitionists of the 1800s and for civil rights activists of the 1900s. Yet Attucks' name doesn't appear in the first newspaper reports about British soldiers shooting into a violent crowd on March 5, 1770. That's just one of the mysteries that students can explore by using the Archive of Americana to examine the Boston Massacre.

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In colonial Boston, some newspapers were published on Mondays and some on Thursdays. Because the shootings on King Street occurred on the evening of Monday, March 5, the first press reports didn't appear until Thursday, March 8. The Boston Chronicle stated that among the dead was "A Mollatto man named, Johnson."

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The same day's Boston News-Letter provided more information about this victim:

A Mollatto Man, named Johnson, who was born in Framingham, but lately belonging to New-Providence, and was here in order to go for North-Carolina, killed on the Spot, two Balls entering his Breast.

On the Trail of Crispus Attucks: Investigating a Victim of the Boston Massacre


Using the Archive of Americana at China's Finest University

It was through my early American history classes at Colgate University that first I discovered the joys of using the Archive of Americana as a teaching tool. In those classes, I compelled my students to make use of this valuable resource by establishing citation levels for each grade. For my advanced undergraduate classes on early American and New York City history, I advised students that they needed 30 citations from America's Historical Newspapers and related collections; 50 citations qualified students for the B level; those who could cite 80 different sources could aspire to an A. Note that they could "qualify." The papers still had to include solid writing, vigorous analysis and a cogent thesis. Despite some grumbling, the Colgate students submitted to the protocol and a few earned an A in the seminar.

Then, I got the opportunity to teach as a Distinguished Fulbright Professor at Peking University (Beida) in Beijing. I was determined to introduce my Chinese students to the Archive of Americana as well. While I did not expect that Peking students had the time, skills or inclination to make such extensive research in English-language sources, I did hope that we could master some research techniques and that they might uncover evocative historical moments. But as often happens when teaching abroad, my plans met with a number of difficulties.

Using the Archive of Americana at China's Finest University


Start Locally, Think Globally: An Approach to Teaching History

"Why does this stuff matter?"

"Why should I care?"

Questions like these have accosted most instructors during their teaching career. It can be especially challenging to show students in social studies classes the relevance of what they perceive to be centuries-old clumps of dates, events and timelines. Students in many classrooms experience "none of the questioning, argumentation, and wrestling with the past that so marks the vigor and fecundity of history as a disciplinary practice," as Bruce Van Sledright has noted. "All acquisition of others' ideas about what the past is and no participation in the activities that produce those ideas in the first place leaves them largely empty headed and seat-twitchingly bored."1

The research of Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen shows that Americans' connection to history is strongest when they can locate a personal point of entry: "Many told us they wanted…to reach into history by reaching outward from their own lives. They wanted to personalize the public past." 2 Educational theorists have also shown that constructivist approaches to teaching—emphasizing students' active production of knowledge through inquiry and analysis—are typically more engaging to students than traditional approaches centered on lectures and quizzes. How can educators take these lessons into account and awaken students to the fun of historical exploration and the pertinence of the past to the present?

Start Locally, Think Globally: An Approach to Teaching History


Finding Book Reviews of Classic American Literature: Search Tips for Students Using the Archive of Americana

Finding recent scholarship on 18th- and 19th-century literature poses no great challenge to the skilled researcher, who may use a variety of available tools to support such an inquiry. It can be more difficult, however, to discover contemporaneous responses to significant 18th- and 19th-century authors. One useful tool for that type of search is the digital Archive of Americana. With a bit of strategic searching, students can discover a wealth of book reviews and other responses to classic American literature within the Archive, especially in America's Historical Newspapers.

American Broadsides and Ephemera and both series of Early American Imprints all include "Book Reviews" as a genre. However, only a few items are identified as belonging to this genre—four in American Broadsides and Ephemera and one each in Series I: Evans and Series II: Shaw-Shoemaker. These varied items range from a compilation of critical responses to The Life and Labors of David Livingstone included in the Hubbard Bros.' exclamatory prospectus ("A BOOK OF MATCHLESS INTEREST! WITHOUT A PEER!! MAGNIFICENTLY ILLUSTRATED!!!")

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to John Quincy Adams' "rather political than literary" American Principles: A Review of Works by Fisher Ames.

Finding Book Reviews of Classic American Literature: Search Tips for Students Using the Archive of Americana


Planning a Government Documents Instruction Program: A Strategic Approach to Outreach

Everyone who has worked closely with government information knows that fascinating details hide behind such dry titles as the "Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology" and "U.S. Congressional Serial Set." To uncover the valuable information in materials published by the U.S. government, including congressional reports and hearings, most users require orientation and even some civic education. The importance of understanding the purpose and significance of most government documents is equally true for information buried on CD-ROMs or in online databases.

Many government information specialists turn their knowledge into a passion for outreach, promoting the treasures in their realm to library users who may not know that government information is exactly what they seek. In academic libraries, instruction is one way to promote government information to students and researchers who need it. However, in an organizationally complex university setting, it can be particularly difficult to identify which classrooms or groups to speak to. While responding to instruction requests from individual instructors benefits a specific group of students, relying exclusively on this approach assumes that everyone who needs instruction knows that you are available and willing to help. A proactive approach to instruction can dramatically increase the number of students and faculty who use and value government information.

A good first step toward developing an effective instruction program is to become familiar with the ACRL Information Literacy Standards. 1 These standards not only provide a common vocabulary with other instruction librarians, but also help clarify what students can learn from government information about being better researchers.

Planning a Government Documents Instruction Program: A Strategic Approach to Outreach


"Meet the Students": Bringing Your Library's Online Resources Into Your Students' "Circle of Trust"

You don't have to be a retired CIA operative, like the one Robert DeNiro portrayed in the blockbuster hit "Meet the Parents," to realize that students need a lot of help when it comes to selecting resources for their research papers and projects. Despite the success of my library's instructional offerings and our university's commitment to information literacy, I often run into students—both undergraduate and graduate—who have no idea that their institution provides perfect electronic resources for their papers.

With many academic libraries now offering more than 100 electronic databases—replete with full text of both secondary and primary sources—it would seem that more students would be exploring the wide range of available resources. But sadly many of our valuable online resources remain largely untapped until instructional sessions or last-minute reference interventions salvage students' ill-conceived research methods. What can librarians and faculty do to increase student awareness of the many subject-specific electronic collections we have amassed? How can we better market the value of our own services and online collections to make sure that students go beyond search engines like Google?

While many librarians actively pursue and create effective subject-based, departmental-liaison relationships with faculty, the fact remains that to be truly successful the collaborative relationship must also generate trust between students and the library. As librarians know, solid research is seldom a one-stop shopping expedition. Therefore, we need to demonstrate to the student body that librarians and faculty are working together to select and provide the best resources for their research needs.



"I am scholar—hear me roar! Primary materials rule." Students Test the Scholar in the Digital Archive

I love putting history on trial in my undergraduate courses. These students still typically think of history as finding, identifying or uncovering a set of hard facts, but, as Hayden White reminds us, history has a subjective dimension—historians construct claims, create narratives, interpret facts, build cases, possess agendas, have pre-dispositions. History is much more interesting than students sometimes think.

Well, there's no better place to put history on trial—that is, to experience the role that invention plays in the writing of history—than the massive digital collections in the Archive of Americana®. And while working with these collections there is a generic assignment I have found valuable in assisting undergraduates be critical thinkers about history that I call "Testing the Scholar."

Let's test the scholar, I say, by first understanding the scholar's argument and then forming our own judgments by investigating virtually the same bundle of data, tapping the inherent power of access to rich primary materials.

Let's take a representative example of this exercise from Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans, 1639-1800. Let's say we want to learn about execution sermons—a topic sure to have "curb appeal" for undergraduates.

If we click through the "Genre" tab to the healthy list of subcategories under sermons, there is a category for execution sermons. There are 90 such sermons in this grouping, about 65 first editions, not an impossible task for a class of, say, 20 or 30 students to divide up, read and hold in their group consciousness.

The first thing I would do is have the students read Ronald Bosco's "Lectures at the Pillory: The Early American Execution Sermon"—an essay that covers precisely the time period as Early American Imprints, Series I—and, as a class, identify all Bosco's claims, both major and minor.



User-Centered Design for Digital Collections

The ultimate point of sharing collections online is to deliver information that people need. Curators and librarians have buildings full of information and thousands of users seeking it, but too often neglect a fundamental way to bring the two together. By putting users first when digital collections are envisaged and created, benefits to audiences and institutions can be increased.

"User-centered design" (UCD) is an approach that industrial engineers and commercial enterprises have employed for decades. After all, a business that fails to understand what its customers want is a business likely to fail altogether. UCD therefore sprung up as a discipline that integrates the needs and wants of users into every stage of the design process. For digital librarians, this means talking to audiences before, during, and after an online collection is built. We don't need M.B.A.s to do this successfully—just a willingness to share some of our professional authority with our users.

The first step is to precisely define the intended audience for a new digital collection. Do you want to reach history majors on your own college campus, genealogists with Irish ancestors, school teachers across your entire state, advanced scholars within a specific discipline? Identify who they are, where they are located and where they turn for information.

For example, when the Wisconsin Historical Society wanted to reach K-12 teachers who are re quired to cover state history, we obtained a database of mailing addresses from government education officials. Teachers also consistently told us that their school librarian was the person whose advice they most trusted about new Web resources, so we obtained members' email addresses from the state's school library association.

The next step was to find out what they needed and draw them into the process of selecting and presenting materials.

User-Centered Design for Digital Collections


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