Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


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


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


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


Conducting Biographical Research in Government Publications, Part II: John C. Frémont and the U.S. Congressional Serial Set

To read Part I of this article in the Spring 2006 issue of The Readex Report, click here.

What finally made John Frémont's career was the second western expedition. This time the Army ordered him to map the wagon route all the way to Oregon. Having had some trouble with Indians on the 1842 trip, Frémont decided to requisition not just an assortment of guns and ammunition, but also a cannon—a brass 12-pounder mountain howitzer (S.Doc. 14, 28-1).

Leaving in May, 1843, from what is now Kansas City, Frémont's main party followed the emigrant route through Nebraska and Wyoming. Frémont and a few companions soon split off to travel a more southerly route, taking them near modern Denver and allowing them to explore the northern edges of the Great Salt Lake before reuniting with the expedition. His published report's glowing description of the region around what is now Salt Lake City would be largely responsible for Brigham Young's decision to move his people there.

When Frémont reached Oregon in November, 1843, he decided not to return as instructed along his outward route. Instead, he decided to explore southward along the eastern edge of the Cascades and search for the legendary River Bonaventura, which some believed flowed westward through the Sierras to the Pacific. If it existed, which most doubted, emigrants would have an easy passage through the mountains to California.

Conducting Biographical Research in Government Publications, Part II: John C. Frémont and the U.S. Congressional Serial Set


Play Matters: The Academic Librarian's Role in Fostering Historical Thinking

History is a field of study filled with bias, ambiguity and complexity. Analyzing historical documents and other artifacts is the historian's primary occupation. For students of history and related fields, working with primary materials is recognized as an important way to develop critical thinking skills, in general, and historical thinking skills, in particular. This is serious stuff. Or is it?

During a discussion on library instruction and outreach for digital primary collections at the Readex ETC Workshop and Symposium in April 2005, I asked my colleagues and fellow participants to ponder the following "what ifs":

• What if we exposed students to primary resources without requiring them to navigate the library's Website or learn the intricacies of searching a highly structured database?
• What if we provided easy access to the secondary literature associated with the primary source materials they're using?
• What if we modeled how we found the sources through step-by-step Web guides for those curious to learn more?

I even suggested that we help faculty build digital sandboxes in the backyards of their course pages. These sandboxes would be filled with an array of engaging primary materials and tools that would enable students to explore, to discover, to play. My playful argument was based on a growing body of research that indicates that students need the opportunity to connect with primary sources on a cognitive and emotional level in order to assess their meaning and put them into historical context (Bass, 2003; Bass & Rosenzweig, 1999; Perkins, 2003; Tally, 2005; Wilson & Wineberg, 2001; Wineburg, 1991, 2000, 2001).

A year has passed since I attempted to make the case for digital sandboxes, and a couple of things have convinced me it deserves more serious consideration.

Play Matters: The Academic Librarian's Role in Fostering Historical Thinking


"Behold and Wonder": Early American Imprints as a Tool for Students' Research

Teaching the history and culture of early America to undergraduates is challenging on many fronts. Students' familiarity with the best-known documents of the Revolutionary period can breed either contempt or a reverential awe indistinguishable from ignorance and boredom. The lesser-known material from earlier years presents formidable conceptual obstacles and seldom stays in print very long outside of the excerpts found in anthologies.

In the past decade, online resources have opened up some pedagogical opportunities that can help overcome some of these obstacles in the study of early America. Web-based lectures and research assignments have become indispensable to my own teaching at the University of California, Irvine, where I regularly use early American materials in my lectures for the Humanities Core Course.

Humanities Core is a year-long course that enrolls about 1,200 first-year students. Taught in the usual combination of large lectures followed by small discussion sections, the course satisfies several of our general education requirements, including freshman composition; it is usually the first—and often the only—humanities course students take. Lectures must therefore be challenging but comprehensible to a naïve audience, and they must also equip students with basic research techniques that will allow them to apply what they learn in lectures when writing their own essays.



"Find Ten Primary Sources by Tuesday": Tips for Teaching Students to Use Digital Archives

Many of the topics librarians address in teaching digital archives of historical documents are common to bibliographic instruction of all electronic resources: explain the content and scope, demonstrate searching and show how to print and save searches. Digital archives, however, are sufficiently different from other search tools because their instruction requires a more specialized approach. Several suggestions for effectively teaching such primary source archives follow.

First, explain to your users how using a digital archive will benefit them. While it's easy to spend the limited bibliographic instruction time available on the what and how of the resource—content and searching techniques—it's essential to not neglect the all-important why.

What benefit does a primary source archive offer that a database of journal articles does not? This is a vital information literacy question, and your answer will depend, of course, on the expertise of the users you are teaching. Although historians with extensive experience using primary texts will find the value obvious, it's unlikely that all beginning undergraduates will share that understanding.

Why should students burden themselves with original historical documents—arcane and abstruse as they often are—when they have textbooks available to summarize and interpret the same information? Why would any professor demand such a thing? Teaching digital archives affords you an important opportunity to explore these questions with students. By encouraging an understanding of the value of primary sources—including the potential for original discoveries in unabridged historical documents—users often explore digital archives with a new pleasure in making the required deductions and inferences on their own.



Exploring the 'Boston Foster' Map Mystery: Using Current Writings to Discover the American Past

In the October 17, 2005 issue of "The New Yorker," William Finnegan writes about a man who walked into the Beinecke Library at Yale University in June of 2005 and left shortly afterwards in handcuffs. Finnegan's fascinating article, "Annals of Crime—A Theft in the Library," details the case of noted map dealer E. Forbes Smiley III, who was arrested and charged with three counts of larceny earlier that year for slicing several maps from rare books in a Beinecke reading room.

At the time of his arrest, Smiley had in his possession eight maps, four of which Yale immediately claimed were from its holdings and were valued at more than $328,000. Among the other four was the first map printed in North America. Drawn by John Foster in 1677 and known as the "Boston Foster," this famous map had originally been folded into a copy of William Hubbard's book "A Narrative of the Troubles with the Indians." Without the map, the book is worth about $35,000; with the map, it is worth more than $250,000, according to William Reese, an expert on early Americana. Smiley's copy, it later turned out, was not an original but a facsimile, further adding to the mystery.

Eager to know more, I wondered whether the Hubbard book and possibly even the map would have been included in Readex digital edition of Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans, 1639-1800. Based on Charles Evans' "American Bibliography of Early American Imprints (1639-1800)," Early American Imprints, Series I includes virtually every book, pamphlet and broadside printed in America over this 160-year period. With Web-based access to this digital edition, I thought I would find out.

Exploring the 'Boston Foster' Map Mystery: Using Current Writings to Discover the American Past


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


Conducting Biographical Research in Government Publications: John C. Frémont and the U.S. Congressional Serial Set

Although John C. Frémont faded into relative obscurity in the 20th century, he was without question one of the best known public figures of his time. He may also be one of the few individuals not a president, cabinet member or longtime member of Congress whose career is so fully documented in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set. More importantly, he may be the only 19th-century figure whose public career was launched and sustained by Serial Set publications.

Frémont was an explorer and cartographer, an author, a Civil War general and departmental commander, a wealthy entrepreneur and railroad speculator, not to mention a senator, presidential candidate and territorial governor. However, today his name is perhaps best known to Americans for the 2.1 million lights that are part of the sound and light show on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas, the home of the much-broadcast World Series of Poker.

Frémont's military career began when a family friend obtained for him a commission from President Van Buren as a Second Lieutenant in the newly organized Corps of Topographical Engineers with an assignment to accompany the French émigré astronomer and cartographer Joseph N. Nicollet on an expedition to map the upper Mississippi drainage.

Conducting Biographical Research in Government Publications: John C. Frémont and the U.S. Congressional Serial Set


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