Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


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


Integrating Browse with Search: Finding Needles in Haystacks

Expert searchers know that one of the best strategies for getting precise search results quickly and effectively is to use metadata when constructing searches.

Many have dedicated countless hours learning the search fields, subject headings, search syntax and interface functionality of numerous databases in order to efficiently satisfy information requests. But in today's world, user expectations are higher than ever. Not only do they expect precise results quickly, they expect to be able to do it themselves without having to become expert searchers. Learning the advanced functionality of various interfaces or Library of Congress Subject Headings is not on their agenda.

Thus, the challenge for designers of information products is to expose those capabilities in a way that puts precise results within easy grasp of any user. The integrated browse/search design of the Readex Archive of Americana collections is an example of how to approach this challenge, and based on customer and user feedback, it appears to be a success. The following are the core principles behind the design:

Principle #1: Just because it's powerful and sophisticated doesn't mean it's advanced; presentation makes all the difference.
In most databases, field searching is relegated to the advanced search portion of the interface. Even when it isn't, users are generally expected to know what the fields represent, what values might be useful as search terms (e.g., Library of Congress Subject Headings), how to combine fields with other fields or full-text search terms, etc.

Integrating Browse with Search: Finding Needles in Haystacks


The Silence of the Suffragettes: Women's Right to Vote in Congressional Publications

The English word "suffrage" is derived from the Latin "suffragium," meaning a "voting tablet"—by extension a "vote," and by further extension a "voice" or "say" in government. It probably comes as no surprise that in the publications of the U.S. Congress it took a long time for the voice of women to be heard and women's suffrage to become a significant issue.

In the publications that comprise the "American State Papers"—the public papers of the first 14 Congresses and a bit beyond—as well as in the Reports and Documents of the "U.S. Congressional Serial Set," there is much discussion of suffrage. However, this discussion is most often in reference to white and male suffrage.

Consider this text from Miscellaneous Publication 141 in the American State Papers on the political status of the city of Washington, in which women are placed between children and persons non compos mentis (that is, exhibiting mental unsoundness):

And be it enacted, That all the lands belonging to minors, persons absent out of the State, married women, and persons non compos mentis

The grounds for denying suffrage to women are, alas, a legacy of prejudice for which an appeal to the "natural order," precedence, practical considerations and even to the Almighty was in this case, as in many others, sought as a justification for something that reason itself could not justify. In Serial Set Report 546 on political conditions in Rhode Island in 1844, we read:

The Silence of the Suffragettes: Women's Right to Vote in Congressional Publications


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


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


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


Pensions for Soldiers' Widows: Congressional Attitudes During the 19th Century

Congress, as caretaker for the nation, has always revered and honored those soldiers who served their country. The Readex digital edition of the U.S. Congressional Serial Set can be used to reveal the ways in which Congress' attitudes toward what was appropriate changed during the 19th century.

In 1828, Congress passed a bill for the relief of certain surviving officers and soldiers of the Army of the Revolution. As a result, Captain William Anderson was granted a pension for life. Upon his death, in 1830, his widow petitioned Congress to continue the payment to her. The answer of the Committee on Pensions was unequivocal1:

"The title of the act itself seems to indicate the intention of Congress to confine its benefits to the 'surviving officers and soldiers.' No provisions were made for the widows of deceased officers or soldiers."

"It is to be presumed, from the resolution, that Captain Anderson, during his life, received the benefits and liberal provisions of the act; and the committee are constrained to say, that the petitioner has of course received more of the bounty and liberality of the country for the services of her late husband than the widows of officers whose husbands died previous to the passage of the act."

In an act passed in 1836, Congress established the rule that the widow was entitled to a pension if the soldier had served after the marriage. The rules were relaxed in 1838 to allow a widow the pension for five years that would have been allowed for her husband had he lived (however, this lasted only until 1844).

Pensions for Soldiers' Widows: Congressional Attitudes During the 19th Century


Serial Set, Breakfast of Champions: Setting the Table for Librarians

Although the "U.S. Congressional Serial Set" is an extensive collection of documents that makes the history of the United States come alive, many librarians have been reluctant to highlight this resource at the reference desk or in their library instruction classes. Until a few years ago, the Serial Set had been available only in often-fragile printed volumes and in microfiche with limited indexing, which made identifying and then finding relevant materials challenging, even for experienced librarians. In this article, I will describe how a new Web-based edition of these historical U.S. government publications became available at San Jose State's King Library.

Formed by a unique collaboration between the public library of San Jose and San Jose State University, King Library serves the diverse research needs of students, faculty, staff and the community. Prior to this merger, the San Jose State University Library was the designated federal depository for San Jose. However, most inquiries for federal resources came from the University's faculty and students. For example, history and political science students were often required to analyze the evolution of U.S. legislation and policy.

Since the merger, our academic librarians have become aware of the public community's research interests. For example, the California Department of Education has provided social studies teachers with a new set of frameworks that incorporate the use of primary sources to develop historical literacy concepts (California, 1997). As a result, students from local high schools have started to visit our library to find primary resources for their social studies assignments, many of which could effectively utilize the Serial Set.

Serial Set, Breakfast of Champions: Setting the Table for Librarians


Transcontinental Railroad Construction and Chinese Laborers in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set

Readex's ambitious digitalization of the U.S. Congressional Serial Set has provided unprecedented and convenient access to a mountain of valuable source materials. The abundant and wide variety of information contained in the Congressional Serial Set serves many different disciplines, including Asian Studies and Asian American Studies. The contribution that Chinese laborers made to building the transcontinental railroad is one of the many interesting topics documented in the Set.

In 1845, a proposal for building a transcontinental railroad was presented to the Congress. The significance of having a transcontinental railroad connecting the Atlantic and Pacific was first presented from a military perspective: "It would enable us in the short space of eight days (and perhaps less) to concentrate all the forces of our vast country at any point, from Maine to Oregon, in the interior or on the coast."[1] The railroad would also favorably affect American life in terms of both passenger and commodity transportation. "Such easy and rapid communication, with such facilities for exchanging the different products of the different parts, would bring all our immensely wide-spread population together as one vast city, the moral and social effects of which must harmonize all together as one family, with but one interest — the general good of all."[2]

Transcontinental Railroad Construction and Chinese Laborers in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set


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

On the heels of the release of his second report, John C. Frémont was sent out again to map a better route through the Sierras to California. This time he took with him 60 well armed men and perhaps secret orders to act as he thought best if hostilities with Mexico seemed imminent.

This third expedition, his final government-sponsored expedition of exploration, quickly segued into the Bear Flag Revolt, which he essentially instigated and led. At its successful conclusion he was appointed Provisional Governor of California by the American commander on the spot, Commodore Stockton of the U.S. Navy, but eventually fell prey to a jurisdictional dispute between the Army and the Navy. In August 1847 he was taken into custody by one-time friend, now bitter enemy, General Stephen Watts Kearny and taken back to Washington under arrest to await court martial in the fall of that year.

In January 1848, despite a valiant and vigorous defense, Fremont was found guilty of mutiny, refusing a lawful command, and conduct prejudicial to military discipline. He was ordered dismissed from the service. President Polk rescinded the punishment, but declined to overturn the conviction itself. Feeling ill treated, Fremont resigned his commission in protest.

It is interesting to note that all of the related court martial materials, none of which were congressional in nature, appear in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set because the President collected them and submitted them to Congress in the form of a message (S.Exec.Doc. 33, 30-1). This is a reflection both of the importance of the underlying issues and Fremont's continued popularity in Congress and among the public.

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


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