Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


Lake Erie by Way of Guangzhou: Or, The Other Canal Boom

What do you do when you can’t stop yourself from falling into a ditch?

In my case it was “Clinton’s Ditch”—better known as the Erie Canal, opened in 1825. It seemed that every time I went to America’s Historical Newspapers to research my dissertation—I write on the politics of early American trade with China—every query, no matter how carefully constructed, returned discussions of canals. With every “search” button clicked, I felt De Witt Clinton (he of “Ditch” fame) drag me a step more away from the salty tea-clippers at Canton, and further into the freshwater depths of the New York backcountry, yammering all the way about locks, average elevations, and the glorious future of the wheat flour trade.


De Witt Clinton, A Man with a Plan (for a Ditch)
(Source: Rembrandt Peale, Portrait of DeWitt Clinton
oil on canvas, 28 5/8 x 23 3/8, 1823, Wikimedia.org)

Clinton, a political impresario who served as a U.S. Senator, mayor of New York City, and Governor of New York State, was the chief force behind the creation of the Erie Canal, the new nation’s most ambitious and successful infrastructure project. In the early nineteenth century, waterways were the quickest and most reliable way to move freight. Unfortunately, nature did not always provide—but building canals to the hinterland, it was thought, would shrink the distance between pioneer farmers in the West and the hungry urban markets of the East. Boosters predicted that new canals would create a virtuous cycle of agricultural expansion, population growth, and increasing wealth—a recipe for national greatness.

Lake Erie by Way of Guangzhou: Or, The Other Canal Boom


Nineteenth Century Imperial Manhood in Clipper Ship Cards

Gallant warriors charging into battle. Frontier conquerors. Wild landscapes. Noble Savages. Patriotic images from the early republic. Glorious clipper ships sailing to distant lands. Such visions might resemble sensational Hollywood depictions of the wild United States frontier. In fact, they represent one of Readex’s most interesting collections of nineteenth-century ephemera. Known as Clipper Ship Sailing Cards, they offer scholars a myriad of opportunities to explore relationships between maritime commerce, cultural representations of U.S. expansionist policies, and mid-nineteenth constructions of gender.

When gold was discovered on the American River near Sacramento, California, in January of 1848, news spread quickly and northeastern clipper ship companies scrambled to transport large numbers of prospectors to the west coast as fast as possible. Scholars estimate that within ten years, well over 500,000 men made the trip, with most braving the long voyage in clipper ships sailing around the tip of South America. In order to compete for passengers, ship companies began promoting the size, weight and speed of their ships by displaying 4 x 6 inch, vividly illustrated cards in office windows throughout port districts of cities such as Boston and New York.

Nineteenth Century Imperial Manhood in Clipper Ship Cards


Academic Networking 2.0: Historians and Social Media


As the academic job market in history continues to shrink, networking has become something no tenure-track hopeful can afford to ignore. At the same time, the rise of social media has afforded historians with new and inventive ways to network with colleagues from around the world. Whether posting from conferences in real-time on Twitter, connecting with fellow historians on Facebook, or playing active roles in the blogosphere, younger historians are utilizing social media for both professional networking and scholarly development.

Social media is well on its way to fundamentally changing the dynamics of academic networking. Before the internet age, historians generally developed connections either through their mentors’ participation in a kind of academic “old-boy” network or their own efforts a few times a year at large conferences. In the internet’s early days, historians connected with each other on Usenet groups or listservs such as H-Net, an antecedent of today’s academic online networking tools.

Academic Networking 2.0: Historians and Social Media


Ephemeral Loyalties? Consumption, Commerce and Jeffersonian Politics, 1806-1815

While the Revolution may have secured Americans their political independence, economic independence remained elusive. As early as 1783, Americans realized that they had not extricated themselves in any meaningful way from the mercantile system of the Atlantic world, still dominated by European imperial might. 1 This realization cut especially deep as the Napoleonic Wars escalated. By 1805 American sailors were at risk of impressment by the British navy. Worse still, maritime commerce came under attack, as the British outlawed America’s lucrative carrying trade. By 1806, President Thomas Jefferson was forced to concede that many of the economic problems that America had faced as a colony still plagued the newly formed nation.2

In response, Jefferson fell back on pre-Revolutionary tactics to assert his nation’s strength. Imposing a highly unpopular non-importation law on Americans in 1806, he attempted to fashion grassroots non-consumption into a federally administered campaign of commercial retribution against the British. The law required that merchants refuse to ship certain British and French goods into the country. Although nominally enforced by an under-developed customs-house and the undermanned Coast Guard, in practice it was a law that relied on the patriotism of merchants and consumers to refuse to consume imported wares.3 The legislation re-politicized the consumption of imported goods in America. Indeed, Jefferson’s legislation was fiercely opposed. Federalists were furious to find themselves subject to Jefferson’s demands. Old guard Republicans were appalled that Jefferson should attempt to re-instate a mercantilist economy, only decades after Americans had fought so hard for free trade. Thus, Jefferson re-ignited a debate over the connection between consumption and patriotism that would endure all the way through the War of 1812 and on into the late 1820s.

Ephemeral Loyalties? Consumption, Commerce and Jeffersonian Politics, 1806-1815


Preserving the Library in the Digital Age

Librarians, educators, journalists and others often rave about the potential and promise of electronic databases. Let's face it, I rave, too. For my previous book, Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution, and my current book on the Boston Tea Party, I have found Readex collections like America's Historical Newspapers and Early American Imprints invaluable for discovering new sources, learning more about eighteenth-century readers, confirming citations and drawing new comparisons.

I've had a lot of chances to reflect on how I gain access to sources. As a scholar whose sources are over 200 years old, it still amazes me how much I can read without ever leaving my study. Sometimes there are frustrating gaps in the available electronic databases, which can be unwieldy or misleading. Still, on occasions when I need to check a fact or a footnote without leaving my study, they're massively convenient.

Preserving the Library in the Digital Age


What's Cooking in the Library? Tested Recipes for Building Digital Libraries

In addition to the ever-increasing interest in digitizing materials for preservation, access and sustainability, interest in creating new digital collections is also on the rise. Digital collections are natural extensions to the idea of the library, an idea which itself has expanded rapidly in recent history—from physical collections to the concept of a collection. As with building physical collections, creating digital collections is arduous and richly rewarding.

For those beginning to create digital collections, the technicalities of digitization are only a small part of the larger process. The larger process requires planning all aspects of the project, especially accessibility and sustainability. Luckily, we can learn from the digitization work of others who have already documented their process. However, the individual requirements of projects emerge from specific collections and institutions and vary accordingly. 1 Those variations require extensive planning time even when using existing models.

In The Mythical Man-Month, Frederick P. Brooks offers a general recipe for software development, comprised of:

  • 1/3 planning
  • 1/6 coding
  • 1/4 component test and early system test
  • 1/4 system test, all components in hand (p. 20)

While Brooks focuses on software engineering, the planning required to develop a digital library project is similar. The longest single chunk of time for the first project iteration should be in planning. Planning is essential to project success because poorly planned projects are difficult to salvage. Brooks' law, "Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later," is equally applicable to many digital library projects.2 Proper planning plots the necessary infrastructure so that time-consuming and costly conversions do not become necessary.

What's Cooking in the Library? Tested Recipes for Building Digital Libraries


Originalism in a Digital Age: An Inquiry into the Right to Bear Arms

The quest for original intent has dominated Second Amendment scholarship, a trend further solidified in the Supreme Court's recent gun case, District of Columbia v. Heller. In the majority opinion, Justice Scalia insisted that the "normal meaning" of the words of the Second Amendment must be used to understand the Framers' intent, not "secret or technical meanings that would not have been known to ordinary citizens in the founding generation."1 But how can scholars (and justices, for that matter) determine the normal meaning of words? How can we divine what the Founders meant when they recognized the right of the people to keep and bear arms?

The debate over the Second Amendment has largely revolved around whether the right to bear arms protects an individual right to self defense or a collective right to keep arms for service in a militia. To date, most scholarship has sampled select quotations from a relatively narrow set of sources to determine the meaning of key phrases like "bear arms." Readex has now made it possible to search the historical record in a systematic and comprehensive way. Indeed, digital archives with keyword search capabilities can help us understand the meaning of historical phrases with relative certainty.

Originalism in a Digital Age: An Inquiry into the Right to Bear Arms


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