Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


From Student Researcher to Careful Scholar: Tips from a Lexicographer

As a lexicographer, dictionary web site editor and co-host of the KBPS radio show "A Way With Words," I receive a large number of questions from the public about word histories.

Many of these queries come from students who want help with their studies. As long as I'm not asked to research the entirety of an assignment, I try to provide a few key sources, a few examples of useful searches and to warn them off of sources I know to be misleading or wrong. My overall intent is to educate these students on how to better find digital data for all of their research, that is, to help them become careful scholars.

For example, I can see in the logs of my dictionary web site that some web searchers share the characteristics of bad drivers: either they are too timid or they are too aggressive. The ability of Google to turn up excellent results no matter how poorly a query is composed seems to bring on a high level of impatience. While conducting searches on sites other than Google, these hurried searchers rarely try alternative approaches like breaking compounds up into two words or making two words a single-word compound, using plurals or conjugated forms, or looking for intentional misspellings, such as eye dialect. They also search as if all query functions on all web sites can handle natural language queries, when, in fact, few can. Searchers often misspell words and don't notice. (When they do, I see the correctly spelled word appear immediately after in a new search). So, I tell these students that becoming a careful scholar means to search with an eye for error—his or hers and others'—and to keep in mind the variety and variability of English orthography.

From Student Researcher to Careful Scholar: Tips from a Lexicographer


American Mystery Meat: Unriddling the Mince Pie

I first became attuned to the historical enigma of mince pie in the mid-1990s while doing research for my book American Babel: Rogue Radio Broadcasters of the Jazz Age (University of Pennsylvania Press: 2005), a study of forgotten independent (i.e. non-corporate) radio stations of the 1920s and early '30s. This was way back in pre-digital times, and I was spending countless hours at the helm of a microfilm reader, blindly trolling through the period press for references to my subjects. My progress would have been slow even if my magpie brain hadn't been continually distracted by newspaper stories and memes unrelated to my task.

Chief among said distractions were references to mince pie. These I found everywhere, and always in contexts that baffled me. I still have photocopies of two exemplary items. One is a 1924 cartoon entitled “Movie of a Man and a Hot Mince Pie,” which depicts a middle-class diner in a pince-nez happily tucking into a steaming slice of mince, then going into convulsions and being whisked away in an ambulance.

The other is a 1925 profile of a doughty centenarian bearing the headline “At 107 She Is Fond of Hot Mince Pie”

American Mystery Meat: Unriddling the Mince Pie


Exploring the Explorers: Government-Sponsored Expeditions in the 19th Century

The nineteenth century was the last great age of exploration on the earth. …American exploration, in particular federally sponsored exploration, began in the nineteenth century at an advanced level as the beneficiary of the developments in the arts and science of exploration of proceeding centuries, but developed some special characteristics of its own.
– Spy Out the Land [1]

In the 19th-century, the United States government spearheaded hundreds of exploring expeditions throughout America and around the world. To record the many works published about those trips, Adelaide R. Hasse—the first Superintendent of Documents librarian—compiled Reports of Explorations Printed in the Documents of the United States Government [2] in 1899. This bibliography is not only a "who's who" of 19th-century explorers but also a travel guide to the many places the government sent these expeditions, including the Amazon, the Arctic, Japan, Mexico, Mississippi River, Yellowstone and many other locations. This article will provide tips on finding a few of the fascinating works cited by Hasse and published in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set, 1817-1980 and other Archive of Americana collections.

Adelaide R. Hasse (1868-1953) Superintendent of Documents Librarian (1895-1897)Adelaide R. Hasse (1868-1953) Superintendent of Documents Librarian (1895-1897)

Exploring the Explorers: Government-Sponsored Expeditions in the 19th Century


The Digital Detective: Tracking Criminals When the Trail Runs Cold

When I began work on a history of American counterfeiting between the Revolution and the Civil War, I was faced with some peculiar research problems. With a few rare exceptions, counterfeiting during this period was a crime that was not prosecuted by federal authorities. The problem was instead left to state and local law enforcement officials who were often outnumbered and incompetent. This was partly a consequence of the fact that the paper money in circulation originated not with the federal government, but with hundreds of state-chartered banks. But it was also a reflection of the relative weakness of the federal government's policing.

And therein lay a serious problem, not only for the police of the day, but for the historian who would attempt to reconstruct this kind of criminal activity. Counterfeiting involved vast numbers of players spread out across state and even national lines. This meant that local law enforcement officials often operated in the dark as to the scope and scale of the network of manufacturers, distributors, retailers and passers of bogus bills. Local law enforcement records—what few have survived—often provide but a fleeting snapshot of an individual counterfeiter who typically posted bail and fled, never to be seen again. What, then, is a historian to do, particularly a historian who wants to reconstruct the entire criminal careers of some of these colorful individuals?

The Digital Detective: Tracking Criminals When the Trail Runs Cold


Whitman in Wisconsin: Uncovering his Legacy with "Labor-Saving Machines"

No labor-saving machine,
Nor discovery have I made;
Nor will I be able to leave behind me any wealthy bequest to found a hospital or library,
Nor reminiscence of any deed of courage, for America,
Nor literary success, nor intellect—nor book for the book-shelf;
Only a few carols, vibrating through the air, I leave,
For comrades and lovers.

—Walt Whitman, "No Labor-Saving Machine," 1867.

In a rare moment of humility recorded in this poem, Walt Whitman was circumspect about his legacy. His lasting contribution to the world would be no "labor-saving machine," or act of philanthropy. Even Leaves of Grass, into which he had collected a lifetime of reflections and assertions about democracy, the body, the spirit, the physical world, seemed transient. Earlier Whitman had predicted a demand for "copious thousands of copies"1 of Leaves of Grass, but here sees no "literary success" as his lasting achievement. Whitman instead saw his legacy as a ripple in the zeitgeist, "a few carols vibrating through the air" to perhaps be tuned in later by likeminded souls.

Whitman in Wisconsin: Uncovering his Legacy with "Labor-Saving Machines"


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