Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


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


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


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


Of Presidents and Papers

The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, established at Princeton University, is preparing the authoritative and comprehensive edition of the correspondence and papers of our nation’s third president. As historians editing Jefferson’s incoming and outgoing correspondence, we are responsible for gathering documents and making them available to posterity in an accurate, transcribed, and contextualized format through our published and digital editions. Our “humanities laboratory” (as our general editor Barbara Oberg refers to it), consists of folders of more than 70,000 photocopied manuscripts gathered from over 900 repositories and private collections. These manuscripts line every wall and fill almost every surface area of our small space and are the core of our collaborative scholarly enterprise.

We never tire of sharing with others the process of producing a documentary edition. When we hosted an annual documents-based seminar for high school students last year, the teenagers looked incredulous when we explained that our compilation of Jefferson correspondence, some in multiple versions, is the single most comprehensive resource of its kind in the world. The techno-savvy students were equally intrigued by the clunky object that, until recently, occupied a corner of our office. We explained that this microfilm reader had enabled us to search thousands of documents from federal repositories and other smaller collections. As we demonstrated this alien technology to a texting and tweeting generation, we were reminded that not long ago these microfilmed manuscripts or microcard collections were the only access points to archives short of in-person visits.

Of Presidents and Papers


The Importance of Newspapers in Chronicling the American Revolution

I used to think I knew quite a bit about the American Revolution—until I became a re-enactor. I certainly knew that the war consisted of more than the battles of Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, Trenton and Princeton, Saratoga, Camden, Guilford Courthouse, and Yorktown. I soon learned that even the most detailed history books don’t cover all the military engagements.

When I participated in the 225th anniversary re-enactments, I overheard fellow interpreters commenting about some of these events they knew nothing about. There had been no guidebooks published about the Revolutionary War since the nation’s bicentennial in 1975. Moreover, those guidebooks only covered the major, better known events. This compelled me to begin work on what I intended as a comprehensive, if not exhaustive, military history of the American War for Independence.

The Importance of Newspapers in Chronicling the American Revolution


Improving Public Policymaking with the Help of Digital Archives


Adam Smith (1723-1790) predicted the financial crisis of 2008. Well, sort of. He favored numerous small producers over a few large ones, especially where the big companies were corporations, which he loathed because they were generally so poorly governed. After examining the historical record and thinking through the economic incentives involved, Smith concluded that corporations would strive to become monopolies and that they would suffer chronically from agency problems, including the ability of corporate managers to bilk customers and stockholders. Smith would have seen the subprime mortgage and concomitant crises as simply the latest battle in a centuries-long war between principals (owners) and their agents (employees, in this case management). Managers won this time by paying themselves huge irrevocable bonuses on the basis of ephemeral paper profits. It was not the first time managers were able to expropriate significant value from stockholders and it certainly will not be the last.

Improving Public Policymaking with the Help of Digital Archives


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


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


"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.

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


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