Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


The Muslim World in Early U.S. Texts

About a decade ago, I began researching representations of Islam in early national American literary texts; when someone would ask what the subject of my dissertation was, and I gave this answer, I often received responses along the lines of, “Was there any literature about Islam in the early U.S.?” 

The Muslim World in Early U.S. Texts


“Suitable To The Season”: Using Historical Newspapers to Help Reproduce 18th-Century Clothing

Cinnamon, nutmeg, claret, coffee and chocolate are not just spices or beverages; they were adjectives commonly used in the 18th century to describe the color of cloth. Easily visualized today, colors like cinnamon and coffee help us form a picture of goods on the shelf of an 18th-century New England shop.  As a costumer specializing in the accurate reproduction of Colonial Era clothing, I have found Early American Newspapers an invaluable reference source on early American garments.

Source: Hallie Larkin

When studying Colonial Era clothing, naturally the primary source is the original garment. As a first step in the research process, nothing can compare to personal examination of an extant artifact.  From these we can learn how the 18th-century tailor or seamstress constructed the garment, what thread and sewing stitches were used, how the clothing fit on the body, and the textiles used in construction.

As a second step in clothing research, 18th-century portraits should be examined. Oil paintings enable us to see clothing as it was worn, accessories used, changes in fashion, and the physical posture of the 18th-century woman or man. Also we are often able to know who the sitter was, where they lived and when the portrait was painted.

“Suitable To The Season”: Using Historical Newspapers to Help Reproduce 18th-Century Clothing


The Resignation of John Russwurm: Individual Lives in Early American Newspapers

Visiting archives to view old documents can stir strange emotions. Handling manuscripts, the historian sees not only the private words of someone else but even a physical presence: the quiver of an elderly hand, the smudge of a young thumb, the jagged strokes of impatient fingers flying across a page during a few minutes of leisure. Reading old books, likewise, the historian sees not just printed words but also their readers, folding down page corners or arguing in the margins—or, in one case I found, pressing maple leaves in the fashion pages of Harper’s Magazine. This intimacy is unpredictable, like contact with living people.

Digitized sources, on the other hand, are uniquely democratic. They are available to researchers working from far away, and they lower barriers in other ways—allowing a scholar, for example, to quickly search mountains of text for a particular phrase, reducing the advantage of veterans who have spent years studying the same documents. The ease of manipulating digital sources makes it possible to study large subject populations and great periods of time. For this, we owe digital repositories a great debt. But it sometimes can be harder to feel the life in digital sources. They do not necessarily make it easy to understand the text as something fashioned and received by living people.

The Resignation of John Russwurm: Individual Lives in Early American Newspapers


Directing Student Research in Original Sources: A Radical Republicans Experiment


As a full-time high school teacher who aspires to be an independent scholar and a mom, I am always multitasking. My lesson plan for teaching about the Radical Republicans of the Civil War and Reconstruction Era was conceived to serve more than one purpose. On the one hand, it would provide the core of our class discussion and individual engagement with the subject of the Civil War Era. Students would employ and develop their skills for research, writing, and presentation. They would work alone and in groups. Best of all, they would make contributions to my own research project—about Radical Republicans—turning up original documents and making connections that I can hope to include in my forthcoming book, The Revolutionary Republicans, which will be published in 2014 by Hill and Wang.

Directing Student Research in Original Sources: A Radical Republicans Experiment


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


An Undergraduate's Reflections on Original American History Research: How Online Access to Historical Newspapers Helped Prepare an Award-Winning Tea Party Study

Of all the events that occurred during America’s colonial era perhaps none more immediately conjures up images than the Boston Tea Party, when patriots boarded English ships to destroy taxed tea. Nearly a year and a half later, on April 19, 1775, the skirmish between those patriots and British Regulars at Lexington and Concord provoked the shot that was heard “around the world,” a story with which many Americans are also familiar. Undoubtedly, these events merit widespread recognition, for both were key developments in the establishment of the United States. However, by moving immediately from the Tea Party to the beginning of the Revolution, one neglects crucial moments during those intervening sixteen months that helped develop a pervasive unity necessary for a successful war with Britain. That unity derived in part from responses to the Tea Act of 1773, efforts that were spearheaded in Boston but not isolated there. Indeed, reactions throughout the colonies testify to Massachusetts’ importance as the first colony to act decisively in response to the tea’s arrival. That significance is manifested most clearly in the inspired attitudes of New Yorkers, whose actions affirm the influence of the Bostonians’ decision. 1

An Undergraduate's Reflections on Original American History Research: How Online Access to Historical Newspapers Helped Prepare an Award-Winning Tea Party Study


From Mascot to Militant: The Many Campaigns of Seba Smith's "Major Jack Downing"

Readers of the Washington, D.C. newspaper The Daily National Intelligencer witnessed a strange and disturbing transformation in 1847, when the nation’s most popular literary character freely admitted that he had become a greedy, cynical killer. Soon enough this beloved American hero, whose name was synonymous with Yankee Doodle, would threaten to stage a military coup to seize the Capitol and overthrow Congress! Readers of the Early American Newspapers archive can follow along, gleaning important hints to decoding contemporary political rhetoric.


Major Jack Downing.
(Portrait credit: Library of Congress Prints
and Photographs Division)

The Intelligencer, formerly a nonpartisan legislative record, became the flagship of the Whig Party when it split from Andrew Jackson’s Democrats in the early 1830s. But it was during the second year of the war between the United States and Mexico that the newspaper would green-light one of the most audacious political satires in U.S. history. If you imagine a sequel to Forrest Gump in which the benign protagonist masterminds the torture of the Abu Ghraib detainees, you might gather some sense of the controversy produced by the corruption of Seba Smith’s iconic everyman, Major Jack Downing.


Seba Smith (1792-1868).
American humorist and writer.

From Mascot to Militant: The Many Campaigns of Seba Smith's "Major Jack Downing"


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


Using Digital Newspapers to Explore American History and Culture

In 1800, the population of the U.S. was five million, but it was about to explode. By 1820 it had doubled. The population was not only growing, but moving: in 1820, eight million Americans lived east of the Appalachians; by 1860 the population was more than thirty million, but half of them lived in the West.

Newspapers themselves grew dramatically during this period—from fewer than 200 in 1800 to more than 3,000 by 1860. Like no other primary documents can, American newspapers published during the first half of the 19th century vividly capture this dramatic expansion of the nation and movement of its peoples.

During the early 19th century, the first "penny papers" were published, ushering in a democratization of the industry that would open new windows onto all levels of society. Widely regarded as the greatest of these penny-paper dailies, the "New York Herald" had the largest newspaper circulation in the world for many years in the 19th century.

Science and technology played a large role, too, in the ability of newspapers to capture 19th-century life in ever more detail and frequency. Steam ships now brought European newspapers to the East Coast every day; railroads took them west overnight.

Then, in 1846, the telegraph made possible the instantaneous delivery of information. This, alongside the formation of the Associated Press, transformed the news industry as never before. It was also during this period that newspapers themselves began to change, in the process opening up significant new avenues for research into gender, race and society in general.

Using Digital Newspapers to Explore American History and Culture


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


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