In Which One Digital Archive Nearly Replicates One Existing Archive

In recent weeks I’ve spilled a fair amount of ink considering how both methodology and access shape the Adverts 250 Project. I’ve demonstrated three different levels of access to newspapers printed in 1766 included in Early American Newspapers: 14 via my college’s library, 15 via the Boston Public Library’s electronic resources (including the extremely significant addition of the Pennsylvania Gazette) and 21 via the digital resources available in the reading room at the American Antiquarian Society (which has access to all the titles in Early American Newspapers because the AAS and Readex are partners in the endeavor).

I’ve also demonstrated how my methodology for selecting advertisements (each must come from that date or a newspaper published most immediately before that date in cases of no newspapers printed on a particular date) has caused certain newspapers to receive disproportionate coverage due to most newspapers being published at the beginning of the week and relatively few at the end.

Feb 19 - Masthead for New-York Gazette 2:18:1766
Masthead for an Extraordinary (“Extra”) to the New-York Gazette (February 18, 1766).

I’ve made promises that when my Public History students’ tenure as guest curators comes to an end that I will resort to the resources available in the AAS’s reading room as a means of featuring a greater number of publications and achieving more extended geographic reach.

 

However unintentionally, I may have implied that accessing Early American Newspapers at the American Antiquarian Society means that I am working from a complete archive of publications from 1766. There are several reasons why this assumption is not completely accurate. The project will be migrating toward the best possible digital access, but that is not the same as complete access to every newspaper in an archive. Today I’d like to examine how closely the most extensive access to Early American Newspapers mirrors what is available in the stacks at the AAS.

Recall that I previously identified these newspapers printed at some point in 1766 (from Edward Connery Lathem’s Chronological Tables of American Newspapers, 1690-1820) that are not available via even the AAS’s most extensive access to Early American Newspapers.

New Hampshire

  • Portsmouth Mercury (last known September 29)

New York

  • New-York Gazette or Weekly Post-Boy

Pennsylvania

  • [Germantown] Wahre und Wahrscheinliche Begebenheiten (only known February 24)

North Carolina

  • [Wilmington] North-Carolina Gazette (last known February 26)

South Carolina

  • [Charleston] South-Carolina and American General Gazette
  • [Charleston] South-Carolina Gazette (suspended starting October 31, 1765; resumed June 2, 1766)
  • [Charleston] South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal
Feb 19 - Masthead for Connecticut Courant 2:17:1766
Masthead for the Connecticut Courant (February 17, 1766).

I consulted the AAS’s online catalog and, especially, Clarence to find out if the AAS collections included these newspapers. (Clarence – named for Clarence Brigham, librarian (1908-1930) and director (1930-1959) of the AAS and author of the two-volume History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690-1820 – is a database that indicates which specific issues of early American newspapers are in the AAS collections, replicating and updating portions of Brigham’s monumental bibliography.) Here’s what I discovered:

 

  • Portsmouth Mercury: scattered issues from 1766.
  • New-York Gazette or Weekly Post-Boy: weekly issues and occasional supplements through October 9.
  • Wahre und Wahrscheinliche Begebenheiten: photostat copy of only known issue (as indicated in the catalog record; Clarence does not specify this detail).
  • North-Carolina Gazette: AAS does not possess any issues.
  • South-Carolina and American General Gazette: scattered issues from 1768 through 1778, but none from 1766.
  • South-Carolina Gazette: one damaged issue from 1766 along with scattered issues from 1737, 1740, 1760, 1763, 1767, 1768, 1770, 1772, and 1774.
  • South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal: scattered issues from 1766 as well as scattered issues from 1768 through 1775.

Based on these findings, it appears that digital access to newspapers printed in 1766 via Early American Newspapers very nearly replicates the holdings of the American Antiquarian Society. For the most part, the AAS possesses only scattered issues of the titles not included in Early American Newspapers. This is a major achievement that allows researchers to view the contents of these publications while also preserving the originals.

For the purposes of this project, a digital archive that nearly completely replicates the newspaper holdings of the AAS (at least, those printed in 1766) also streamlines the research process. Having compiled a calendar of which newspapers were printed on which dates in 1766, I can quickly scan the relevant issues when selecting an advertisement to feature on any given date. I imagine that the reading room staff at the AAS also appreciates that I am not repeatedly requesting large bound volumes of eighteenth-century newspapers that they then have to page, process, deliver to me, and later return to their designated places in the closed stacks.

On the other hand, for other sorts of projects, the research process goes much more smoothly and efficiently when I can quickly – but carefully – flip through the pages of a bound volume of newspapers, scanning for particular content. To preserve the originals, scrolling through microfilm copies serves the same purpose. When it’s necessary to examine a large number of issues published sequentially, digital access via Early American Newspapers can be slow and cumbersome by comparison. That’s not a criticism but rather recognition that digital surrogates are not always the best format for conducting research. (On the flip side, the ability to do keyword searches in Early American Newspapers can streamline the research process significantly. I’ll write more about the virtues and imperfections of keyword searching digitized newspapers some other time.)

Feb 19 - Masthead for Boston Evening-Post 2:17:1766
Masthead for the Boston Evening-Post (February 17, 1766).

I noted above that in the coming months this project will migrate to the best possible digital access, but that is not the same as complete access to every newspaper in an archive (although in this case it is really close). Next week I will consider the difference between access to every newspaper in an archive and access to every newspaper printed. Once again, these distinctions may seem merely academic at first glance, but I continue to maintain that researchers must be aware of the scope and limitations of their resources and we have an obligation to others who read our work to share that information.

 

As I consider these issues, I keep returning to two of the main arguments presented by Kenneth Carpenter (Harvard Libraries, retired) and Michael Winship (English, University of Texas – Austin) in their keynote address at the Digital Antiquarian Conference last May: (1) digital sources should be consulted as complements to, rather than replacements for, original sources and (2) be conscious of the metadata that provides the foundation for digitized sources so you know how closely digital surrogates replicate original documents.

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