What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“PROPOSED to be published, a PAMPHLET.”
Digital surrogates have significantly expanded the ability of scholars and the general public to access historical sources. The Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project would not be possible without the databases of digitized eighteenth-century newspapers created by institutions like the American Antiquarian Society and Colonial Williamsburg forming partnerships with companies like Accessible Archives and Readex. Such databases make sources available online as well as portable when downloaded for further reference. This greatly expands the questions we can ask – and answer – about the past.
Yet we must also be careful consumers of digitized sources: not all digital surrogates are created equal. Consider, for instance, these two digitized versions of the same advertisement from the final page of the February 3, 1768, edition of the Georgia Gazette. Although they contain the same content, they look rather different from each other. The first is much more legible than the second, especially to readers with less experience working with digitized sources.
Why do these two images appear so different? Although I’ve converted both to jpegs, that is not the original format of either when I downloaded them from Readex’s America’s Historical Newspapers. The first image represents what users see on their screen when they examine the newspaper in the database, a greyscale rendition of the page derived from a photograph of the original. It disguises the actual color and texture of the eighteenth-century newspaper, but the visual variations do make it possible for the human eye to distinguish what was printed on the page and what bled through from the other side. I acquired this image by selecting Readex’s option to “Print,” which opened a new page with instructions for printing the entire page of the newspaper (complete with a citation at the top). I then deviated from the procedure intended by Readex by instead dragging a gif image of the entire page to my desktop before cropping the advertisement and converting it into a jpeg (which I have learned through trial and error is the most efficient method for pursuing this project). Had I followed through on the instructions provided by Readex, I could have printed a copy of the greyscale image of the entire page or saved it to my computer as a PDF (which I then could have cropped and converted into a jpeg, achieving the same result but requiring a few extra clicks on my part).
The second image resulted from using a different method to download the page from Readex’s database. America’s Historical Newspapers has a very useful function that allows users to “Download Issue” as a multipage PDF (which can then be cropped and converted into jpegs, as I did to create the second image of today’s advertisement). Rather than working page by page, this saves a great deal of time when it comes to the type of research I do on this project. However, when I select the “Download Issue” function it remediates the newspaper into black-and-white images rather than greyscale. The resulting images are not nearly as legible since it is more difficult to recognize what was printed on the page, what bled through from the other side, and what represents creases, paper texture, or discolorations of the page. Although portable, such images are not as accessible as their greyscale counterparts.
This compromises some of the convenience and functionality of the “Download Issue” option. It saves time, but sometimes at the expense of legibility. When working with black-and-white PDFs of entire issues, sometimes it becomes necessary to return to online database to examine the greyscale image, negating the portability of the PDF.
As digital surrogates proliferate, their users – scholars, students, and the general public – must be aware of their variations. Each digital surrogate remediates an original document. Some result from multiple generations of remediation. In the process, the images have been altered, sometimes to a greater and sometimes to a lesser degree, so users must be wary that they are not viewing a representation exactly as they would experience seeing the original document. They must devise research strategies that allow them to effectively use the digital surrogates that provide greater access to historical sources.