What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Samuel Douglass, HAS JUST IMPORTED … GOODS, suitable for this and the approaching season.”
Digital technologies, including keyword searches, often streamline the process of doing history. Keyword searches of digitized newspapers, for instance, allow historians to quickly identify items relevant to their research questions. Yet keyword searches are neither infallible nor comprehensive. They often overlook material that historians could readily identify when examining documents, both original and digital surrogates, with their own eyes.
Consider this advertisement for “A Large and Compleat ASSORTMENT of EAST-INDIA and EUROPEAN GOODS” that Samuel Douglass placed in the October 25, 1769, edition of the Georgia Gazette. Note that the advertiser’s name appears in a distinctive font as a headline. That helped to distinguish Douglass’s advertisement from others. Curious about how many times Douglass deployed this strategy, I did a keyword search via Readex’s America’s Historical Newspapers, the database where I encountered this particular advertisement. I restricted the date to 1769 and the publication to the Georgia Gazette. I selected “Samuel Douglass” as the keyword. The search returned nine results, but did not include this particular advertisement or any other iterations of it. Realizing that optical character recognition often has difficulty with the “long S” used frequently in the eighteenth century, I ran a second keyword search for “Samuel Douglafs.” This yielded zero results.
I knew that this particular advertisement appeared in the Georgia Gazette because I previously downloaded the issue that included it from America’s Historical Newspapers, yet the database’s own keyword search overlooked it. Finding other instances, if there were any, would require systematically viewing every page of the Georgia Gazette. Digital technology certainly made copies of that newspaper originally published in 1769 more accessible, but doing a keyword search was not more efficient. In fact, when it comes to examining a newspaper page by page, accessing each page via a database of digitized images goes much more slowly than consulting the originals. In such instances, accessibility and efficiency are a trade off. Keyword searches have become a powerful tool for historians … sometimes. Depending on the questions they wish to ask, however, sometimes traditional methods yield more results … and more quickly.