What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
This semester I am teaching my department’s Research Method’s course, an upper-level class required for all History majors before they enroll in the capstone research seminar in their senior year. Teaching that class has allowed for many opportunities to introduce students to the primary sources at the center of the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project as well as the various resources that allow historians to access those sources. In particular, we have learned how to navigate several databases of digitized eighteenth-century newspapers, each with a different interface and internal logic.
Throughout the process, I have cautioned students that they must be careful when consulting these databases. If they encounter something that deviates from what they expected to find, then they need to ask why. Historians must often act as detectives, interrogating what happened in the past but also interrogating the manner in which sources have been presented to them. This is in part because no matter how careful any historian or archivist or librarian or cataloger who contributes to the production of these databases it is impossible to exclude human error from the process of making historical documents available for scholars, students, and others to consult.
Consider the February 17, 1770, edition of the Providence Gazette. When consulting the calendar of issues available via Readex’s America’s Historical Newspapers it appears that either John Carter did not publish the Providence Gazette on that day or no extant copies have yet been digitized for the database. Yet the February 17 edition is indeed in the database, just not in the place that users expect to find it. Anyone going through the Providence Gazette in order, issue by issue, as is the methodology for this project, would discover that the February 17 edition has been digitized and made available as part of the February 10 edition. In fact, the calendar indicates that multiple copies of the February 10 edition are available. Upon closer investigation however, it turns out that the first copy is the standard four-page issue for February 10 and the second copy comes in two parts, a two-page Supplement to the Providence Gazette for February 10 and the standard four-page edition of the Providence Gazette for February 17. The database has complete coverage of the Providence Gazette, just not organized as expected or labeled correctly.
This is a minor inconvenience for historians and other users of the database, but it does effectively demonstrate that readers must be careful when examining their sources. The date appears at the top of each page of the Providence Gazette, alerting database users that the issue they expected to find is not the issue they acquired. I advise students that America’s Historical Newspapers rarely deviates from its internal logic, but no database or other method of cataloging historical sources is perfect. Just as we carefully examine and ask questions of our sources, we must also carefully examine and ask questions of the methods for making those sources accessible to us.