What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week (or last week)?
“The Price of FLOUR.”
The new semester will soon begin. With it, undergraduate students will once again make contributions to the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project. That work gives them experience working in digital archives. As every historian knows, the archives, including digital archives, sometimes present mysteries to be solved and problems to figure out. That is one of my favorite parts of working with undergraduates on these digital humanities projects: they develop sufficient familiarity with digital archives that they recognize inconsistencies in how information is presented and then investigate how to explain or resolve those inconsistencies.
Such is the case with the August 9, 1770, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette available via Accessible Archives. Before looking at that issue more closely, I believe that it is important to acknowledge that the inconsistencies present in the digital presentation of this newspaper are the result of the sort of human error that makes its way into any cataloging project. Yet archivists, catalogers, and others who work in the archives or contribute to the production of digital archives are not alone in introducing errors into the presentation, organization, and citation of historical sources. Historians and other scholars who rely on the careful work done by archivists make their own errors that they then have to unravel, often with the help of archivists who generously lend their own expertise. Throughout the production of the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project, for instance, I gather significant numbers of digitized primary sources from multiple databases and attempt to impose order on them with consistent filename conventions. However, no matter how carefully I go about collecting and organizing these materials, I sometimes introduce mistakes through simple human error. That being the case, the examination of the South-Carolina Gazette that follows is not intended as an indictment of the work done by archivists and others in making that newspaper accessible to readers, but instead a celebration of the occasional quirkiness of the archive. This is an example of a mini-mystery easily solved and resolved, even by novice researchers who are having their first experiences in the (digitized) archive.
Accessible Archives’s digitized representation of the August 9, 1770, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette consists of nine pages. In and of itself, that should raise a red flag for anyone with rudimentary familiarity with eighteenth-century newspapers. Most consisted of four pages created by printing two pages on each side of a broadsheet and then folding it in half. When printers issued supplements, some had six or eight pages, but, in general, newspapers tended to have an even number of pages. Printers did not usually leave any space blank by circulating supplements printed on only one side. So, the nine pages in the August 9 issue raises questions. Eight of those pages contained two columns, but the second page included three. Readers with greater experience working with digitized newspapers would recognize at a glance that the pages with two columns and the page with three columns were printed on sheets of different sizes; novice researchers should at least notice the difference in format. Apparently, Peter Timothy, the printer, did not have access to larger sheets for three columns per page on four pages and instead opted to print two columns per page on eight pages using smaller sheets. Even if readers are not certain of the origins of the questionable page, they can figure out that the page with three columns does not belong with the August 9 issue. Readers with more experience also note that the page with three columns has a colophon at the bottom, a feature reserved for the final page rather than the second or any other page. (Note the colophon immediately below the advertisement in the image above.) A news item in the first column includes this dateline: “CHARLES-TOWN, AUGUST 2.” This suggests that the orphan page most likely belongs with the previous edition of the South-Carolina Gazette, the issue published on August 2, 1770. Sure enough, Accessible Archives includes it as the final page of that issue.
How did it end up as part of the August 9 edition in the archive of digitized newspapers I downloaded and compiled for easy reference? My first thought was that I had perhaps not been careful enough in naming the digital file. As a user of the archive, had I introduced incorrect information through human error when I gathered research materials to consult at a later time? Talk to anyone who works in a research library and you will hear stories of scholars contacting them weeks, months, or even years later for more information about sources because the scholars have questions about their own inadequate notes and citations. When I consulted Accessible Archives, I discovered that their August 9 edition includes the extra page. In this case, the human error was not my own, though it certainly has been on other occasions. Somehow the digitized image of the fourth page of the August 2 edition was inserted twice in the digital archive, once in the appropriate place as the final page of the August 2 issue and once as the second page of the August 9 issue. Thanks to a variety of context clues – odd number of pages, discrepancy in the number of columns, colophon in an unexpected place, dated news items – figuring out where the page belonged was fairly straightforward for someone with extensive experience using archives of digitized eighteenth-century newspapers. Novice researchers, such as undergraduate students in my classes, would have been able to note that one of the pages in the August 9 edition did not belong, even if they did not yet understand where the page should have appeared in the digital archive. In my experience, when undergraduates spot this sort of minor idiosyncrasy in the digital archive, it enhances their confidence as researchers. Their initial confusion motivates them to figure out the problem and consult with me when they encounter something that does not accord with their expectations after their experiences working with a digital archive that is otherwise consistently organized. For me, the minor inconvenience caused by a small human error in the much more expansive digital archive is worth the teachable moment as undergraduates learn to navigate how primary sources have been cataloged and presented for consumption. Even when I’m not working with undergraduates, this sort of mini-mystery can be a pleasure to solve.
This example merits one additional comment about the difference between using the digital archive and consulting original documents in an archive. The remediation of the August 2, 1770, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette made it possible for one of the pages to inadvertently get inserted a second time as part of the issue published a week later. It would have been impossible for readers to encounter such an error when consulting the originals, though they very well could introduce their own errors when taking photographs and notes. Consulting digital archives sometimes presents its own challenges. Historians and other scholars cannot be oblivious to the good work done by archivists of various sorts or else they will not be able to recognize mysteries to be solved on those rare occasions that human error introduces discrepancies into the archive.