Digitized Primary Sources and the Early Republic

Caleb McDaniel has a must-read post at his blog “Offprints” about the way historians of the early American republic are using digitized primary sources in their research.

I don’t spent a lot of my time in early republic, but when I do go there, I find these databases to be invaluable.  (See my piece on the Greenwich Tea Burning in the April 2009 edition of the Readex Report).  These databases are not only indispensable to scholarship, but for those of us working in liberal arts colleges, it allows our students to do primary research in the field.  I am teaching a course on the early republic this semester and all of my students are writing papers that draw from either Evans, Shaw & Shoemaker, or Early American Newspapers.

Here is just a small taste of McDaniel’s post:

Within the pages of the Journal of the Early Republic, the use of such databases has so far run the gamut from casual mentions of keyword search results to more ambitious efforts to build arguments around such results.

Examples of the more casual references include John L. Brooke’s 2008 presidential address to SHEAR, “Cultures of Nationalism, Movements of Reform.” After a paragraph arguing that “prayers by a local minister seemed almost universal” at celebrations of the Fourth of July and Washington’s Birthday, Brooke included a footnote stating that “my comments on religion and national celebration are based on the results of searches in Early American Newspapers and Gale 19th Century United States Newpapers databases.” The year before Brooke’s address was published, Caroline Winterer’s introduction to the Journal’s Spring 2008 roundtable on Mary Kelley’s book Learning to Stand and Speak also included a passing reference to results of a keyword search, but with more specific information about the search performed and the results. After noting the previous scholarly neglect of Kelley’s topic–female academies in the early republic–Winterer wrote that “numbers alone can show that this neglect of the female academies is entirely undeserved. Search the term female academy in the hundreds of American magazines that make up the American Periodicals Series online database and you retrieve exactly 1,131 hits for the period 1790–1860.” Similarly, an endnote in Daniel A. Cohen’s Spring 2010 article “Making Hero Strong” noted that “a keyword search of the phrase ‘story paper’ in ProQuest’s American Periodical Series Online 1740–1900 suggests that the term had entered into common usage by the late 1850s, if not earlier.”

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