In Praise of Digital Newspapers

One of the reasons I like teaching at Messiah College is the effort of the library staff to keep up to date on digital databases.  (Thanks Beth Mark and Michael Rice!). This small college in the tiny central Pennsylvania village of Grantham is a great place to study early American history thanks to the willingness of the library to invest in collections such as Early American Imprints and Early American Newspapers.  I can’t imagine working as an early American historian at Messiah without them.

I am not alone.  Writing at The New York Times, historian Steven Mihm extolls the benefits of digitized (and searchable!) databases.

For generations, biographers have used the same methods to conduct research: they waded through the paper trail left by their subject, piecing together a life from epistolary fragments. Based on what they found, they might troll through newspapers from specific dates in the hope of finding coverage of their subject. There were no new-fangled technologies that promised to transform their research, no way of harnessing machines to reveal new layers of historical truth.

That’s all starting to change. Several campaigns to digitize newspapers — Readex’s “American Historical Newspapers” available by subscription at research universities, or the free “Chronicling America” collection available at the Library of Congress — have the potential to revolutionize biographical research. Newspapers are often described as the “first draft of history,” and thanks to these new tools, biographers can tap them in ways that an earlier generation of scholars could only have dreamed of.

One thought on “In Praise of Digital Newspapers

  1. Heh heh. Then we'll be back to getting “the truth” from the newspapers.

    I liked the article you linked about “primary” sources actually being secondary ones. [Which beats tertiary, where the former secondary must be assigned.]

    As one who uses the Straussian method


    I suspect all “primary” sources as well, since they were subject to the sentiments of their age and the shitstorm that accompanied any deviation from prevailing orthodoxy. [Hence they were obliged to hide their thoughts, yet revealed them esoterically, between the lines, else there was no reason to write atall.]

    It's a terrific hermeneutic method, John, as it reveals the terror awaiting those who told the truth as they saw it.

    I would have noted it at the link to

    but felt it was a waste of time there, as sophisticated as it appears to be. But I hope you'll keep in mind that I keep the exotericism/esotericism equation in mind whenever I quote-grab.

    But as historians we must view the exotericisms that found traction with the Great Unwashed of the Founding era as more important than any hidden meaning. That's what makes the puzzle so interesting.

    Which is why I took on Dr. Stephens' polemics so passionately. As Dr. Glenn Loury, Merton P. Stoltz Professor of the Social Sciences and Professor of Economics at Brown University, put it so well just today,

    “A bunch of people that have contempt for my values, but I’m just supposed to believe whatever they say because they have Ph.D’s behind their names.”

    [And who is my audience, Dr. Fea? Looks like you. I suppose I could become the next David Barton, and unlike him, they couldn't lay a glove on me because I don't cheat or err on the facts. But me, I prefer playing the blues, and I prefer informing the next generation of leaders to being one, even if they are members of the academy such as yrself. If there is another like you. I'm investing in the future here. I am nobody.]


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