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.