Sitting at the long desk of an archive, wearing cotton gloves, reading old letters on the verge of turning to powder; this is about as good as it gets for a historian. Yet more and more of my research takes place elsewhere, now on my laptop mostly, looking at materials that have been scanned and displayed online.
Things have changed. When Frank Luther Mott began researching his comprehensive History of American Magazines in the 1920s, he had to track down a paper copy of each periodical in libraries scattered across the country. Many of these publications, printed on acidic paper, were already falling apart.
By 1941, University Microfilms (now ProQuest) began photographing American periodicals, making them available as reels of microfilm. By the time the project was complete, UM had a collection of 1100 American periodicals spanning the years from 1741-1900.
This was the state of things when I began my dissertation research in the late 1990s. When I wanted to find out what was being written about Arctic exploration in the press, I consulted a set of books, the 19th century Poole’s Guide to Periodical Literature, which gave titles and citations of popular literature by subject. Then I would drive to Chicago (from Madison WI) with my list of citations to track down the articles on the spools of microfilm housed at University of Chicago and Loyola University.
Now Poole’s has been turned into a digital database that can be searched online. The American Periodical Series has also been scanned, and, because of character recognition software, can be searched down to the level of single words. Where I spent hours tracking down a handful of articles indexed by Pooles by title and subject, a “full text” search of the American Periodical Series online yields thousands of results, all of which are instantly readable, printable, and download-able from the comfort of my front porch.
Less romantic than heading to the archive, I understand, but infinitely more powerful and convenient.
Still, the conversion to digital has its downside. Poole’s and the American Periodical Series have been digitized by private companies which sell subscriptions to their databases at a hefty price. The result is that that Research I universities like Yale have extraordinary access, whereas smaller universities like the University of Hartford make due with less. Many of my European friends — working at institutions with little money for databases — go without.
The good news is that freely available digital resources are growing in breadth and depth. While the American Periodical Series remains a subscription-service, students of American history can access the 3.8 million pages of 19th century books and periodicals in the Making of America database developed by the University of Michigan. You can also find close to a million pages of material at the Making of America sister site at the Cornell University. Serious free research also extends to the Library of Congress’s 1 million pages of newspaper text at Chronicling America.
These are general databases for American history. Students of more specialized topics, such as the history of exploration, can also find free riches online. In addition to the links at the right, you might also want to check out:
A site of highlights and citations from dozens of 19th century expeditions fielded by Harvard and other organizations.
The Scott Polar Research Institute’s collection of polar images from 1845-1982, searchable by date, expedition, photographer, or subject matter.
The National Library of Scotland’s site for important historical expeditions, from the ascent of Mt. Blanc to investigations of Antarctica.