Time to Eat the Dogs

A Podcast About Science, History, and Exploration

News of the Expedition: Absolutely Free

Terra Nova, British Antarctic Expedition, 1910. Courtesy of Freeze Frame.

Terra Nova, British Antarctic Expedition, 1910. Courtesy of Freeze Frame.

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.

Frank Luther Mott, 1951

Frank Luther Mott, 1951

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:

Harvard University Library’s Expedition and Discoveries

A site of highlights and citations from dozens of 19th century expeditions fielded by Harvard and other organizations.

Freeze Frame

The Scott Polar Research Institute’s collection of polar images from 1845-1982, searchable by date, expedition, photographer, or subject matter.

Mountaineering and Polar Collection

The National Library of Scotland’s site for important historical expeditions, from the ascent of Mt. Blanc to investigations of Antarctica.


  darwinsbulldog wrote @

There’s also Making of America from Cornell:


  Russell Potter wrote @

A great post. For some strange reason, I’ve found myself often indulging in a dab of info-nostalgia these days. For me, it’s a very personal experience, as I spent some years between my undergrad and graduate career working for Research Publications, a microfilm-making tentacle of the octopus known as Thomson International and thus a competitor with University Microfilms. For a time, I had the unusual title of “Editor of the Eighteenth Century,” which meant that I edited the microfilm collection of that name, whose goal was to film every unique imprint in the entire Eighteenth-Century Short Title Catalogue. While I was there, the decision was made not to bother editing out duplicate editions with the same collation, but just to film everything and let God (or research librarians) sort ’em out.

This seemed crazy to me at the time, but now appears not so crazy. Along with all of the research tools you’ve named, which I’ve used as they’ve emerged, I’d say that Google Books, along with newspaperarchive.com, are the two most revolutionary databases out there — precisely because they scan in bulk and without discrimination over duplication, variation, authority, and so forth. The result, coupled with a good and slightly-fuzzy search engine, is a revolution in research. You suddenly find references to your subject in the most unlikely places; spot the bookplate of Gertrude Stein on a scan of a copy of the narrative of Franklin’s first land Arctic expedition; stumble upon a newspaper notice for a panorama of the Arctic in Hornpayne, Ontario, or an advert in which Dr. Kane shills for powdered milk. Very few if any of these items would have come out way in the past, even if we all had seven research assistants searching with seven microfilm readers.

I still love the archive, always will. There will still be some things that even scanning cannot deliver, such as the tear-stained letter in the Berg Collection which Georrge Eliot wrote on the day of her husband’s death, or the dried flower enclosed by CF Hall’;s translator Tookoolito with a letter to Henry Brevoort. But if Google Books keeps up at its present rate, it will soon be the place of first, and in some cases, last resort for a whole world of research.

p.s. in the interests of full disclosure, let me say that some of the discoveries mentioned above were made by friends, as well as by myself!

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Michael: Thanks for the addition, I will revise accordingly

Russell: “Editor of the 18th Century,” I love this! I hope you have this title hanging on the door to your office.

  Jessica wrote @

I wish Dartmouth would put the Stefansson Collection / Rauner Special Collections stuff online!! Despite the technology, there is something to be said about touching the old letters and expedition journals. I think even if my favorite chunks of historical literature were online, I’d still take the 4-hour drive to be able to touch them.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Funny you should mention Stefansson – I was just at the Rauner a couple months ago looking at his collection – and you’re right – its an experience that cannot be duplicated online.

  Erin Striff wrote @

Very thought-provoking post! I worked at two archives in college (history major) and I had no idea that archival work had become so digital. The best part of the job was handling the documents and feeling connected to the past in a way you just can’t digitally.

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