The Digital Early Republic

It may still be the case that historians, as a whole, are averse to using databases of digitized primary sources in their research. My impression is that this is rapidly changing, however. This impression is admittedly unscientific and based only on the scholarship that I read. My perceptions may also be skewed by the fact that I myself have found digital databases useful in my research, as illustrated by my last post on a Lincoln quote and my previous series on John Brown’s Timbuctoo.

Still, in at least one field–the history of the early American republic–there is lots of evidence that scholars already see digital databases as crucial to their research. Recent historians of the early republic even seem eager to deploy keyword searches and share their digital findings. In this post, I’ll illustrate what I mean by citing some recent examples of how historians in my field are using proprietary digital databases.

For the past year or so I’ve been keeping an incomplete but running list of articles in the Journal of the Early Republic (the official journal of SHEAR) that make explicit use of proprietary databases published by companies like ProQuest, NewsBank and Accessible Archives. By sharing these examples, I hope to provide a quick snapshot of some of the actual practices of historians who use digital databases, particularly historians who don’t seem to identify primarily with the field of digital history or digital humanities. Finally, at the end of the post, I’ll explain why I think historians in my field could benefit from a central online repository that makes information about these databases accessible and keeps track of differences among them.

Continue reading

New light on a Lincoln quote

In an age of word clouds, topic modeling, text mining, and infinite archives, it’s not surprising that many discussions about digital history focus on the “big” uses of things like keyword searching and digitized texts. For historians, access to huge archives of online text raises important questions about how to read—and how not to read—a million books. Big archives also create exciting opportunities for visualization and text analysis like Building the Digital Lincoln, Rob Nelson’s Mining the Dispatch, and Cameron Blevins’ work on Martha Ballard’s diary.

But with all these exciting new ventures, it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of the fact that simple keyword searches can still offer historians new insights into old sources. One of my most exciting “Aha!” moments (the moments researchers live for) came not along ago when I decided to enter a simple text string from one of Abraham Lincoln’s most famous speeches into the search box on ProQuest’s database of historical New York Times newspapers. I did one search, and got exactly one result. But that was enough to enable me to shed some new light on an old Lincoln quote.

Continue reading