A few weeks ago I was grouchy about the prospects of closed digitization projects in early American history. This morning I’m ecstatic. At the Past is Present blog of the American Antiquarian Society, Emily Wells writes today about her experience working to digitize the AAS Printers’ File, a massive compendium of information about participants in the American printing trades from 1639 to 1820.
I’m particularly excited about this project because the research for my dissertation/first book so heavily relied on the twenty or so drawers of salmon-colored cards in the AAS reading room. In fact, the first summer after I moved to Massachusetts I spent several weeks doing nothing but go through the card catalog, drawer by drawer, to build my own database of printers from the 1750s to the 1790s for the purposes of my research.
If you read Wells’s post, you’ll see just how sophisticated she and her AAS colleagues have had to get in order to capture the complexity of biographical information on the cards (for which we all owe an enormous debt to Avis Clarke). To give you a comparison, let me show you the slide I used in a few job talks to discuss my database:
For the 756 printers I eventually entered into the database, I had to code all of the information in by hand into a FileMaker database I designed myself. Given my rudimentary training in databases ca. 2006-2008 when I began working on my dissertation, there are numerous problems I created for myself and that I figured out in retrospect. (At this point, with the manuscript under review, and the AAS well on its way, there’s little point in going backwards.) Using my database, I was able to make some simple calculations: to figure out how many printers were active in a given year, how much churn there was in the trade at five-year intervals, how many printers fled their homes during the Revolutionary War, and to make some guess as to political affiliations (to the extent they remained fixed).
As Emily notes in her post, the AAS version will work at two levels. On the basic level it will make accessible to large numbers of people biographical information that they’re seeking. For example, say you’re working on a project on Cincinnati in the first decade of the nineteenth century, and you stumble on a pamphlet. Want to know more about its publisher? Here you go. But this database will also provide the ability to do much more sophisticated analysis for someone who wants to dig deep into the workings of the printing trade in early America. I have a few questions myself, but there are graduate students out there (some of whom won’t start graduate school for a few years!) who will come to this database and help revolutionize our understanding of the workings of print culture in North America before 1820.
Okay, I’m a little biased. But I’ve been waiting for this database (and in contact with AAS about it) for a long time. I’ll miss the salmon cards, though I’m glad that for now they remain accessible in the reading room. And I eagerly await the release of the full database.