Chronicling White America
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Chronicling White America

As a teacher and scholar of early American newspapers, I have benefited in numerous ways from the digitization of a vast amount of periodicals. Rather than hunting down and scrolling through worn microfilm copies, or traveling to various libraries to consult scattered originals, I am now able to conduct much of my research on my laptop, where I can read through high-quality, searchable scans of many newspapers. Moreover, digital databases and archives allow me to craft research assignments that introduce my students to the world of early American periodicals. Indeed, it was in an undergraduate classroom that I first discovered early American newspapers, and digital databases helped spark my enduring interest in periodicals. But as a specialist in early black newspapers, I am routinely confronted with the deeply uneven nature of digitization projects. For my contribution to this forum on the promise and pitfalls of the digital in periodical studies, I want to briefly explore the racial politics of periodical digitization, consider the consequences of such politics, and offer some provisional suggestions for confronting and correcting a deeply distorted digital archive.

While digital copies of 215 white newspapers published before 1865 have been made publicly available through the Library of Congress’s Chronicling [End Page 10] America project, that archive contains no black newspapers printed during the same period.1 Chronicling America does currently list forty-six black newspapers in its digital archive (out of a total of 1,799), but all were printed in 1865 or later.2 Those interested in researching, teaching, or simply reading early black newspapers must climb the paywalls of databases controlled by for-profit corporations. Newspapers such as Freedom’s Journal, the Colored American, the North Star, and Frederick Douglass’ Paper are held by a handful of corporate databases. Some early black newspapers can, then, be accessed by teachers and students located at institutions that subscribe to one or more of these databases. But the vast majority of faculty and students teach and study at schools that cannot afford these subscriptions, and thus have no access to early black newspapers. Even for those whose institutions do purchase subscriptions, the uneven coverage of even the private databases makes access to the full range of digitized black newspapers nearly impossible. My experience working at two flagship public institutions has shown that even relatively well-funded public university libraries will subscribe to one, and very rarely, two such databases. But not all digitized early black newspapers can be found in all for-profit databases. For example, the Provincial Freeman, edited by Mary Ann Shadd Cary, is absent from many of the major databases. As is the Weekly Anglo-African, one of the few digitized black newspapers that ran during the American Civil War. And the Christian Recorder, the official organ of the A. M. E. Church and another invaluable source of Civil War coverage, is included in a single database. Consequently, even teachers and students at institutions that subscribe to a database that contains early black newspapers may very well lack access to the writings of a prominent black woman activist or be unable to read black accounts of the Civil War.

The fact that early black newspapers are completely absent from freely accessible digital databases has particularly devastating consequences for digital humanities projects that grapple with vast amounts of data. Take, for example, the Viral Texts project, an impressive endeavor housed at Northeastern University that “seeks to develop theoretical models that will help scholars better understand what qualities—both textual and thematic—helped particular news stories, short fiction, and poetry ‘go viral’ in nineteenth-century newspapers and magazines.”3 I single out Viral Texts because I believe that it exemplifies the promise of digital approaches to periodical studies, as well as the limitations imposed by racially unequal digitization practices. The project’s first iteration, explain David Smith, Ryan Cordell, and Abby Mullen, “focused on pre-Civil War newspapers in the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America online newspaper archive . . . in large part because its text data is openly available for computational use.”4 In the future, Viral Texts hopes to include newspapers held by for-profit databases, but as...