- New Media's Prospect:A Review of Web Resources in Early American Studies
Were I seeking partners to invest in an internet plantation, I might adopt in this review essay the exultant tone of a seventeenth-century trading company advertisement, declaring the natural and unnatural wonders of the digital continent, the vigor and variety of its produce, its easy navigation, and its mild climate. Had I squandered my resources in aimless web-wanderings, I might spin a mystical apology for my captivity and redemption. But when it comes to new media, I am neither a John Smith, nor a Cabeza de Vaca. Like most readers of Early American Literature, I am neither especially inclined nor averse to new technologies. I recognize that the internet is reshaping every facet of our professional lives, from the conception and distribution of our research to the texture of our relationships with our students, colleagues, and universities. I am optimistic about new virtual communities and new opportunities, but wary of new pressures to produce web content, new demands on our time, and new kinds of uncompensated labor. In this review essay, I survey web resources in early American studies and raises questions about how we can best implement these materials in our scholarship and teaching.
Writing this review of web resources has necessarily entailed many decisions about what sites from the expanse of cyberspace to include and exclude. My review focuses on seven categories of materials relating to the literatures and cultures of the early Americas: text archives, image archives, link archives, teaching guides, scholarly hub-sites, on-line journals, and collaborative student web projects. Two other important classes of scholarly resource—web-based research engines such as the MLA Bibliography or JSTOR, and on-line catalogs for major libraries, archives, museums, and other research facilities—are not discussed here. I have also excluded privately run sites featuring commercial advertising. Some do [End Page 577] house materials of interest to early Americanists—see, forexample, Archiving Early America (www.earlyamerica.com)—however, sidebar and pop-up advertisements make them less pleasant, productive, and stable sites to visit.
One major thrust of web development in early American studies is the creation of fully searchable electronic text archives. None will have a greater impact than the long-anticipated Digital Evans. Produced by the Newsbank/Readex Corporation from American Antiquarian Society holdings, the Early American Imprints, Series I and Series II and the Early American Newspaper collections utilize digital technologies to replace the classic microfilm and microcard collections that have sustained early American literary and historical inquiry for the past 50 years. Early American Imprints, Series I, features 36,000 items catalogued in Charles Evans's monumental American Bibliography, both web-images of the original imprints as well as linked Optical Character Recognition software-generated ASCII text.1 This dual mode of text presentation gives researchers the best of both worlds: both digital facsimiles preserving early American typography and keyword-searchable text archives. Series I was released in successive installments between 2002 and 2004. Early American Imprints, Series II will be released between 2004 and 2007, providing images and fully searchable text of imprints catalogued in the American Bibliography, 1801–1819, produced by Ralph Shaw and Richard Shoemaker. A complementary digital resource, The Early American Newspaper, developed along the lines of Clarence Brigham's History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690–1820, is scheduled for release beginning in 2004. For researchers accustomed to long, dark afternoons among the microform readers in the library basement, the sound of spinning reels, the eyestrain, and the expense of microfilm copies, the Digital Evans is nothing short of a revolution. If the merits of the original Evans microforms were that they made archived resources accessible to researchers across the country, the Digital Evans exponentially compounds that accessibility by dissociating the archives from physical space and time, making it now possible to browse ephemeral seventeenth-century execution sermons at any time, day or night, from any laptop with a web connection. But this accessibility comes at a substantial price. Researchers can log on to the Digital Evans only through institutional subscriptions, and high subscription [End Page 578] costs have placed this...