- From the Field:A Case Study in Using Historical Periodical Databases to Revise Previous Research
"By periodicals, are understood all those publications which issue from the press at stated periods. In this sense, it comprehends alike almanacs and reviews, annuals and newspapers, and is the origin of a distinct branch of literature, and a new mode of disseminating knowledge . . . Since its origin, within three centuries, it has multiplied far beyond any of the more permanent productions of letters, and connected itself with all the elements, whether moral or mental, political, literary or scientific, of civil or social life."1 This is a wonderful 1834 description of periodicals and what was to be included among their pages during the first half of the 19th century. Now, more than 175 years later, by choosing the correct keywords, the researcher can view this entire article using the American Periodical Series Online, 1740–1900. This subscription database includes 7 million pages of content, from the first American magazine published in 1741, to the newly included periodicals of the World War II period.2 With this extensive collection of more than 1,100 periodicals, information can be located on almost every aspect of the American experience, and scholars and students have access to information that can help to reexamine topics in new and exciting ways.
Although the breadth of this database is tremendous, there are also databases, not limited to libraries or research institutions with funds to purchase these specialized primary sources, which provide much more limited access to American periodicals from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One example is Making of America, which is a joint effort between the University of Michigan and Cornell University. This digital library includes thirty-five periodicals spanning the antebellum period through reconstruction. American Memory [End Page 96] is another freely accessible database available to the public through the Library of Congress. "The Nineteenth Century in Print: the Making of America in Periodicals" is one of the many collections included in the American Memory database, and contains twenty-three periodicals.
Historical periodicals can also be found at other sites where specific subject areas are the focus. There are dozens of individual examples of libraries and universities across the country that have digitized periodicals and made them web accessible to the public, and the list continues to grow. The evolution of using periodicals for research has gone from searching the contents of issues using printed indexes and abstracts available only in the library, to searching an index that is made available through a subscription database or website that can either provide full text articles from a library terminal or even from the comfort of home. This dramatic change not only changes the way scholars do their research but also has an impact on previously researched and published work.
In 2000, two colleagues and I published From the Free Academy to CUNY: Illustrating Public Higher Education in New York City, 1847–1997.3 The book was the result of the research done for an exhibit celebrating the anniversary year of the founding of the Free Academy, the precursor to the present day City University of New York. The research for the early part of the book involved finding nineteenth-century sources and we relied heavily on archival collections housed in college archives, local historical records, and newspaper accounts, as well as previously published histories of the early colleges that are now part of the City University system. One such publication was the 1925 book, The Establishment of The College of The City of New York as the Free Academy in 1847, Townsend Harris, Founder: A Chapter in the History of Education.4 Mario Cosenza relied on newspapers obtained from libraries and historical societies in New York City. What information might have been located outside local repositories remained hidden for decades.
S. Willis Rudy continued the story of the Free Academy where Cosenza left off, publishing The College of the City of New York: A History, 1847–1947 in 1949.5 Rudy consulted several additional publications to extend his study of the Free Academy to 1866, the year it changed its name to the College of the...