Monday, April 14, 2008

The coming archival revolution

For centuries, historians have depended upon archives that store one-of-a-kind materials, often handwritten letters and diaries, to give them unique glimpses of the past. Because these materials often existed in single copies that were housed in repositories accessible only to those who had the time and means to travel to them, this tended to restrict many aspects of the most advanced research to those with the means to spend hours, days, or even months engaged in the task of reading dusty old papers and taking notes in far-off archives.

Now the leading repository for the history of the U.S. South, and one of the most important ones for the study of slavery in the Americas is proposing to launch a scanning project that may eventually put most of its 16 million items on line. The Southern Historical Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill has in fact already started this process by scanning one significant collection (the papers of Populist politician and later notorious anti-Semite Tom Watson), but they have even bigger plans. And they brought together about twenty historians at the end of last weekend to discuss and gather feedback on their immensely exciting proposal of opening up virtually the holdings of the SHC to the web. Here's the link for the announcement of the workshop, though it doesn't really begin to get at the most exciting dimnesions of the discussion:

Even more than expanding access, this project could--if it allows readers and researchers to talk back to the material (and each other) by incorporating a host of Web 2.0 features like tagging, enabling connections between users, allowing the posting of transcripts, etc.--radically change the "how," the nature of the way that we do history. It would also change the "who" part of doing history as well. More on this later, but I'd love to hear the reactions of any readers to this project.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Update on progress of the project

A quick note for current contributors: the encyclopedia moves forward on several tracks simultaneously. Here's the synopsis: Two large batches of articles have been fully processed, totalling over 100 articles. Another 100 are in the last throes of editing and acceptance. 50 more are going through the first edit, and about 100 more have been assigned and I am waiting for the drafts.

If you turned in an article before August 2007, my understanding from the press is that you should have been paid. There are a few exceptions, of course,, but check with me if you haven't received a check. If you turned in an article since the beginning of that month, the text is definitely still somewhere in the editing pipeline.

If you have questions about your piece, please email me directly at By the way, I'm always on the lookout for documents and/or illustrations for the project, so let me know about those if you have any ideas.

Friday, April 4, 2008

"Black Loyalists" from the American Revolution

Here's a new source, or rather a new way to get access to an older source. Betty Wood put me on to it the other day with a great paper she presented here at Cornell.

The source is the "Book of Negroes," a roster of African and African-American people who left New York with the British in 1783 on "Evacuation Day." Many, if not most of them ended up in Canada. Some of the entries give glimpses of their lives before Evacuation Day: names of previous enslavers, where they came from, etc.