Early US Literature

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Reflective Essay on Digital Databases

Reflective Essay on Digital Databases

Using digital databases to research 19th century compilations of spirituals, works songs and abolition songs, I’ve made a number of discoveries about the distinct differences between print and electronic research, and ways of classifying digitized print sources. Burdick, Drucker, Lunenfield, Presner and Schnapp’s Digital Humanities guide’s overview of assessing digital sources explains, “the media and technologies in which intellectual work is realized matter as much as its content” (127). Thus, scholarship becomes more than simply the exchange and analysis of information. It, instead, expands to the appearance, interface and functionality of the website or database (127). In my own Wordpress blog entries, I have gained a firsthand understanding of the importance of this synthesis of technology and text.

When I talk to my students about ways of evaluating websites, one of the first things we check after sponsorship and corporation information is the site’s functionality. We ask the usual questions: Are there broken links? How does the site look? Does it work? Are there coding or loading issues? Over the last several weeks of using previously unfamiliar databases, the visual and explanatory elements of digital research have been a scholarly epiphany of sorts. Whereas I was previously content to use Kent State University Library’s “Choose Databases” features by hand-selecting the quality literary sources offered, I now understand the absolute limitations of that method. Most of the resources I found, and a number of others relating to early American Literature, were not among the options provided by the EBSCO-powered method.

My recent research relating to the use of slavery-era spirituals led me to 19th century author, William Wells Brown’s early compilation of abolition songs. In attempting to draw distinctions between the music of slavery and abolition, I added Brown’s novel of mixed-race enslavement, Clotel, to the scope of my research, and ultimately utilized these databases to aid in my understanding of 18th and 19th century racial categorizations and their use in the fiction of the era. The most helpful among the 15 or so I used are listed below:

Annual Bibliography of English Language and Literature: The database was useful for determining recent areas of William Wells Brown scholarship, which has steadily increased since 2004. In providing a through listing of recent articles primarily focused on Brown’s Clotel, the ABELL database’s results gave me the confidence to continue my research into the compilation of spirituals and abolition songs with the knowledge that the topic has been mostly ignored, and was, perhaps, worthy of additional scholarly consideration.

 Index to Black Periodicals Full Text. The Index to Black Periodicals was more useful for my research into the history and etymology of the 18th through early 20th century racial categories, “quadroon” and “octoroon,” than it was for researching spirituals and work songs. However, there were a number of clear limitations to the search engine, as the majority of articles relevant to my research were written after 1990. Perhaps this was the best I could expect for a periodical index concentrating on 20th century articles. Ultimately, this database seems most relevant to more recent African American scholarship. In terms of functionality, the search engine contained all of the expected keyword and subject modifiers, although the search by year was limited to 1900, which, initially, appeared to hinder some of my research into racial categorizations and their use in earlier American literature. After selecting the “Refine Search” option, I was returned to the main search page, but provided the same search modifiers as before, which effectively meant there were no distinctions between a basic and refined search.

 Music Index Online: Sponsored by EBSCO host, with its obvious limitations, this database required a number of search term modifications for me to glean meaningful results. In terms of these searches, I was better served by using “Negro” and “spirituals” rather than “slave spirituals” in order to obtain better results. Additionally, the search engine only allows users to search back to 1914, a limitation that may benefit a contemporary understanding of spirituals and works songs, but ultimately hinders an examination of older collections and compilations of the music.

Smithsonian Global Sound for Libraries: Ultimately, this database is more beneficial to educators or researchers seeking audio clips than for those doing traditional print research. The Smithsonian Global Sound for Libraries database is a high quality teaching resource that provides lesson and teaching overviews for a variety of education levels. One unfortunate aspect of the database is the absence of a bibliography of print sources connected to the recorded works and sound clips; however, the vast collection of full songs based on Smithsonian Folkways collections allowed me to examine recordings of well-known, public domain spirituals without the obvious limitations of transcribed dialect.

Research is never complete, and in the world of digital inquiry, the path to expertise seems especially convoluted. Certainly the databases are valuable tools; however, gaining a solid understanding of which compilations are most beneficial for one’s particular interests is a time-consuming process or meticulous record keeping and organization. But this is true of any legitimate research. As my current research projects have expanded from the collection of spirituals through the function of the mixed-race female archetype in 19th century abolitionist literature, it seems evident that mastery of digital collections is the most thorough method of engaging in meaningful scholarship.

Works Cited

African American Newspapers. Readex, Web. 27 July 2013.

Annual Bibliography of English language and Literature. Modern Humanities Research Association. Web. 29 July 2013.

Burdick, Anne, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfield, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp. Digital Humanities. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2012. Print.

Index to Black Periodicals Full Text. Chadwyck Healey. Web. 30 July 2013.

Music Index Online. Ebsco Host. Web. 26 July 2013.

Smithsonian Global Sound for Libraries. Smithsonoain Folkways. Web 23 July 2013.

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