Building an Archive in Public: Websites as a Strategy for Generating Research
Michael J. Gagnon
I started my website, EarlyUSHistory.net, following a pedagogy workshop at Emory University entitled “A Domain of One’s Own,” in 2014 to organize my research on a biography of Augustin Smith Clayton, a jurist and politician from Georgia. He played a supporting role in all the major national events from 1831 to 1835: Indian removal, the Bank War, the Democratic Party’s first national convention, the Nullification Crisis, and the formation of the Whig Party. While mentioned as a possible Whig vice-presidential nominee in 1835, Clayton’s health declined and he died at the age of 56 in 1839. People across the U.S. in the 1830s knew “Judge Clayton of Georgia” for better or for worse, and newspapers all over the country printed his obituary. When Thomas Hart Benton wrote his memoir of the era many years later, he wrote Clayton out of the story because nobody outside Georgia remembered him.
I had already started the research on Clayton before the workshop piqued my interest in using a website as a means of organizing and sharing my research. In researching my dissertation in the 1990s, I had used a database system called askSam to sort my research, but that approach required tremendous hours of transcription. Then askSam became obsolete, and I was forced to find something else, preferably something easier. A webpage seemed the answer for several reasons. First, it allowed me to lay out my sources chronologically so that I could “read” the story as it emerged, and see how nuances evolved as I inserted new sources into the existing chronology. Second, it provided a form of cloud storage of my research so I would not worry about losing data if something happened to my computer. Most important, it allowed me to share my research with others without having to make special efforts. Given the length of time it takes to publish, I think I owe those strangers, who opened their homes to me to share what they possessed, early access to what I’m doing with the sources entrusted to them for posterity. As my webpage grew, I divided my research thematically into separate webpages, and then posted the research chronologically within that themed webpage. Thus, I wound up with a website rather than a single webpage, and eventually created two domains: one for my personal life and another for my professional research.
The process of posting the research is pretty simple, and demonstrates that I came to academic history through a career in files management and archives. After discovering a newspaper article in a historic newspaper database like Chronicling America, I download the pdf of the page and open it in Adobe Acrobat, crop out the columns I need and weave them together as pages within the file, if need be. For documents found in archives or people’s homes, I convert the photo image of a document into a pdf. Occasionally I will transcribe a document obtained from an archive or published source if I am worried about copyright issues. For basic filing of Adobe files, I use the date (in numeric form) of the original creation of the document as the first part of the document title, starting with year, and then month and date. I complete the name with a lengthy note of provenance and short note describing the information it contains. Then I upload the documents to the storage for my website, and insert links to them in the appropriate webpage in the correct chronological order. For every document, I attempt to give a full citation, and credit to any specific place or person who provided it to me. I do the same for links to documents I find on the web.
For researching published primary documents, I came to rely on Google Books and the Internet Archive for full text scans. Sadly, searches in these databases rarely result in quickly finding what you want, so I organized pages of links in order to find things quickly for myself. On the main 19th Century Newspapers page, I have links to full runs of Niles’ Register, DeBow’s Review, Hunts’ Merchant Magazine, and Missionary Herald, among others. Each collection of external links that constitute a “run” took about 40 hours of work to save myself and everyone else future hours of labor. I don’t provide modern indexes to these sources, but if you have citations, you can find what you need.
From the start, I planned to share my research with my students to get them to write interesting term papers. I was encouraged to act on my impulses when my college funded some of my research trips with a requirement that I create something useful for pedagogy from my research. My research on Clayton provides plenty of primary information with which to explore any number of early republic and southern history topics. I teach my students to share their research as I have done, even if they find something really good, because nobody else is ever going to bring to the writing of the paper what they know and choose to focus upon. I try to teach that sharing broadens all of our knowledge and does not diminish what we can accomplish.
This upcoming year, I will use several Clayton pages in my upper division classes. Early republic students will use the Bank Warpage to explore the day-to-day business of the Bank Committee leaving Washington to investigate the BUS in Philadelphia in March & April 1832, taking testimony, and interacting with other committee members. The links to John Quincy Adams’s diary entries for this time are particularly great for this, and Adams doesn’t hold back in privately expressing his contempt for Clayton, even after participating in social outings together. I also use these sources for creating short activities not unlike “reacting to the past” in which students research primary documents on historical events to work with a script to re-enact the event from a more personal perspective. The early republic class will spend a day re-enacting the 1832 Baltimore Democratic National Conventionto nominate Martin Van Buren for the vice presidency. In my southern history class, students will similarly access the Cherokee Removal webpage to explore the trial (which took place in the town in which my college is located) of the missionaries to the Cherokee in 1831 that led to the 1832 Worcester v. Georgia Supreme Court decision. I like to get students to think about history as a set of processes rather than a set of facts, and using these sources allows me to do that.
Finally, this past year I found using a website particularly useful in organizing an edited collection of essays for scholarly publication. After my co-editor and I recruited about 15 scholars to write essays for this collection, we posted drafts of chapters in hidden webpages as we went along so all participants could see where we stood at each turning point in the process. This is great for projects that need a little, but not a lot, of security. Our scholarly press downloaded our manuscript and suggested images from that website, and we made corrections requested by the press and again posted the revised files to the website, which proved easier than using something like Dropbox or Sharepoint for sharing our files. Watch for the book’s publication early next year.
Since starting the use of webpages, I tried using other new software as a means of organizing my research. For example, I found Zotero a bit clunky, and it clearly was not really intended to use for sharing. I prefer using the webpages because they are more visual, and I don’t mind working out the citations by hand, which gives me better knowledge of each document than I would have from merely copying, reading, and filing it. As original research, I’d still need to enter similar information into Zotero too, so it doesn’t seem all that much more work to me.
I started this project as a private domain rather than as a page in my school’s website because it gave me greater control over the look of the webpage, since most colleges today like to standardize websites for branding purposes. That doesn’t mean I won’t eventually turn the site over to my college. That would save me $100 per year in costs and guarantee continuity of the website after I move on to other things.
The real payout to me is the hope that I won’t be the last person to use the data I spent so much time collecting and assembling. While I will publish a biography of Clayton eventually, I want others to take my raw data in directions I did not imagine. I want these webpages to excite others to generate their own analysis of topics I care about. Like the senior (often retiring) scholars who shared their sources with me when I was new to the field, and encouraged me to mold them to my own purposes, I want to do the same.
30 July 2021
About the Author
Michael J. Gagnon is associate professor of history at Georgia Gwinnett College.