Eight Centuries Year in Review – 2020
17 December 2020 by Grayson Van Beuren

Eight Centuries


Paratext began 2020 with a revamped interface and a name change for its flagship product. (With material dating back to the twelfth century, we’d outgrown 19th Century Masterfile.)


Over the course of the year Paratext has added five new collections to Eight Centuries—Documenting the American South, Chronicling America, the Modernist Journal Project, the British National Bibliography, and the Digital Walters Manuscript Collection.


While subject specialists will grasp the inherent research benefits for patrons generally, their inclusion is good—indeed, down-right exciting—from a researcher’s standpoint. I’d like to expand a bit on this now that these files are online within the service.


Five more collections means five more sets of source material full of the grist of research, containing the potential for countless research projects. Five additional chances to find material to suss out narratives and webs of influence lying invisible in the distant past. Indeed, this last is more crucial now, following changes in historiography and broader shifts in cultural consciousness.


Increasingly, it is the smallest clues leading to the most hidden narratives that contribute to the most compelling research projects. In Victorian studies (my own area of research), this is especially true. Until recently, study incorporating Victorian periodicals was difficult to undertake due to the sheer volume of material involved.


Now, however, this field is increasingly accessible to researchers everywhere due to the explosion of online tools, data-mining applications, and digitized volumes.


A story from my own research background: as an undergraduate in 2013, I began looking at political cartoons in Punch magazine. To find my primary material I realized I needed to access physical bound volumes for images I could not find online. I put several volumes on hold like any other book, without realizing that the spine of each measured four inches across. The clerk at the library desk handed me four bankers’ boxes and I made my way awkwardly and slowly out the door.


Later, I learned that my Punch holds should have never been approved: the volumes came from special collections and the request had been granted due to a computer error. For one week, I had unwittingly been made the short-term special collections librarian for these volumes. (Don’t worry: all were returned in the same condition as received.)


Every volume that I lugged home in 2013 is now, in 2020, available in triplicate (and at higher quality) through the HathiTrust catalog online. Not only can Victorian periodical research be undertaken anywhere the researcher has a web connection, there is now no chance that a twenty-two year old undergrad will be made a de facto archival caretaker of fragile nineteenth century periodicals!


At Paratext I wear the dual hats of editor and researcher, and the five new collections exemplify the variety and unexpected inclusiveness of primary sources that make my jobs such a joy—the serendipitous leaps that surprise you while flipping through records in a source. That moment of “aha” where connections are drawn and research questions jotted down on whatever paper happens to be nearby.


Another personal example: while researching Chronicling America (the index of American newspapers compiled by the Library of Congress), I learned about Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick – the first multi-page newspaper published in the Americas, which produced its first and only issue in 1690. I was so intrigued with what constituted day-to-day news in the seventeenth century that I later wrote about it in a blog post.


The Digital Walters collection contains similar wonders: 150,000 folio from 900 hand-written medieval manuscripts housed at the Walters Museum of Art in Baltimore. I got lost leafing through these beautifully inked pages—a sobering activity when you realize how few people had the privilege to do so at the time of their creation.


One Book of Hours I came across while researching this source, a work designated MS. W.102 in the Walter catalog, held me spellbound: not only was this manuscript decorated with the finest of pen filigree, but monk’s guidelines remain on the page. We are affording a glimpse into the fourteenth century scribe’s world.


As we head towards 2021, I invite you to explore these sources on your own. Go in with directed questions, or without. Either way you are sure to come across something unexpected.


Looking forward, I’m excited about material yet to be added next year. Somewhere—perhaps being digitized now, or sitting in a “to process” pile on an archivist’s desk—there are primary sources that will make their way across my desktop, into Eight Centuries, and into a dissertation bibliography, article footnote, or chapter endnote.


Please feel free to contact me with any question about content, search methodologies, or any way you’d like to see this resource—now in its 22nd year of publication—continue.


Additionally, our For Librarians support page is replete with product updates, pre-made research guide descriptions, info on our API, and more.


Happy holidays and all the best in the new year from Paratext.

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