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Author: Suzanne R. Graham
Title: Review of the Alexander Street Press Electronic Collections
Publication Info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
May 2002

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Source: Review of the Alexander Street Press Electronic Collections
Suzanne R. Graham

vol. 5, no. 1, May 2002
Article Type: Software Review

Review of the Alexander Street Press Electronic Collections

Suzanne Graham


University of Southern Mississippi


The name of Alexander Street Press, founded in June 2000, may sound unfamiliar, but its management team gained most of its professional experience working for the Chadwyck-Healey Group, one of the largest producers of full-text databases in the humanities and social sciences. Ron Rietduk, the recently appointed chairman of the press, co-founded and served as president of SilverPlatter, another major electronic publisher. With these credentials, the Alexander Street Press staff strives to produce digital collections in the humanities and social sciences of the highest quality. Specifically, the company aspires to improve the standards for publication of electronic resources by providing digital collections selected by subject area experts, by affordably bringing together resources in several different formats, and by indexing these materials to provide unique ways to support precise searches.

Alexander Street Press currently has seven electronic collections in production. The collections focus on traditional areas of historical investigation, such as the American Civil War, and also promote investigations into previously less considered areas, such as female Scottish literary figures of the Romantic period. Other collections include twentieth-century black drama, American films, North American exploration and encounters between Europeans and Native Americans, British and Irish women in the Modern age, and North American women from the eighteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries.

The Press launched the first of its historical databases, North American Women's Letters and Diaries, in February 2001. This product won the "Best New Product Award" from the Charleston Advisor, an online critical review board of scholarly electronic resources founded by information professionals from across the United States. This recognition is just acclaim for a well-conceived product line that encourages the curiosity of students and facilitates inter-disciplinary research.

Search functionality

The Press uses an elaborate model for indexing digital projects with a complexity that common bibliographic schemas cannot provide. While traditional catalogs and finding aids provide access when the author, title or subject is known, this indexing style enables users to perform searches based on paratextual factors: the historical, intellectual, and social context surrounding the creation of the document.

The user interfaces are clear and helpful. Each user input area offers clear examples of field syntax, and in many cases, a list of options appears. The search strategies within each module give searches greater precision than simple keyword queries and easier functionality than search string strategies. Users can browse in the Table of Contents (more akin to a book's index), conduct a search for specific field characteristics in the Find searches, or enter a keyword search, qualified by as many as thirty criteria, in the Search Text windows.


The Press's products reflect its commitment to meet the needs and expectations of its clients–historians, librarians, and archivists–and the staff members continue to revise the products to incorporate recommendations into database improvements. From the Alexander Street Web site (, scholars can request a free trial with any of the collections, and historians are encouraged to submit comments.

The Press collaborates with research institutions to provide greater access to archival materials and also digitizes previously unpublished manuscript items that it purchases in the private market. An editorial review board comprised of subject area experts selects items for inclusion into the collections. By combining the resources from many sources into one product, the Press creates large virtual reading rooms dedicated to specific historical topics. For example, the North American Women's Letters and Diaries collection will include approximately 150,000 pages of published materials and an additional 4,000 pages of previously unpublished manuscripts. As of April 2002, the online version of the collection is half complete.


The digitization of these materials enables scholars to read the words and appreciate the prose, but too few facsimiles of the original manuscript pages appear. Although no digitized surrogate can fully capture the nuances and contextual aspects of the original document, the electronic representation of the original may be the only way that scholars will have access to this information. The large percentage of transcribed materials may be disappointing to a scholar who desires to see the document–or at least an image of it–rather than read computer-generated text.


The degree to which digital collections will endure through time is a major concern for scholars who cite them. Through subscriptions, the Press, in effect, stores its digital collections at multiple locations. Although libraries may opt for an annual Web subscription, which provides access to the collections only as long as the library subscribes, many institutions purchase perpetual access to the databases. Each library that has perpetual rights can request its own electronic copies of the collections on CD-ROM or magnetic tape. Alexander Street archives all of its electronic files in SGML at the University of Chicago, but consistent with its role as publisher, the Press houses no original materials. Instead these documents remain in their home research repositories or are sold after digitization.


The Press takes advantage of emerging technology and fills a market niche by providing electronic access to primary source materials. These collections will grow as normal production continues and as the Press enters new partnerships and acquires new resources. Even historians who are skeptical of the role of digital surrogates in historical research should be able to appreciate how students can explore rich holdings of primary source materials. The design of the search interface–featuring menus that provide the controlled vocabulary terms– encourages nearly effortless experimentation, but it is the relational indexing of paratextual characteristics that places these products in an elite commercial class. Instead of creating a system that attempts to answer predictable questions from users, the Press enables a user to explore new interrelationships among documents.

Suzanne Graham can be reached at < >.