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Making of America in the News

General Press Release

Users trace origins of ideas, customs, with U-M online resource

ANN ARBOR---Young men are advised to "avoid all fantastic arrangements of the hair" that might "straggle in long . . . `uncombed and unkempt' masses over the coat-collar." Parents are cautioned about European nannies whose ideas of appropriate discipli ne may not match their own. Concerns are raised about the "almost universal use of tobacco."

As modern as these topics sound, they're all found in books and articles published between 1850 and 1877 -- and now available on the World Wide Web, through the U-M's Making of America (MoA) Project. Turning up such treasures used to involve prowling a round library stacks, thumbing through brittle pages or scanning reel after reel of microfilm until eyestrain set in. But now, with the first phase of the project complete, some 1,600 books and 50,000 articles from the latter part of the 19th century are available in searchable form on the Web. This rich resource, produced through the collaborative efforts of the University of Michigan, Cornell University, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is getting rave reviews from users.

A historian in California, who recently used MoA to research the origins of hobbies as socially acceptable leisure activities, calls it "the most amazing, spectacular research tool since the Xerox machine." Steven M. Gelber, chair of the history depa rtment at Santa Clara University, says he found "a treasure trove of data in a matter of a couple of days." Using other research methods, it would have taken him months to find the same material, he says.

The MoA resource "is what I assumed the future of libraries would be," says Gelber, "but to be quite honest, I never believed I would live to see so much of the past put online in such an accessible form. The program actually begins to deliver what peo ple have been talking about for ten years -- a genuine electronic library, or at least an electronic archive. The ability to search and then read the originals is quite magical."

The project is an undertaking of the University of Michigan Digital Library Initiatives, which are supported by the School of Information, the University Library, the Academic Outreach Program, and the Information Technology Division, and aim to devel op a comprehensive, networked set of research tools and resources. Users can search the online historical materials (accessed at by entering an author's last name, a title, a subject heading, or a specific year. Results are retrieved almost instantaneously. In most cases, users see scanned images of actual pages from the 19th century volumes. But a few texts have also been converted to fully corrected text and Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) and can be viewed ei ther as original page images or as electronic text. Cleaning up the OCR and reviewing the SGML is costly and time-consuming, but allows the books to be organized in ways that help users zero in on specific chapters or sections.

In selecting materials to include in the project, librarians Judy Avery and Jean Loup looked for books and articles that showed "what it was like to be an American at that time," says Avery. That's why the collection focuses more on diaries, first-pers on travel accounts and popular magazines than on military histories and political tomes.

The result is a resource that isn't just for professional historians and researchers. Teachers, students, and anyone with an interest in the nation's past can easily use it to look up specific events, people, and issues or to just browse through the co llection. Slavery, temperance, women's rights, Darwinism, etiquette and child-rearing are just a few examples of topics that can be explored.

"It has stimulated a kind of research that just couldn't be done before," making it easier to trace the evolution of ideas and customs that shaped American culture, says Wendy Lougee, assistant director of the Digital Library Initiatives.

The project's original goal was simply to make materials more accessible. But in the process, its developers came to appreciate the role it can play in preserving books and journals that are too fragile to withstand repeated handling.

"One thing that became apparent was that some kind of preservation was needed for these materials," says Avery, a senior associate librarian. "All of them are brittle. After I'd work my way through a cart of them, my floor would be littered with little scraps of paper that had broken off. I keep on my desk a book that would have been a perfect candidate -- a description of how Charleston had changed during the Civil War. Unfortunately, the paper is so bad that the pages were already broken and it could n't be scanned."

To keep that from happening to other books, project developers plan to convert more volumes in the U-M's brittle books program into online-searchable form. The cost for preserving printed materials this way is competitive with microfilm, says John Pric e-Wilkin, head of Digital Library Production Services. Other goals are to process more texts into a fully corrected form as funds become available and to integrate the U-M Making of America collection with similar materials at Cornell University (http://m Cornell's materials include general interest publications of the period, as well as some aimed at audiences with specific interests, such as agriculture. The U-M selections include monographs on education, psychology, American histor y, sociology, religion, science and technology.

As the project continues to grow, so will its usefulness. And, predicts Santa Clara's Gelber, "historians who deal with printed sources will never work the same way again."

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