Thursday, February 21, 2008

New Database: In the First Person Plus

Many of the social sciences are very oriented towards the latest journal literature and the research studies contained therein. History is different. In history, there is still a deep appreciation for the good, old-fashioned book (with its abiliity to analyze people and events at length and in depth). In history there is also a profound interest in "primary documents"--that is, not the work of historians looking back, but rather the memoirs, letters, diaries, oral histories, pamphlets and other materials that actually express the experiences of the people who lived through earlier times and events.

To support that need and interest, Sawyer Library has recently added a new database called In The First Person Plus. This resource, from Alexander Street Press, is not so much a database as an index and platform. In fact, the basic "In the First Person"(ITFP) is a free index to primary documents. But index is the key word here. The fact is that, except for a limited number of materials at federally-funded, academic and historical society websites that are open-access, the free "In the First Person" is an exercise in frustration, as it points to materials the general public cannot get to.

Therefore we have added five underlying databases, designed to add fulltext to "In the First Person"....hence the Plus in the title. Those underlying databases (look for the header "Companion Products" in the top banner of ITFP) are:

*North American Women's Letters and Diaries This database covers from colonial times to 1950 and "includes the immediate experiences of 1,325 women and 150,000 pages of diaries and letters. " Included materials were "chosen using leading bibliographies, supplemented by customer requests and more than 7,000 pages of previously unpublished material."

*The American Civil War: Letters Diaries This file "contains 2,009 authors and approximately 100,000 pages of diaries, letters and memoirs." The collection also includes biographies, an extensive bibliography of the sources in the database, and material licensed from The Civil War Day-by-Day by E.B. Long.

*British and Irish Women's Letters and Diaries This segment includes the "experiences of approximately 500 women, as revealed in over 100,000 pages of diaries and letters....The collection now includes primary materials spanning more than 300 years. "

*North American Immigrant Letters, Diaries and Oral Histories This online resource "includes 2,162 authors and approximately 100,000 pages of information, so providing a unique and personal view of what it meant to immigrate to America and Canada between 1800 and 1950.
Composed of contemporaneous letters and diaries, oral histories, interviews, and other personal narratives, the series provides a rich source for scholars in a wide range of disciplines. In selected cases, users will be able to hear the actual audio voices of the immigrants."

*Black Thought and Culture A great complement to Sawyer Library's Collection of African American Literature, this database "contains 1297 sources with 1100 authors, covering the non-fiction published works of leading African Americans. Particular care has been taken to index this material so that it can be searched more thoroughly than ever before. Where possible the complete published non-fiction works are included, as well as interviews, journal articles, speeches, essays, pamplets, letters and other fugitive material."

Each of the above individual databases can be searched on the own and, frankly, this is probably the best and least confusing way to approach your research here. The larger In the First Person is more likely to send you to other websites. And many of the items identified at these sites are NOT actually available online. So the results can tantalize and thwart the researcher, rather than actually provide all salient documents.

Alas, the PhiloLogic search engine Alexander Street Press uses, is not particularly intuitive. Nor does it seem to take advantage of the value-added materials we subscribe to! If I do a quick search for slave narratives on the opening screen of In the First Person, I am presented with three items, none of which comes from their own databases.

The first, from the excellent "American Memory" project of the Library of Congress, does contain more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slave narratives collected during the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938. The second, from the University of North Carolina, also provides some document reproductions. But the third, from Texas A&M, merely lists the narratives in their archival collection.

Yet if I search for slave narrative in Black Thought and Culture alone, I get 92 occurences of that term. Many of these "hits" do lead to useful documents. Unfortunately, even in this database, "slave narratives" is--oddly--not a part of their controlled vocabulary. Still, if I go to the Simple Search screen and click the Term button next to the Subject Headings box, I can, at least, select several subject headings related to slavery and slave life.

Since ITFP and the individual database "Companion Products" do not work that well in conjunction with one another, for best results you should search both ITFP for the general internet links AND one or more of the five fulltext products Alexander Street has put together.

The interface and document linking of In The First Person Plus definitely leaves much to be desired. (There are even some dead links to external sources.) Still, if you are patient, and spend more of your time in the individual databases detailed above, you will find many fascinating and useful "primary documents" of history here.

[FIND In the First Person Plus on our "Databases by Subject" List in the "Social Sciences" category.]

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