J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, August 22, 2011

Harbottle Dorr’s Old Newspapers for Sale

I know it’s early to think about holiday presents, but I just want to let people know that I’d be delighted to find a volume of Harbottle Dorr’s newspaper collection in my stocking.

As the Portland Press Herald explains:
On Jan. 7, 1765, in the middle of the Stamp Act controversy, Boston shopkeeper Harbottle Dorr bought an issue of the Boston Evening-Post and commented on its contents in the margins.

Every week for the next 12 years, he did the exact same thing.

The result is 3,280 pages of newspapers-turned-diaries that give an unprecedented look at the American Revolution as it happened, by someone in the center of it.
Dorr (1730-1794), was a hardware dealer and active Whig, but at heart he was an archivist. He indexed his collection, and often wrote down who he thought wrote anonymous essays; his identifications seem reliable, matching what we know from other sources. Dorr wrote some articles himself as “A Consistent Whig,” and his name pops up in political groups. In 1777, he became a Boston selectman.

Dorr evidently bound his newspaper collection into four volumes. Three of them (now rebound) are owned by the Massachusetts Historical Society. (I don’t know how these related to a gift the society recorded in 1798: “The Boston Gazette, twelve volumes, with MS. notes by the late Harbottle Dorr, Esq.;…From Josiah Quincy, Esq.,” future mayor of Boston.)

This fourth volume has been in the collections of the Bangor Historical Society since 1915, one year after donor Dr. Samuel U. Coe bought it at auction. But that society is “on the verge of shuttering because of lack of money,” so it put its volume up for auction on 26 August. That one item might bring in a quarter of a million dollars.

So it would be a very nice holiday present, indeed. I’m just saying.

There’s a jolly essay about Harbottle Dorr’s newspapers in Bernard Bailyn’s Faces of Revolution. Sam Ryan wrote about Dorr’s link to the Boston Massacre. His entire newspaper collection has already been collected on one set of microfilm for researchers.

3 comments:

Timoteo said...

"His entire newspaper collection has already been collected on one set of microfilm for researchers"

Why aren't these and other important primary sources available via CD-ROM or DVD? Or better yet: on the internet?

Is it a conspiracy amongst archivists and historical societies to justify their existence?

Charles Bahne said...

J.L. was the first person I thought of when I read this in Sunday's Globe. Have you thought of a second mortgage on your house, John?

In reply to Timoteo, it was probably microfilmed years (decades?) ago. When analogue microfilmed images are converted to digital and posted on the web, they look horrible and often barely readable. So it will need to be professionally digitally scanned. Massachusetts Historical Society has an active scanning program, but also millions of pages of documents that are worthy of scanning. (Are any readers of this blog willing to make a grant to MHS, to finance scanning this particular collection?) Given what we've heard of the Bangor Historical Society's finances, I doubt they have the money to pay for the scanning.

I only hope that the volume is bought by a reputable historical society that will keep it intact, and not by a dealer who plans to cut it up and sell the pieces.

J. L. Bell said...

Why suggest conspiracy, Timoteo, when simple economics offers an answer? It costs a lot of money to digitize hundreds of large pages, especially if the sources are either (a) large bound volumes or (b) old microfilm.

The market for such material is relatively small. Readex and other companies digitizing print materials from this period target big research libraries that can pay big fees. Individual researchers have to hope they can find easy access somehow.

An alternative is public funding, if the public agrees the material is important. However, the federal agency created to fund these sorts of efforts by historical societies and local governments, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, has had large budget cuts over the past two years, and some members of Congress want to close it down entirely.