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, December 29, 2014

The Online Journals of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts

I started researching Revolutionary New England in earnest a little over fifteen years ago. I was lucky to begin as the World Wide Web spread and as institutions like the Google corporation, the Hathi Trust, and universities decided to digitize books and make them available to anyone.

Gradually I’ve seen one series of sources I learned to consult in libraries after another come online: the Boston Town Records, the journals of the Continental Congress, the papers of the major founders, the early Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and so on. I’ve obtained some other resources still protected by copyright, such as Shipton’s Harvard Graduates and the consolidated records of Boston’s churches, on CD-ROMs.

But until recently I still couldn’t find digital versions of the Massachusetts House’s official proceedings. Those are in the public domain, having been printed each year in the eighteenth century. The Massachusetts Historical Society undertook to reprint facsimile volumes in the late twentieth century, but only in small quantities. Those books weren’t showing up fully on Google, possibly because of corporate worries about those relatively recent reprint dates.

Then several weeks back I stumbled across those volumes in the Hathi Trust’s “Records of the American Colonies” collection. They’re part of an assemblage of “Published documents--legislation, court proceedings, records, correspondence, etc.--from the 13 original colonies and their predecessors.” The Massachusetts volumes for the Revolutionary period fall on this page.

The person who assembled the links to those digital files is Nicholas Okrent of the Van Pelt Library at the University of Pennsylvania, and of course I’m grateful to him. In fact, for my purposes he may have done too good a job. That collection contains nearly 900 volumes, and I really don’t care about the stuff from the seventeenth century or most of the other colonies. (At least not yet.)

I’m still figuring out how the Hathi Trust website works. One can search just within that collection, and then within individual volumes. The optical character recognition (O.C.R.) and transcription system doesn’t handle the long s and other vagaries of eighteenth-century printing smoothly, making the digital texts less reliable for searching and copying. But those books are indexed, and the biggest challenge is still cutting through the legislative procedures to figure out what was really going on. Later series in the same collection were printed in a more modern style for easier consulting.

As a result, another set of references that I once had to leave the house to find are now available any time of day without me even having to get up. I suppose I’ll die sooner because I’m no longer getting so much exercise. But in that shorter lifespan I’ll have seen more books, so I’ll still win.

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