Digital History — Spring 2010

February 11, 2010

Comparative archives, digitization, and a project inspired by lunch at Panda Express

Filed under: Uncategorized — ths117 @ 10:00 pm

For this assignment, I wanted to design a project that I knew would show “change over time” in a given period — so, using Kristin Hoganson’s Consumer’s Imperium as a guide, I figured that I would use the Nineteenth-Century United States Newspapers Database to see how the advertising of Chinese restaurants had changed during the time period covered by the newspapers. Ideally, the database would allow me to see how often Chinese restaurants were mentioned in these newspapers; where and when the first mentions occurred; the tone of the advertisements or journalism regarding Chinese restaurants; and any changes in the advertisements over time (size, reputation, etc).

My original idea in using the Nineteenth-Century United States Newspapers Database would be to test how good the database was at registering text in classified ads — material that might be considered “unimportant” by digitizers not thinking historically, or material filled with graphics and font changes that might puzzle OCR scanners, resulting in a high degree of inaccuracy. The results that I got from typing in several search strings (“Chinese restaurants,” “Chinese restaurant,” “Chinese cookery,” etc) showed me that either I was correct in diagnosing classified ads as a weak point of the newspaper database…or that most Chinese restaurants did not take out newspaper advertisements in this period…or that the database’s holdings only represent newspapers from towns where Chinese restaurants didn’t take out newspaper advertisements. To test whether my results were at fault, I checked the New York Times, and rather few hits on Chinese restaurants came up before 1900.

Despite the lack of classified ads, however, I was surprised at the frequency with which Chinese restaurants were mentioned within regular news articles. Although the database turned up no hits before 1850, 310 citations were found between 1850 and 1899. Some of the most fascinating of these pieces were essentially a hybrid between a restaurant review and a feature piece, as in “A Cuttle-Fish Dinner: A Reporter Dines with the Editor of The Chinese American” (Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, 5/20/1883; reprint from New York Morning Journal). Some, like “Row at a Chinese Restaurant” (San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin, 6/10/1859), simply mentioned events at a Chinese restaurant, while others mentioned Chinese restaurants within the context of the article, like “The Cleanly Heathen” (Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, 7/17/1879):

“NEW YORK, July 16 — The Tribune, describing the visits of the tenement house inspectors to the worst places in baxter and other streets, says, “The Chinese have taken possession of South Mott street. It is  curious fact that while the most debased among the Irish women of the quarter live with brutal Italians, the younger, best looking, and neater of the live from choice with the Chinese on Mott street, who it is said treat them kindly, do most of the housework themselves and make provident masters. Even the basement rooms inhabited by them smell sweeter than the upper stories where the Italians congregate. At a Chinese restaurant across the street, four Chinamen were found at dinner. The neatness of the table and appearance of the viands would have done credit to a second-class American restaurant, at least. The ware was apparently of choice patterns of porcelain and the food quails and rice.”

The great benefit of an archive like this is the searchability of massive amount of text. From the small article above, which easily could have escaped indexing in more conventional periodical sources (and which could have been indexed under “tenement” or “Chinese” or “marriage, relationships, and family” instead of “restaurants,”), the reader learns about middle-class impressions of working-class approaches to race and sexuality;  she sees early signs of Asians being presented as the “model minority”; she sees that Chinese restaurants were presented in some sources as palatable venues; she catches hints of journalists’ tendency to portray Asians as insufficiently masculine; and (after seeing that many of the earlier articles come from the West), she learns that readers in the Midwest were interested in learning about conditions in the slums of New York.

The Nineteenth-Century United States Newspapers Database is fairly easy to navigate, with a user-friendly interface that allows the researcher to search by keyword and to restrict the search by specific date, date range, and to select individual papers or states in which to search. It keeps a list of past searches, which can be recalled at any time during the search session — very useful when tabbing between search strings and following up impulses from one article to the next. Sources can be printed, or a whole set of them can be emailed as a full-text PDF file to the researcher — a very useful tool for someone compiling their own digital archive on a topic. Plaintext citations can also be emailed.

However, there are limitations — one of the big ones being that the articles are images or PDFs, and not designed for interaction with the text. Quotes must then be retyped as opposed to copying and pasting them. Also, as the historian-bloggers from this week’s assignment suggest, there are quality issues with the automatic scanning and text-recognition, as in the article titled “Chinese CooAery” (the top half of the “k” was lighter than the bottom angle, resembling the pointed angle of an A). And as mentioned, while the range of texts offered is amazing for the scholar willing to search through throwaway references to the topic at hand, for the scholar who wishes a level of specificity somewhere between “mentioned in the title” and “mentioned fulltext,” the lack of filter may be frustrating. (Nonetheless, I have to imagine that it beats the heck out of simply paging through old papers hoping to find something!)

While my original classified ad idea is less plausible with this archive, the project it does suggest — tracing the appearance of Chinese restaurants throughout journalism more generally to gain a sense of regional variation in opinion and gradual attempts to “know” the Chinese — would be well supported by Google Books as well. Google Books yielded a selection of periodicals with articles on Chinese restaurants and cooking, many of which would be useful in the same ways that I envision sources from the first archive being useful. There were also a variety of books that includes chapters on the Chinese and their restaurants. However, it’s important to remember that a scholar who had really done his or her work would also combine research on these digital sources with work at a physical library, in order to take advantage of the resources available on microfilm and microfiche, and perhaps smaller ethnic newspapers that haven’t been well-digitized. For example, if copies of Chinese-American newspapers have been preserved, it would be interesting to see how and if Chinese restaurants (or restaurants in general!) advertised there, and how the copy from one imagined audience to the next might have changed.

In summary though, there’s no doubt that digitization has changed how we research. The types and amount of sources we expect to be able to master for a project, the types of sources we imagine (and forget) to consult, and the way that we organize our ideas and research have all changed because of digitization and widespread availability of sources. I feel privileged to have university access to these databases, but I must agree with Dan Cohen that some similar public job needs to be undertaken in order to create similarly rich public archives. (Anti-recession digitization boondoggle jobs, anyone?)


1 Comment »

  1. Cool research idea…to bad the Chinese restaurants were slackers in the marketing department.

    Comment by erikajd — February 12, 2010 @ 4:09 am | Reply

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