So you want to use textual digital surrogates in your teaching. Where can you find what is most relevant to your topics and pedagogical aims? How can you identify the most accurate and informative images, if there are several options? Alas, there is no one-stop shopping for this or any kind of textual material… digital surrogates live in many locations, and exist in various states of fidelity to the original.

One reason for this dispersal is that digital surrogates serve several purposes; another is that they have proliferated as technologies and expectations have changed. Some digital surrogates were made to facilitate access with less emphasis on perfection; that is certainly the priority of the major large collections like HathiTrust, the Internet Archive, and GoogleBooks, which might include scans of black-and-white microfilm copies or photocopies as well as high-resolution, color scans of originals. But others were made to facilitate preservation—as highly accurate and, usually, expensively produced recreations of fragile or unique originals. These copies tend to be gathered up in small, focused collections like the Emily Dickinson Archive, sometimes in combination with other research tools specific to that focus. Some early collections (“early” here means projects originating in the first wave of digital humanities scholarship in the 1990s and early 2000s), produced with the digital tools of the moment, turned out to be hard to update, or too topically “siloed.” Some of these focused collections have found new life through combination with other projects, resulting in “meta-collections” like NINES and 18thConnect. Other collections were made to advance specific scholarly aims, like JHU’s own Roman de la Rose Digital Library, which unites in digital space many manuscript versions of a medieval text, housed in various libraries across Europe, and the Archaeology of Reading, which assembles annotated Early Modern books, providing access to the texts themselves and the insights of their first readers. Others were built by librarians and archivists seeking to make their materials more visible and usable, like JHU’s Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection, an extensive and fully searchable collection of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century sheet music, and Umbra, which brings together in one searchable location materials documenting African American history and culture from over 1,000 libraries and collections. Of course, it’s important to mention in this context the multi-faceted digital collections created by large libraries like the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library, not to mention the Digital Public Library of America. Still other collections of digital surrogates have been assembled by commercial entities like Adam Matthews, ProQuest, and Gale, working from periodicals, books, ephemera, manuscripts, letters, diaries, and other archival materials they have digitized and described themselves or with materials initially scanned by libraries and archives. ProQuest, for example, now provides the umbrella under which sits Early English Books Online (EEBO), a venerable text-only project that turned into a collection of digital surrogates, while Gale, partnering with libraries, runs both Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO) and Nineteenth-Century Collections Online (NCCO)—which are, themselves, “collections of collections.”

In short, it’s kind of a wild West out there… so strap on your search boots and get ready to ride.

Option 1. If you know what it is you are looking for—eg, author and title of the book she published or the title of the journal in which she published an article—search Catalyst, using delimiters, aka “other attributes” in advanced search mode, to help you narrow things down. Catalyst records contain links to the many, many, many—did I say many?—digital collections that the libraries have invested in for you, both by acquiring them and by keeping them accessible through the care and feeding of links and proxy connections and so on. (But remember, Catalyst’s ability to connect you directly to a “work within a work,” like an article in a newspaper or a poem in a book, is limited to certain scholarly articles.)

Option 2. If you don’t know what it is you are looking for—if you want to find something related to a particular topic that you can identify with keywords—it might be better to search directly in collections of digital surrogates. Search individual collections of “historical periodicals” and “digital primary sources” at the database list that aligns with your disciplinary interests, using our handy list of databases by subject. Nerd passions are definitely inflamed by collections like London Low Life, which contains highly searchable, full-color digital surrogates of chapbooks, posters, pamphlets, maps, playbills, slang dictionaries, and advertising fliers that attest to the very busy lives and daily challenges of the less privileged inhabitants of London in the nineteenth century. Archives of Gender and Sexuality? Check. Romanticism: Life, Literature, and Landscape? Check. African Americans and Reconstruction? Check. Foreign Office Files for the Middle East, 1971-1981? Check. And so many historical newspapers and periodicals… from the American Antiquarian Society’s chronological series (starting in 1691) to International Women’s Periodicals to alternative newspapers at Independent Voices to Chinese Medical Periodicals Online 1897-1952. Check, check, check, check, breathe.

Option 3. When it comes to digital surrogates, what we have in the library is… a LOT. And if it is actually TOO MUCH to sort through, then take a shortcut: use a subject-specific LibGuide, where the most useful collections have been curated by subject-specialist librarians—and often include, in addition to the subscription collections we pay for, other collections that might not even show up in the database lists: museum collections, small focused collections that represent the interests of a particular sub-field or community, digital projects created by and for scholars.

Option 4. If, on the other hand, you want more, more, more, then you can also search directly in the afore-mentioned giant repositories—HathiTrust, the Internet Archive, and GoogleBooks, namely, plus large national libraries like the Library of Congress, Gallica (the catalog for the Bibliothèque Nationale de France), and the British Library, and consortia like the Digital Public Library of America and Europeana. Each of these behemoths will present you with a different kind of search and discovery interface and results of varying thoroughness; but none of them are too daunting. Some of the material you turn up will be redundant—HathiTrust is populated with books scanned by GoogleBooks, for example—and some of it might appear redundant (files in the Internet Archive with very similar names, for example) but will actually constitute distinct materials… be observant, because some digital surrogates (in color, at higher resolution, etc.) are better than others!

Option 5. I am focusing here on collections of textual digital surrogates—page images, in short, sometimes but not always accompanied by internal search functions, transcriptions, magnification options, and other bells and whistles. But, let’s be honest: sometimes you just need the text. Without going too far out of scope, I will just mention that many digital collections bring together text-only e-texts, and in this form they are often easier to search or reformat for your particular needs; sometimes, it is only in this form that fragmentary or short texts can be easily assembled. Text-only resources include beloved collections like Black Thought and Culture, Women Writers Online, and the Perseus Digital Library; you can find others, mixed in with collections of digital surrogates, on the library database lists mentioned above. Also, take note of some longstanding players in the e-text world: the Online Books Page will lead you to some digital surrogates but mostly to text-only e-texts of public domain materials; it is closely linked to A Celebration of Women Writers and to Project Gutenberg, which represents the incredibly fruitful labors of an army of volunteer transcriptionists at work since the 1990s; there are often several options associated with each title in the collection, from HTML versions to epubs.

You can also find e-texts by searching WorldCat, limiting “format” to “computer files.”  😉

Option 6. If you’re in need of a specific digital surrogate that you already know exists, you might just want to do a quick-n-dirty internet search using your favorite search engine. You can make this search more efficient using Boolean operators.

  • Use AND, OR, NOT, and NEAR in all capital letters to tell your search engine that those words are not part of your search string itself, but commands about how to link the other words in your query.
  • Put quotation marks around a phrase to search for that phrase exactly. For example, if you search “electronic Beowulf,” with quotation marks, your first hit is likely to be the Electronic Beowulf project at the University of Kentucky. If you just search for the word Beowulf, without the quotation marks, your first hit is likely to be a Wikipedia article or Project Gutenberg e-text.
  • Use parentheses to create a more complex search combining terms.
  • Use prefixes to limit your search to particular sites or formats. Google makes available a partial list.

Or, in Google, just use their Advanced Search toolkit. Note: for digital surrogates, you want to search in “plain vanilla” Google, DuckDuckGo, Bing, or another search engine, not GoogleScholar.

Option 7. Finally, as always, if you are not finding a good set of digital surrogates to use in your classes… ask a librarian for help.