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Sep 25, 2006 4:20 am


Damn You, Digital Newspapers!



For eight years, I've thought I could see light at the end of the tunnel on my Vernon Johns Papers Project. Launching it was a gamble in the first place because there is no existing collection of his papers. Eventually, I learned that they were twice destroyed: once in a house fire and, after his death, by a tenant's careless destruction. Initially, I thought the Project might involve correcting the many typesetting errors and annotating the documents that appeared in: Samuel Lucius Gandy, ed., Human Possibilities: A Vernon Johns Reader, Including an Unfinished MS., sermons, essays, addresses, and a doggerel (Washington, DC: Hoffman Press, 1977). A search of WorldCat finds only six copies known to exist in libraries. Because my Project has the support of Vernon Johns' surviving children, I do not have serious copyright issues to worry about.

But I'm a pretty aggressive researcher and, eventually, I found that I could both correct and annotate the documents that Gandy had published and add to them from collections of material that had otherwise survived: essays published within Vernon Johns' lifetime; transcriptions of taped sermons and speeches; and manuscript sermons and notes. After an extensive search, I more than doubled the volume of material that Sam Gandy had published. Here's the Project's current table of contents.

The most fruitful source of additional material by or about Vernon Johns turned out to be newspapers. I did a massive search, sometimes in printed text and, otherwise, microfilm editions of these newspapers and periodicals:

Alabama Tribune, 1948-53.
Atlanta Constitution, [1946-60].
Atlanta Daily World, [1946-63].
Atlanta Journal, [1946-1960].
Baltimore Afro-American, [1931-34], 1955-1963.
Baptist Leader, 1948-53.
Birmingham World, 1948-53.
Charlottesville Daily Progress, [1945].
Chicago Defender, 1919.
Congregational Year-Book, 1915.
The Expected, [1941-1965].
Farmville Herald, 1898-99, [1951].
Lynchburg Daily Advance, 1929-34, 1941-43, 1961.
Lynchburg News, 1912-15, 1919-26, 1929-33, 1941-43.
Minneapolis Morning Tribune, [1953].
Montgomery Advertiser, 1948-53.
Montgomery Examiner, 1948-53.
Negro Yearbook: An Annual Encyclopedia of the Negro, [1912-1938].
New York Age, [1931].
New York Amsterdam News, 1926-33.
Norfolk Journal and Guide, 1919-65.
Oberlin Review, 1915-18.
Painesville Telegraph, [1882], [1922].
Philadelphia Tribune, 1933-34.
Richmond Afro-American, [1939-1951].
Richmond Planet, 1911-15, 1919-27, 1929-31, 1934-38.
Richmond Times, [1899].
Second Century, 1961-62.
Spelman Messenger, [1952-53].
Washington Afro-American, [1962-1963].
West Virginia Digest, 1939-41.

Those newspapers and periodicals yielded some very interesting documents: two series of newspaper columns that Vernon Johns had published between 1930 and 1945 and his letters to the editor scattered over a period of 50 years. At Cliopatria, I published a sample newspaper column here and a sample letter to the editor here. There was another set of things from these newspapers – articles about Vernon Johns that included significant excerpts of his words. My series editor, Michael O'Brien, persuaded me to include them in an appendix to the volume of essays, sermons, and speeches. You'll find them so listed in the table of contents. They include examples of the early reporting by Joe Azbell, a white reporter in Montgomery, who would become well known for breaking the story of the Montgomery bus boycott, and prominent African American journalists like Lerone Bennett, Jr., and Carl Rowan.

There's something about the alphabetical listing of periodicals in vertical text that manifests itself as pride. Theologically, I suppose, we Protestants would call it"works righteousness" and pride, especially in one's works, goeth before a fall. As I said, I'm an aggressive researcher, but I'm also a technologically retarded one. My colleagues, Manan Ahmed and Miriam Burstein, recently directed my attention to Google News Archive, NewspaperArchive.com, and paperofrecord.com. Gad, after all that needle-in-a-haystack newspaper research I'd already done and eliminating the citations that refer to some other Vernon Johns, they turn up 350 more newspaper articles about the man that I've never seen before. Gad zooks! Will my project never finish or do I do this in order that it never finish?

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Scott Eric Kaufman - 9/25/2006

Just this weekend, I received an automatic email from one of my favorite databases informing me that it'd just folded some 900 other publications into its archive. So, dutiful historicist I am, I re-ran all my previous searches...or would have, had the first one not turned up an additional 2,871 items, which I then spent all Saturday and most of Sunday slogging through. Fortunately, many of the additions were local papers, which in the 1890s (as now, only more informally then) loved to reprint material from major papers. While I love watching copies help an article fulfill its manifest destiny--you know, from The Atlantic to the Friends Intelligencer, from the Intelligencer to the Dial, from the Dial to Outland (and various permutations thereof)--they do tend to clutter a search. Did find some significant new information, which underscores what Ralph omits from his post: alongside the fear of perpetual research, there's a real joy in finding new material...esp. when it confirms and conforms to what you've already written.

(I should mention: as a graduate student, I can't travel to actual archives as easily as most; and as a graduate student still recovering from being hit by a car, the reasons are both physical and financial. I say this only to alleviate the germ of guilt--nay! the intimation of irresponsibility!--that arose as I composed this comment.)


Jonathan Dresner - 9/25/2006

There never was, at least not for modern history.


Ralph E. Luker - 9/25/2006

I think that's right, Kevin. What worries me a bit is that one of those newspaper sites claims to be adding 25,000 pages of newspapers _per day_ to its digital base. Chances are pretty good that, by the time I've dragged my aging self through the 350 texts they've already got in the system, they'll have more than that. At some point, a historian of relatively recent times has to say: "I've done what a reasonable person can be expected to do. My research may not be exhaustive, but I'm exhausted." There may not, in fact, be any such thing as exhaustive research.


Kevin C. Murphy - 9/25/2006

Ack. Well, on the bright side, at least you found these new resources before publishing.

Your anecdote reminds me of the classic science fiction story -- I forgot who wrote it -- in which Earth, at great expense, sends a large colony ship to a faraway inhabitable world. The ship spends thousands upon thousands of years traveling through space, during which empires and civilizations rise and fall aboard it. At any rate, when the craft finally arrives at its destination, it receives a huge welcoming party...During the time since it had left Earth, technology improved such that faster ships had been created that zipped right past the original colony-craft. :S

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