By Joshua R. Greenberg, editor of Commonplace.online
What is it like for a scholar to read the entire back catalog of a publication without a specific research or teaching agenda in mind? For me, it has been like assembling a very complicated jigsaw puzzle. Let me explain. As of September 30th, Commonplace: the journal of early American life has moved to a new URL (commonplace.online) and transitioned from an issue-based publication to a more dynamic, feed-based model. A couple of months ago, I signed on as the editor of Commonplace with the charge to organize and prepare the back catalog for this transition. The job has two parts: provide subject tags for the existing 19 years of Commonplace articles and then select weekly themes to facilitate the articles getting posted to the new site on a rolling basis over the next year. Both of these tasks require me to read the entire back catalog, about 1300 pieces in total, in a very short period of time. Reading is one of a historian’s greatest pleasures and scholars often complain that they don’t have the time to do all of the reading that they want to. However, that reading is usually directed by a research question, pedagogical purpose, or even general interest. None of these was the case when I began to read hundreds of short articles, reviews, and historical creative writing pieces covering a wide variety of pre-1900 American history.
My goal was to pick four or five subject tags for each piece to act as links that create subject pages when selected. It doesn’t necessarily take that long to read the 1900-word book review of Christopher Iannini’s Fatal Revolutions by Kelly Wisecup and determine that it is about the “Atlantic World,” “Caribbean,” “Economics,” and “Natural History,” but the process can easily get away from you when you read the first 50 articles and already have 150 different tags. What about the other 1250 articles? How many subjects is too many for one publication? A balance is needed; subject categories need to cover distinct topics, but those categories also need to contain enough entries that they are useful to an interested reader. A category with one or two entries is not very helpful. I quickly realized that I needed to try to limit the number of subject tags that I was using to about 100 and work backward to place the articles into fewer pre-existing categories. This also meant combining some categories so “Politics” and “Political Culture” became “Politics and Political Culture” and maybe more controversially, “Latin America” and “Caribbean” became “Latin America and the Caribbean.” As I moved through the volumes, I felt less like I was approaching each article in isolation and more like I was trying to solve an intricate and interlocking puzzle.
Likewise, when I sat down to make a calendar with 52 weekly themes, my big plans ran into the reality of trying to reconcile a large and unwieldy database of articles with themes that might mesh with holidays or timely concerns. Reading through the volumes, some obvious candidates jumped out at me. Numerous articles screamed out for a Fourth of July or President’s Day tie-in, but other holidays didn’t mesh as well with the Commonplace offerings. Sure, Leon Jackson’s article about New Year’s addresses delivered by colonial and early republic newsboys made sense for the first week of January, but what could I pair with it? Another puzzle. This one required me to stop looking for specific content about New Year’s Day and start thinking about what was really at its core. It was the passage of time. Armed with a new theme—time—I had a fresh approach for assessing related articles within the database and a model for how to create themes for contemporary issues such as healthcare, social media, and white supremacy.
It has been overwhelming to try and process so much material in a short time, but it has given me a new appreciation for the connections in early American history and literature. I am especially humbled by the way that articles and pieces of creative writing that I might not have sought out as part of my own research or teaching offered new pathways to material that was more familiar to me. The early American puzzle is more complex and interrelated than I appreciated, a message that I was reminded of when trying to select subject tags for “Jigsaw,” Sinéad Morrissey’s contribution of poetic research to Commonplace.