Early Americana aficionados and government documents librarians will especially have cause to celebrate the forthcoming release on the Web of a key historical government resource. Readex, a division of NewsBank, Inc., has announced the creation of the U.S. Congressional Serial Set, Digital Edition, an Internet-accessible version of the historical collection of congressional content.
The Serial Set (thus named because of its sequentially numbered volumes) contains all the Reports, Documents, and Journals of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. The Serial Set begins with Vol. 1 in the first session of the 15th Congress (1817) and continues to this day. The Readex Digital Edition will cover the Serial Set from the 15th through the 80th Congresses (1817-1980) together with the American State Papers (a retrospective collection of materials originating from 1789 through 1838 but published in the second quarter of the 19th century).
During much of the 19th century, especially in the pre-Civil War era, the Serial Set included materials originating not only from the U.S. Congress but also key Executive Department publications that were published only or primarily in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set. The documents also include all other papers ordered printed by the House or Senate, and over the years these have included reports from independent organizations, reports of special investigations made for Congress, and annual reports of non-governmental organizations (such as the Boy Scouts).
The Digital Edition will for the first time make available digital images of all the publications, including maps and color plates, accompanied by searchable OCR-generated ASCII text and full bibliographic metadata for every publication. When completed, the Digital Edition will comprise approximately 13,800 volumes (from the print), and more than 12 million pages from 350,000 publications, including 52,000 maps.
Readex had published the Serial Set (1817-1956) on opaque microprint cards back in the 1950s. (While access was wonderful for libraries to have, my remembrance of using these cards is not a fond one.) It was based on the New York Public Library's collection, supplemented by the Library of Congress.
The Readex Digital Edition is based on the masters from its microprint set, supplemented by the Library of Congress, Senate Library, and Stanford University collections. And, under a cooperative agreement with the Library of Congress, Readex is creating full-color digital images of approximately 13,000 maps from documents in the set. A representative from Readex said that the project is particularly exciting because the full color reproduction is so important to understanding the maps.
The Library of Congress had previously made a select number of documents from the Serial Set available digitally through its American Memory project, as part of the National Digital Library Program. (See: A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation; http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lawhome.html.) In an ideal world, Congress would fully fund the digitization of all public domain content. But, it is clear that public/private partnerships are necessary to deliver projects of this scope, and private companies can create a value-added product.
The Readex Digital Edition will offer powerful capabilities for full-text searching. Simple Search allows the user to search complete citation records, specific citation fields, or document ASCII text in a series of searches. Advanced Search allows the researcher to concurrently search multiple citation fields and document text and to specify a date range. Boolean operators and connectors may be used with both search levels. Users can also browse by publication category, subjects, Congress, committee author, and graphical features.
The Serial Set will be released in phases, beginning with the pre-Civil War phase. There will be regular monthly additions with the first release scheduled for Sept. 23, 2003. An aggressive production schedule calls for completion of the entire pre-Civil War period by December 2004, and the complete 19th century by June 2007 or earlier.
David Braden, Readex vice president of sales and marketing, said, "The Serial Set Digital Edition will foster greater understanding of American history and the role of the United States in world history for scholars, researchers, teachers, and students at all levels, a goal that lies at the heart of the Readex Digital mission. The excitement, positive response, and strong sales the collection has generated to date are very encouraging."
According to Braden, pricing for the collection will be matched to a library's mission and size, with payment plan options available and pre-publication discounts offered. Upon completion, list price for the 19th century will range from $58,500 for a law school library to $130,000 for a research library; list price for the entire collection will range from $198,900 to $442,000. Libraries will have access rights in perpetuity upon payment of an annual maintenance fee.
An editorial advisory board of librarians and digital conversion experts will oversee the project to ensure bibliographic standards and editorial integrity. One member of the board, Cathy Hartman, associate fellow, Texas Center for Digital Knowledge, and head, government documents, University of North Texas Libraries, called the Serial Set an "amazing collection that traces early American history." She said that no one library has an absolutely complete print collection, so access to the Digital Edition will be extremely valuable for researchers and historians.
According to another editorial advisor on the project, August Imholtz (a consultant who worked for competitor CIS for over 27 years), "the extensive bibliographic work and human indexing that Readex is doing will reveal documents in the Serial Set that were basically buried and not findable through previous indexing."
Readex has been known for more than 50 years (first as Readex Microprint Corporation and now as a division of NewsBank) for its scholarly and government document collections in microform, but for the last year the company has worked to add digital availability. Search functionality in the Serial Set Digital Edition parallels that of Readex's Evans Digital Edition (based on Early American Imprints, Series I. Charles Evans), an important Americana collection covering 1639-1800 that is being released monthly (it started in July 2002) and will be completed in June 2004. With these initiatives, Readex is firmly establishing itself as a key provider of Early Americana archives in digital format.
Readex is not alone in this space however. Another publisher, CIS (Congressional Information Service), put out the Serial Set on microfiche (covering 1789 - 1969) in the 1970s, based on the Senate Library collection, supplemented by Pennsylvania State and others. Indexing for the CIS microfiche collection has been available for title and keyword searching in print, on CD-ROM, and online. CIS is now part of LexisNexis, and the electronic version of the index is available in several ways, including its LexisNexis Congressional product from LexisNexis Academic & Library Solutions.
At this time, LexisNexis says it is investigating how to best build a digitized version of the Serial Set that will meet "both the research needs and the budgetary realities of academic and public libraries across the country." The company ran focus groups at ALA Midwinter and will unveil its product concept with a prototype to get user reactions at the ALA meeting in Toronto later in June. The company would not discuss any details in advance of the meeting.
While librarians could benefit from a cooperative effort between Readex and LexisNexis, this has apparently not happened. Representatives from both companies declined to comment on whether anything has been discussed.