CONTENT EBSCO developed the African American Historical Serials Collection (AAHSC) in conjunction with the American Theological Library Association (ATLA) “as part of an effort to preserve endangered serials related to African American religious life and culture” [from the AAHSC web site].
This digital collection contains more than 170 unique titles related to African American life and culture (the full title list is available at ebscohost.com/titleLists/h7i-coverage.htm), with approximately 60,000 pages of primary-source content including African American periodicals and newspapers such as The Colored Messenger, The Plantation Missionary, and the Southern Baptist Recorder.
The database also includes reports and annuals from African-American religious organizations (the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Zion Church, numerous Baptist churches), and social service agencies and other bodies (Institute for Colored Youths, the Home for Aged and Infirm Colored Persons, Gammon Theological Seminary). Titles were collected from 75 different institutions, and the materials in the collection were published between 1829 and 1922. The collection is viewable through EBSCO’s Historical Digital Archives Viewer.
USABILITY AAHSC uses the standard EBSCOhost search interface, which offers basic, advanced, and visual search options. I started out with a basic search for Richard Allen, and got 78 results, beginning with the article, “Richard Allen’s Place in History,” from the June 9, 1887 Southwestern Christian Advocate, and including 64 items cited from the Richard Allen Monthly. A basic search for National Association for the Advancement of Colored People got only three hits, all from the Star of Zion, one article from 1918, one from 1919, and the last from 1922. Since the NAACP began in 1909 I expected there to be more, but a search for the acronym found nothing.
While a basic search for information on “foreign mission baptist convention” found no articles, the system’s SmartText Searching located 579 results, some of which seemed relevant. SmartText Search, EBSCO explains, runs search text “through a sophisticated summarizer” that extracts the main words or phrases, queries them against the database to find which are most relevant to the database’s content, assigns a relevancy score to each term, and uses that weighted result to again search the collection.
A basic search for baptist convention resulted in 577 hits, without having to use SmartText, so that was obviously the right phrase to use. Many of these hits were from meeting minutes (e.g., “Minutes of the Missionary Baptist Convention of the State of Georgia” and “Anniversary of the Baptist Educational, Missionary & Sunday-School Convention of South Carolina”) and meeting proceedings (“Proceedings of the Organization of the General Primitive Baptist State Convention of Texas”).
Next I browsed by clicking the publications button on the database’s top toolbar, then selecting a publication and an issue. I was successful in browsing through the items from the A.M.E. Zion Church Quarterly, 07/01/1891, Vol. 1 Issue 4, but when I went back into publications and tried to browse by the letter B, I got the message, “No publications were found that match your search terms. Publications are retrieved if all of the words are present exactly as you entered them. Please check your terms and try again.” I clicked C and got 10 items. Then I clicked D and got the previous error message. I went as far as H, finding that many letters had no publications listed. Unfortunately, there is nothing on the display to tip users off to that fact. Other databases feature an underline under those letters that have content, and the lack of such an indicator is pretty frustrating.
In addition, several times during my searching an error screen appeared, seemingly out of the blue, saying, “A System Problem has Occurred. We’re sorry, your request could not be processed due an internal server error. To continue with your session, please click here.” Clicking “here” returned me to the Browse menu… although I had been at the Basic Search screen. From within the Browse menu I tried to get into Visual Search and advanced search but got the error message again. There are some glitches here I couldn’t figure out.
After a user has retrieved the material using the various search methods, the periodical pages are then read using EBSCO’s Digital Archives Viewer, which presents its own issues. It was difficult to “zero in” on pertinent material—much of this content is small-font, short articles and mentions in papers, yet trying to get the viewer to focus on a particular point in the paper was maddening at times. Second, I ran into numerious glitches in the system, many more than I usually encounter in a finished product. It’s surprising, because I’m used to EBSCO products performing more efficiently and effectively than this one does.
PRICING Pricing for the African American Historical Serials Collection is based on a variety of factors, including FTE, existing EBSCO databases, consortial agreements, and/or buying groups. The price for a single institution ranges from $5,000 to $30,000; ranges for consortia and online institutions may vary. There is an annual access/hosting fee.
VERDICT Thumbs up on the content, thumbs down on the delivery. The fact that these publications are being made widely available is wonderful. There is material here that can’t be found in any other single place, and quite a bit of it will be difficult to locate at all elsewhere.
I’m hoping EBSCO cleans the system up and makes this material easier to use successfully. Libraries that serve serious scholars of African American studies should definitely trial this file, and get it into the hands of users during that trial—their input will be key on whether or not the database is worth acquiring.
Cheryl LaGuardia is a Research Librarian for the Widener Library at Harvard University and author of Becoming a Library Teacher (Neal-Schuman, 2000). Readers can contact her at email@example.com