Free FannyPacks: A Model for the Easy Digital Publication of Archival Periodical Material

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Kevin McMullen

    University of Nebraska–Lincoln

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The nature of nineteenth-century culture, particularly literary, publication, and print culture, meant that many female writers plied their trade in periodicals. Even many American writers who we think of today primarily as novelists—Harriet Beecher Stowe, for instance—first published much of their material in periodicals. Stowe's
Uncle Tom's Cabin first appeared serially in
The National Era, an abolitionist newspaper. But writers like Stowe gained and have maintained notoriety in part because their work also existed in book form. Many writers whose work remained trapped in periodicals have since fallen off the literary map, their writing accessible only in increasingly fragile and scattered print runs of newspapers held in libraries and archives, or on microfilm. Attempts to digitize cultural heritage material in periodicals have been far spottier than comparable attempts to digitize books for a variety of mostly practical reasons.

While there have been a number of large-scale newspaper digitization projects, most of them have been undertaken by large commercial entities that charge a fee for access to the content and provide material of mixed quality. Readex and Proquest are two of the more popular services, and genealogy site has also undertaken its own mass digitization of government records, census data, and newspaper and periodical material; all three charge for access to the content. While these services can certainly be useful for certain types of research work, the quality of the digitization, particularly transcription, is in nearly all cases quite poor, with transcriptions being derived from optical character recognition (OCR) software, which often has difficulty accurately transcribing the small and often smudged print of nineteenth-century periodicals.
Over the past decade or so, scholars such as Kenneth Price, Susan Belasco, and Meredith McGill have argued for both an increased acknowledgement of periodicals and periodical writing as a key site of intellectual and literary exchange in the nineteenth century, and the increased utilization of digital tools for the editing, study, and dissemination of periodicals.

See Price and Belasco's introduction to their edited collection,
Periodical Literature in Nineteenth-Century America. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1995. Also, see: Belasco. "
Whitman's Poems in Periodicals: Prospects for Periodicals Scholarship in the Digital Age."
The American Literature Scholar in the Digital Age. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2011; McGill, Meredith.
American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting, 1834-1853. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.

While the advent of the digital archive has afforded well-documented possibilities for the recovery and, more importantly, dissemination of previously unknown and/or largely inaccessible material,

Perhaps the most relevant example of a digital recovery project, for the purposes of my presentation, is the
Women Writers Project (, now run out of Northeastern University and directed by Julia Flanders. Begun in 1988, the project has been instrumental in the recovery of rare or inaccessible work by early modern women writers (the project covers a period from 1526-1850, although the vast majority of texts are from the sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries). In addition to providing access to digitally encoded texts, the project has also provides various research and teaching materials. However, the
Women Writers Project is only accessible with a paid subscription and does not deal with periodicals.

digital transcription, encoding, and publication of literary texts still remain skills that many academics feel are well beyond their technical capabilities. This means that many of the people best positioned to undertake such recovery work—literary scholars and other subject-specialists—are held back merely by a technological learning curve that they feel is too steep.

For the past year I have been using basic and widely-available digital tools and resources to build a digital archive of the newspaper writing of the nineteenth century American writer Fanny Fern, who, in the 1850s, was the highest-paid periodical writer in the country, writing for the widest circulated American periodical of its day. The project,
Fanny Fern in The New York Ledger ( is the first attempt to make available the full run of Fern's newspaper columns. Using the Drupal content management system, I have been making TEI-encoded transcriptions of Fern's columns, high-resolution digital images of the complete
Ledger issues, and brief critical apparatuses about both Fern and the
Ledger available for free public and scholarly use. While the digital methods and tools used to construct my project were fairly simple, the functionality and appearance of the finished product belie the relative ease (from a technical standpoint) of its creation. But the
Ledger is just one paper and Fanny Fern is just one writer, albeit a significant one. "There are countless other periodicals and writers, particularly women writers, that deserve this sort of attention," I thought. "If only other 19
th century lit scholars could see how easy this is!" And an idea was born.

I already had a relatively simple TEI template designed to handle the metadata, textual content, and linking of digital image files for periodicals. I had an XSLT style sheet that converted the TEI to HTML. I had project documentation for how I had set up my own domain name and hosting space (using Reclaim Hosting, a web hosting service specifically designed for educators and students). I had documentation about how I had installed and configured Drupal. I had documentation about how I had incorporated the HTML of the transcribed newspaper columns into the Drupal architecture. And I had documentation about how I had tweaked and played around with the design of the site. In short, I had everything anyone would need to build his or her own digital archive; all they would need is the content. If I could just share these files and instructions with other literature scholars, scholars who themselves are experts and masters of all kinds of content, then piece by piece and site by site, the gaps in literary and historical scholarship could to begin to close, be it ever so slightly. While I knew this had long been one of the (increasing number of) mantras of digital humanities, I now felt that I had the means to do my small part to contribute to its realization. Thus, using
Fanny Fern in The New York Ledger as an example and template, I plan to soon begin providing other literature scholars with a single package, a package that contains the tools and instructions they will need to construct their own digital archives—I'm going to start handing out FannyPacks.

Geared mainly for those wishing to gather and display texts in a digital environment, these FannyPacks (a zipped collection of files) will include the needed TEI templates, style sheets, and thorough but simple documentation about digital imaging, hosting setup, and Drupal installation and execution. Scholars with a bit of tech savvy can choose to begin hosting their own projects right away. For those looking to first experiment before fully diving in, Reclaim Hosting easily allows for multiple subdomains to be hosted under an existing domain free of charge. Thus, I will provide testing space on my "" domain where users can download their own installations of Drupal and experiment with adding their own content. While I have chosen to take the time to encode Fern's newspaper columns in TEI—for the preservation, interoperability, and potential for enhanced functionality of the files and their content—there are some users who might wish to simply "get their material out there" using HTML. Drupal's graphical user interface allows for the easy input of basic or full HTML. Thus, users unfamiliar with or not wanting to take the time to encode in TEI could simply encode their transcriptions in basic HTML and paste them into Drupal's GUI. The setup of both Reclaim Hosting and Drupal also provide ample opportunity for student involvement in the creation of such projects.
Projects such as
Fanny Fern in The New York Ledger and those facilitated by the FannyPacks occupy a scholarly space somewhere between large-scale, institutionally-hosted TEI-based projects such as the
Willa Cather Archive or
Walt Whitman Archive (both of which are well-funded and boast a host of technical and subject specialists) and a low-cost collaborative TEI repository such as the TAPAS Project ( While not requiring any institutional technical resources, projects based on the FannyPacks model possess greater customization and more autonomy than TAPAS projects. And, in the world of nineteenth-century American women's literature at least, there seems to be a desire for just such a model. A recently created listserv of the Society for the Study of American Women Writers (SSAWW) is geared specifically to those scholars already working on or interested in creating digital projects devoted to American women writers. And initial communication on the listserv has made clear the appeal and potential of a method and means for facilitating the publication of digital scholarly content centered around women writers, particularly periodical writers. But while my main and initial goal will be to work specifically with nineteenth century literature scholars, particularly scholars of women's literature, the FannyPacks certainly have a broader application and could be adapted to fit any manner of digital archival project.

My poster will thus provide a brief overview of my current project,
Fanny Fern in The New York Ledger, a discussion of the project's potential to serve as a model, and specifics of the FannyPacks and their creation, distribution, and application.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2016
"Digital Identities: the Past and the Future"

Hosted at Jagiellonian University, Pedagogical University of Krakow

Kraków, Poland

July 11, 2016 - July 16, 2016

454 works by 1072 authors indexed

Conference website:

Series: ADHO (11)

Organizers: ADHO