Take the early Recorder as an example.
First, some quick background. All of the online issues of the early Recorder and all of the microfilm prints trace back to a single run of the paper: the collection put together by Bishop Jabez Pitt Campbell and now housed at Mother Bethel in Philadelphia. If you carefully go through a source like WorldCat or even the Chronicling America project and eliminate records that are for microfilm rolls or online versions—or that initially appear to be for paper items and are actually, because of cataloging errors, really for film or electronic resources—you’ll actually find that there are almost no listings for pre-1880 paper issues. Contact the libraries that seem to have paper issues—as I did in writing Black Print Unbound—and you’ll grow even more sad and angry.
Before we begin to think through the issues surrounding having only a single run of a major early Black newspaper, a more basic question: just what do the Campbell run and derivatives contain and what is missing?
For the period covered by Black Print Unbound—post-1860 and pre-1869—at least thirteen issues of the Recorder were likely published but are not in the Campbell derivatives.
These issues are, quite simply, missing:
12 January 1861 (Elisha Weaver’s first issue as editor)
6 June 1863
13 June 1863
20 June 1863
27 June 1863
4 July 1863
11 July 1863
19 November 1864
11 March 1865 (the issue that should contain Ch. 3 of Julia Collins's Curse of Caste)
13 May 1865 (the issue that should contain Ch. 12 of Curse of Caste)
1 December 1866
30 March 1867
27 June 1868
Because of my close, contextualized study of issue numbering, my guess is that the paper did not appear on 23 May, 30 May, 6 June, or 13 June 1868; that said, there is an outside possibility that there may have been issues—now missing—on (some of) these dates with erroneous and/or duplicated numbering.
After Benjamin Tucker Tanner took over as editor in mid-1868, at least two more issue dates seem to have been skipped before the final issue of the year—26 December 1868.
But this is only the beginning of the story of what’s not present in the resources derived from the Campbell collection.
Just a reminder: the Recorder was a single sheet, folded once, and printed on both sides to produce four pages.
More than three dozen issues are only presented partially in both film and online products; 35 of these seem to be true partials. Most of the partials are missing a full half-sheet—that is, two full pages.
A list of the partial issues:
14 June 1862 (pages 1 and 2 missing)
26 July 1862 (pages 1 and 2 missing)
23 August 1862 (pages 1 and 2 missing)
13 December 1862 (pages 1 and 2 missing)
20 December 1862 (pages 1 and 2 missing)
17 January 1863 (pages 1 and 2 missing)
7 February 1863 (pages 1 and 2 missing)
28 February 1863 (pages 1 and 2 missing)
26 September 1863 (pages 1 and 2 missing)
31 October 1863 (pages 1 and 2 missing)
28 November 1863 (only pages 1, 3, and 4 appear in the film and other derivatives)
5 December 1863 (pages 1 and 2 missing)
19 December 1863 (pages 1 and 2 missing)
6 February 1864 (pages 1 and 2 missing)
5 March 1864 (pages 1 and 2 missing)
19 March 1864 (pages 1 and 2 missing)
23 April 1864 (pages 1 and 2 missing)
13 August 1864 (pages 1 and 2 missing)
22 October 1864 (pages 1 and 2 missing)
29 October 1864 (pages 1 and 2 missing)
5 November 1864 (pages 1 and 2 missing)
24 December 1864 (only pages 1, 3, and 4 appear in the film and other derivatives)
21 January 1865 (pages 1 and 2 missing)
28 January 1865 (pages 3 and 4 missing)
11 February 1865 (pages 1 and 2 missing)
17 June 1865 (pages 1 and 2 missing; should contain Ch. 17 of Curse of Caste)
16 September 1865 (pages 1 and 2 missing; should contain Ch. 30 of Curse of Caste)
13 January 1866 (pages 1 and 2 missing)
14 April 1866 (pages 1 and 2 missing; no images in online version at all)
11 August 1866 (pages 1 and 2 missing)
6 October 1866 (pages 1 and 2 missing)
2 March 1867 (pages 1 and 2 missing)
13 April 1867 (pages 1 and 2 missing)
11 May 1867 (pages 1 and 2 missing; no images in online version at all)
18 April 1868 (pages 1 and 2 missing; no images in online version at all)
1 August 1868 (pages 1 and 2 missing; no images in online version at all)
28 November 1868 (pages 1 and 2 missing; no images in online version at all)
Let’s do some quick math. The 35 issues that are true partials equate to 70 pages of the Recorder that are missing. Add that to the 13 fully missing issues (52 more pages), and we have 122 pages of the Recorder that scholars simply haven’t seen.
And remember: these figures cover only the Recorder from the moments when Elisha Weaver jump-started the paper in 1861 to the end of 1868.
(Consider, for a moment, the fact that we only have the issues that we have because of the powerful foresight on Jabez Pitt Campbell’s part and the care of Mother Bethel in holding the Bishop’s copies long after his death. What amazing effort, what love!)
I’m not simply making an argument for folks to go to the actual paper and to value the actual paper—or to read through full issues rather than using “full text” searching.
(I would, though, make both of those arguments, especially given the simple fact that “full text” rarely exists and when it does, is often marred by transcription errors.)
I’m recognizing that we simply don’t have lots and lots of pages of a key early Black periodical.
While this recognition certainly isn’t new to hardcore students of African American print, I submit that literary historians—even those African Americanists who have long dealt with a fragmentary record—simply haven’t come up with adequate theory or practice for dealing with these kinds of absences and these kinds of efforts. We haven’t even compiled the kinds of lists above for many periodicals.
Our talk about absences will have to go well beyond close reading—well beyond, say, figuring out how to talk about how to read a serialized novel without all of the chapters present (a tough enough task).
For now, some brief thoughts.
We desperately need, in addition to full and accurate bibliographic and catalog records of Black periodicals, real and in-depth scholarly consideration of circulation, distribution, library acquisition practices, and collection development and weeding practices tied to African American print in diverse libraries and other settings. We need to much more fully and richly support projects that help catalog and make available material at places like HBC’s and Black churches, and we need to think about ways of not blocking what we’ve found behind paywalls. (If you’re interested in these questions, check out my essay “Accessing Early Black Print” and the broader forum it is a part of on “Where are the Women in Black Print Culture Studies?” in the current issue of Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers.)
Another problem? I’ve found no catalog record or bibliographic note that covers the ground described above. That means if you go to any number of sources—some of the lists on Chronicling America and in WorldCat but also in key bibliographies of Black newspapers—the listings for the film and online versions of the Recorder often look as if there are for complete runs.
I don’t want to go all Nicholson Baker (see Double Fold)—though he’s has good stuff to say—but I wonder whether, in the flurry of microfilming, folks who had paper copies read these erroneous records, assumed that the paper copies they held had already been filmed, and disposed of issues that we may now never see. . . .
I have similar worries about the rush to uncritically praise digitization. (The recent forum on “Digital Approaches to Periodicals,” especially Benjamin Fagan’s “Chronicling White America” in the Spring 2016 American Periodicals does a nice job of beginning to address some of these—and other—key questions about digital periodical projects.)
Of course, this means that we need to continue to look for missing paper issues. Think of Noliwe Rooks’s work in preparation for her wonderful book Ladies’ Pages or, on a smaller scale, the recovery of a missing chapter of one of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s serialized novels, Sowing and Reaping. But also remember Ellen Gruber Garvey’s landmark work on scrapbooks, and think about ways to find pieces of those missing issues.
In short, we need to do the work of finding every last bit we can. But as we do this, we also need to talk much more actively about how to do our work communally and respectfully, with a much fuller sense of where we are and how we got here.
Press room of the Planet newspaper, Richmond, Virginia, c.1899. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <https://www.loc.gov/item/90706966/>.